Learn About The Aboriginal Healing Practices of Ancient Canada

First Nations
Travel Yukon

Nearly every medical system has a direct connection to the cultural roots of the host country.

Many aspects of specific treatments are passed down from generation to generation. One example of this is in the Aboriginal healing practices observed in ancient Canada.

Aboriginal cultures are often noted for their oral tradition, where knowledge is passed down orally.

Compared to the practices of Western medicine – where the central goal is the physical diagnosis of disease – the Aboriginal approach is quite different.

These peoples see healing as a process – a journey that is equal parts physical and spiritual. Take for example, the symbolic medicine wheel.

What Is the Medicine Wheel?

The most well-known and sacred Aboriginal healing model is the medicine wheel. This wheel was used by Aboriginal peoples to help them better understand intangible ideas.

Although the concept of the medicine wheel dates back to prehistoric times, its teachings continue to be relevant today.

The medicine wheel is a simple circle that divided into four equal sections. Aboriginal peoples believed that the sections symbolized the interconnection of all life, and the shape represented the circular nature of life’s journey.

Each of the four sections was significant in a different way, but all sections fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Medicine wheel used in Aboriginal healing practices

There are many unique ways that traditional teachers have expressed the four sections. The sacred wheel can be divided into four cardinal directions (North, South, West, East), four seasons, four winds, the four teachings, four culturally significant animals, and many other sacred denominations expressed in consistent sets of four.

The points symbolically identify the power of the four directions using four colors.

Within these medicine wheels are a number of teachings. But each approach is taught with the four different directions in mind.

While all four directions can be seen as a unique approach, the teachings become much more powerful when understood as a whole.

Using the Medicine Wheel to Heal

Staying true to its name, the sacred wheel was incorporated deeply into Aboriginal medicine. The four quadrants of the wheel were segregated into four sacred plants that were used for their healing powers.

The North portion represented sweetgrass, East – tobacco, South – cedar and sage for the West. These four plants were held in the highest regard in the Aboriginal culture.

The four sacred plants were not only used for medicine, but also to teach valuable lessons. Sweetgrass – for example, was used to teach virtue. When sweetgrass is stepped on, it bends but does not break.

The lesson here is that we should be flexible towards injustice, returning it with kindness.

There were many other uses for these four holy plants.

Tobacco was used to absorb prayers and relay them to the spirit world. Cedar was taken as a tea to attract positive energy and emotions for balance. Sage was a purifying medicine, used by women to drive away negative energy and confer strength and wisdom.

Other Aboriginal Practices

Besides the classic medicine wheel, there were a few other traditions upheld in Aboriginal medicine. These practices and rituals may seem out of place today, but they were highly relied upon for hundreds of years by ancient Canadians.

Below are a number of other cultural rituals often practiced by the First Nations.

Healing Circles

These were group meetings that were held to alleviate pain and heal physical and emotional wounds. One person was to speak at a time, and a symbolic object was passed around in sequence to maintain order.

Sweat Lodge

The sweat lodge was a practice used for spiritual healing and cleansing. The sweat lodge was similar to a modern day sauna. The igloo-shaped building was made of wood and was often covered by animal skins.

Participants form a circle on the floor, and hot stones are placed in the center of the lodge. One man then pours water over the stones to produce steam. When the lodge is steamed up the participants often extend their prayers.

Pipe Ceremony

For this ritual, all participants gather and form a circle. The area is then purified by burning sweetgrass, making it suitable for spirits to visit. Then, tobacco is smoked to ensure that prayers can pass though to the spirit world and be heard by the Great Spirit.


This ceremony was practiced to rid a person of negative energy and emotion. The ritual was preformed by burning a sacred plant, such as sage or tobacco, in an abalone shell. The person who is to be healed then puts their hands into the smoke and carries it to the area of their body that requires the spiritual healing.

Sun Dance

The Sun Dance ritual was traditionally practiced during the time of the summer solstice. This practice symbolizes the continuity between life and death.

The ritual was fairly complicated and took a lot of preparation.

Four days prior to the ceremony, the dancers would purify themselves – often via a sweat lodge. At the time of the solstice, the sun dance would begin. The dance itself consists of four days of trimming, signing, fasting and in some cases – self-inflicted pain.


The Potlach was a ceremonial feast held to celebrate major family events, such as marriage. This gathering involved gift-giving to reinforce hierarchical relations between groups.

With time, the symbolic nature of the ritual turned competitive. The host would give away valuable personal possessions with the hope that others would reciprocate. The size of the gift was correlated with the host’s prestige.

Vision Quest

The vision quest is a rite of passage, similar to an initiation. The purpose of a vision quest was to leave behind everyday life and its worldly possessions, and make yourself completely in communion with the Great Spirit.

For a few moments the participant loses the concept of time and becomes a part of the universe. Upon a successful completion of the vision quest, the participant is re-born into the world.


From the Aboriginal perspective, holistic health care is an integrative approach balancing the mind, body and the spirit.

The above are just some of the more popular practices of the First Nations.