The four sacred medicines: Indigenous plants and their traditional uses amongst Native Americans

It’s coming up on the one-year anniversary of the dedication of the giitigan located at the Blue Water River Walk in Port Huron. Anishinaabe word for garden, no giitigan is complete without the four sacred medicines: tobacco, sage, cedar, and sweetgrass.

The installation of the Blue Water River Walk’s giitigan was part of a larger project between Friends of the St. Clair River, community partners, and members of the region's indigenous community intended to restore the natural environment and honor Native American culture.

Sheri Faust, President of Friends of the St. Clair River.Sheri Faust, Friends of the St. Clair River President, helped oversee the project and the selection of plants that could survive in the area along the St. Clair River shoreline.

We wanted to bring in plants that were culturally and historically significant to Native American culture,” Faust says. “They were living here and caring for the land long before any of us were here, so we’re essentially returning the landscape to its original state by incorporating the four sacred plants along with the other native plants.”

Husband and wife Joe and Joan Jacobs also had a hand in the planning of the giitigan who are also knowledgeable about the traditional and modern uses of the four sacred medicines. Joan is Chairwoman of the North American Indigenous Council and a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians while Joe is a member of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

Joe Jacobs, member of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia, and his wife Joan, of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa.

“Sacred medicines are used spiritually in ceremonies, sweat lodges, healing ceremonies, and for medicinal uses,” Joan says. “They are also used as teas, tonics, oils, and they also have uses in hygiene. They should be harvested at their peak and dried for best results when used.”

The four sacred medicines hold a significant place in the traditional Medicine Wheel or Circle of Life, which is reflected by a particular color and cardinal direction such as north, south, east, and west. The four medicines are prayed over and handled in a particular fashion depending on their use and purpose at the time, but all are treated with reverence and respect.

Preceded by their native names and followed by the English translation, we provide a brief look at the significance of each of the four sacred medicines, exploring their role in nature and their deep-rooted connections to the indigenous culture that thrived in the Blue Water Area.

Tobacco plants

Nsema” Tobacco

The first of the sacred medicines is tobacco, one that most of us are familiar with. It is in the direction of the east and is represented by the color yellow. It is typically planted after the first frost and harvested in late July or early August.

“Tobacco plants have very tiny seeds,” Joan says. “One flower could possibly have a thousand seeds inside and they take about two and a half to three weeks to germinate.”

Unlike tobacco used in cigarettes, it is not inhaled and does not contain any other chemicals. Tobacco is often used by burning and then smoking the dried leaves in a sacred puwagan or pipe.

“Don’t use the dehydrator to dry the leaves,” Joe says laughing. “I wanted a few leaves for my Firekeepers box and the next thing you know it was turned into dust.”

It is held in the left hand and prayed over before its ceremonial use. It’s believed that when the smoke rises, it carries the prayers up to the Creator and is the only time a person can see the prayers go from the physical world to the Spirit World. It is also always given as thanks and left in place of any medicinal plants picked.

Tobacco ties, which are made by placing tobacco inside of a small square of cotton cloth and tied with cotton or yarn are used as an agreement or contract, and these are given with respect. The tobacco plant is taken care of and traditionally harvested by men, however, women do grow and harvest it when the men aren’t available.


Kiishig” Cedar

Cedar is in the direction of the south, and is represented by the color red. It is typically planted in early spring, but can also be planted in the fall. It’s used for ceremonial smudging and has a sweet aroma. Smudging is done by burning dried cedar and is used to protect a person or place, cleanse negative spirits or energy, and bring good fortune. It can also be made into a tea that is high in vitamins, and considered a women's medicine, as she is typically the one to harvest it. When using any part of the cedar tree it is communicated what it will be used for and given thanks.


Mshkwaadewashk” Sage

Sage is in the direction of the west, and is represented by the color black. There are several types of sage such as White sage, Michigan sage, Woodland sage, and Common sage, and due to its antibacterial properties, it has been used as a treatment for wounds.

Similar to cedar, it is planted in spring or fall and is also used for smudging. Sage helps to cleanse chemicals from the air and is burned to encourage peace and relief from internal struggles. It is also usually used along with an Abalone shell — or another shell found in local waterways — to catch the ashes and embers when burning.


Wiingash” Sweetgrass

Last, but not least is sweetgrass. Sweetgrass is in the direction of the north on the Medicine Wheel and represents the color white. It is a hearty plant that is planted after the last frost in spring and grows in swampy areas.

“We’re always looking for land to plant sweetgrass,” Joe says. “When we go to harvest it we have to go to Walpole Island or other places in Canada, as there aren’t many areas in the local area that have sweetgrass available.”

Sweetgrass braids are used for purification and to light the sacred puwagan in traditional ceremonies, but is also commonly used to make tea and provide relief for bladder issues. It’s usually braided in threes — representing mind, body, and spirit — and is known as “the hair of Mother Earth.”
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Read more articles by Harold Powell.

Harold Powell is the Community Correspondent for The Keel and owner of Phantom Pen Media offering multimedia services to individuals and organizations across the Blue Water Area. He is a current board member for the Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce and the most recent Chamber Choice recipient at the Eddy Awards. Harold is an avid volunteer for the YMCA of the Blue Water Area as well as Bridge Builders Counseling & Mentoring and in his spare time, enjoys spending time with his son, writing and listening to music, playing video games, and not folding laundry.