Keeping Native Healing Traditions Alive
Keeping Native Healing Traditions Alive
By Scott Wheeler
Brian Lapierre was bleeding profusely from a chain saw cut to his finger when he recalled how his Abenaki ancestors used plants to treat illnesses and injuries. He applied a clump of haircap moss to the wound, and the bleeding stopped immediately. Tannic acid, a chemical in the plant, was responsible for controlling the flow of blood.
Mr. Lapierre, 28, of Newport, Vermont, a city in the northern most part of the state, believes in the healing power of plants, and he's determined to preserve this important aspect of Abenaki heritage. For hundreds of years, Native Americans used plants to help with illness and wounds. Many Native American healing practices have been passed down through generations, and Mr. Lapierre meets with Abenaki elders who are willing to share their secrets.
He wants to share the information with others and preserve it for future generations. He's been aware of his Native American ancestry since he was a child. Both his mother and father have native blood. Growing up in the back woods of Cannan, Vermont, a small town in the remotest part of the state, he spent most of his spare time in the wilderness searching out the secrets of the forests.
It wasn't until he was 17, though, and had an illness, that he got focused on traditional Native American healing techniques. Over the years Mr. Lapeirre has devoured books, taken courses, and spoken to numerous herbalists in hopes of learning the medicinal purpose of each plant.
Although reading books and talking to people are good ways to learn about plants, a person also has to listen to the plants themselves, he said. "It involves more than walking through the woods and saying this plant is used for that and that plant is used for that. I've been ten years learning that part already. The point I'm getting to now is listening to the plants and listening to their guidance on how to use them."
Every living organism has its own spirit, which is capable of being heard if people take the time to listen, Mr. Lapierre said. At times, he said he spends hours talking and listening to plants. Answers to the secrets locked in the plants also come to him in dreams. "After spending that much time with a plant, I oftentimes have dreams about the plant, which give me some answers to its uses."
In his attempt to keep native healing traditions alive, Mr. Lapierre teaches the value of medicinal plants as well as other Native American traditions, to youngsters at the Vermont Leadership Center in Island Pond, and the Northeast Wilderness Camp in Derby. Besides teaching children about the medicinal uses of plants, he teaches plant identification, survival skills, and shelter building.
His greatest joy, though, is teaching his six-year-old daughter, Genevieve, about her Abenaki heritage. She accompanies her father to pow wows and ceremonies throughout the state. Although she's young, show knows much about her heritage.
Compared to other parts of the eastern United States, the Northeast Kingdom is still relatively unpolluted, Mr. Lapierre noted. "The Northeast Kingdom is really blessed because we are a very clean place," he said. "For the most part, people don't take it for granted; they realize what they have."
However, because the area isn't totally without pollution, he said that he has to be very selective where he harvest herbs and other wild plants. He pays particular attention to whether the area is contaminated with any obvious pollutants, and he said that he never picks plants near a polluted body of water. Plants such as cattails, which are edible, absorb pollutants such as mercury and lead.
Although it's become more mainstream in recent years to use herbs to treat many illnesses and injuries, Mr. Lapierre said that many people still scoff at the medicinal benefits of plants. "Plants are not meant to replace what medical doctors can do," he said. "We both do very different things. A person would be very foolish not to go to the doctor when they have a medical problem, but they would also be pretty foolish not to recognize some of the value of plants, too."
Over 40 percent of prescription drugs are derived from natural sources, and over 25 percent come from flowering plants, Mr. Lapierre said. Digitalis, a prescription drug used to treat heart arrhythmia, comes from foxglove, a plant that grows in the many areas of the United States. The medical establishment is also studying Queen Anne's Lace for a possible use as a birth control method, and St. John's Wort for a possible treatment for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
He says that he has been successful at using plants to overcome many health problems. Most health problems require a combination of more then one herb. His favorite way to use many plants is in teas, but some herbs must be applied to the body.
With a combination of mullein, plantain, vinegar, and water he makes a mixture that quickly soothes and heals the skin, from the effects of sunburn. Meadowsweet, which has the same active ingredient as aspirin, has been used by Native Americans for thousands of years as a tea to help relieve headaches.
On another occasion, during an educational program with children, Mr. Lapierrre dug up the root of a trout lily and applied it to an infected sliver that had been bothering one of the children for a couple of days. The pain stopped, and the sliver was pushed out by the root's chemical action, he said.
Herbs can help other troubles such as congestion, constipation, sleeplessness, stress, and many other common health problems. Tobacco, a plant despised by many, is revered by Native American for its healing potential if used appropriately, though, like any substance, if it's used inappropriately, there can be negative consequences.
"Plants are there to help us," Mr. Lapierre said. "One extremely important lesson I've learned from the plants is how connected we are to the environment. It's easy to forget that connection when we buy our meat in a grocery store already wrapped and our vitamins in a bottle."
In preparing the plants for use, he employs methods similar to those used by early Native Americans. He uses a stone mortar and pestle to grind roots and a solar drier to dry roots, leaves, and fruits for storage.
Using plants to help with illness or injury can be rewarding and healthy, but the plants must be taken seriously since there are deadly ones out there, Mr. Lapierre said. Some can easily be confused with edible plants. He recommends buying a well-written field guide to wild plants. And talking to someone who is knowledgeable about the subject is highly advisable.
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a life-long resident of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Besides being
an avid outdoorsman, he is a freelance writer and also write's for "the
Chronicle", which is based in Barton Vermont. He can be reached at
P.O. Box 537, Derby, Vermont 05829 or email@example.com.