Traditional Medicine

Every Inuit knew the rudiments of traditional medicine. Traditional medicine is not institutional – it does not have buildings, books or rules and, for the most part, practicioners are not trained or specialized.

For two month during the summer of 1983, Johnny Palliser and I traveled to all 14 Inuit communities of northern Québec and conducted group interviews with the Elders of each town on the subject of traditional medicine. This report is the result of that research. As we collected information, certain patterns emerged that reflect the nature of knowledge among the Inuit.

One such pattern is found in similarities and differences in the medicinal knowledge between different communities. The towns are at once isolated geographically and tied through kin relations. This is mirrored, for example, in the practice, which is found everywhere, of using lemming skins to raise a boil. The difference lies in the choosing of the skin to be used: some people insist on the right front leg, some on the back, some the belly skin, and of course any other part of the skin besides the chosen one is “useless.”

The contrasts between Inuit and “white” medicine become obvious. Inuit medicine is “folk” medicine, which means that knowledge about treatments and cures is a shared knowledge, and people do not have to pay for healing. Every Inuit knew the rudiments of traditional medicine. Traditional medicine is not institutional – it does not have buildings, books or rules and, for the most part, practicioners are not trained or specialized. There are three notable exceptions to this: midwives and surgeons are somewhat trained (though talent and affinity play a big part), and it is said that the last child is the “doctor” of the family and can heal other people’s skin infections (bumps and lumps) by simply licking them.

Both Inuit and “white” medicine involve a lot of experimentation, but they are of a different nature. To an Inuk, every treatment is an experiment, and health is the only validation needed. “Proof and hypothesis” are not involved. In this way, information collected formally and systematically can sometimes appear contradictory.

Markussie Lijaituk talks about his experimentation: “I once treated myself when I was little. I had snow blindness, and I decided to rub some cranberries in my eyes. It was really painful and I thought to myself ‘I hope I don’t die! I hope my eyes don’t burst out!’ I always look back to that incident and think that I tried to cure myself and instead I I got into big pain. Another time, I invented a cure for a boil made from a mixture of Sunlight soap, Quaker Oats, water and a few drops of seal fat. It sucked up the pus real well. If I had continued to invent things like that, I’d be a doctor today!”

Although for a variety of reasons, white medicine is slowly eclipsing traditional medicine in the North, Inuit cures are still used, particularly in the camps and especially for frostbite and near-drowning, because Inuit do not like the way these are treated at the nursing stations.

It was decided to include only traditional treatments is this report, although the “folk” medicine of the Inuit now includes many materials from the South. The distinction between “traditional” and “new” is in some ways arbitrary, but if we are searching for a knowledge that is wholly Inuit, this distinction must be made. Still, as one man remarked, “well, we used an orange peel, squeezed in the eye, to cure snow-blindness. Traditional? No, I guess not, but it works!”

The information in this report is laid out under two main headings: Illnesses and Materials.

Text by Jonathan Stevens

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