Type II diabetes reached “epidemic proportions in Cree communities,” around the turn of the millennium, Kathleen Wootton, deputy chief of the Cree Nation of Mistissini in Quebec from 2002 to 2010, told The Concordian. “Some had limbs amputated; some lost their eyesight. It has a tremendous impact on a person’s well-being.”
Nearly 20 percent of the Cree population suffers from type II diabetes, according to the Public Health Department of the Cree Health Board (CHB).
In the late 1990s, Cree community leaders sought to revive indigenous healing to treat diabetes, reducing reliance on clinical medicine, which appeared ineffectual to them. In 2003, Université de Montréal pharmacologist Pierre Haddad launched an investigation into traditional medicine, reported The Walrus. He solicited the alliance of healers in four Cree communities, who identified plants that relieve symptoms associated with the disease like quivering hands and open wounds, The Concordian reported. Haddad and researchers collected 17 plants, assessing their chemical makeup in labs and observing treatment effectiveness in cell cultures and on mice.
Their findings, released Nov. 5, 2010, in journals including Molecular Nutrition and Food Research, reveal some ancient medicines rival the efficacy of prescription drugs commonly used to treat diabetes, reported The Walrus.
Four plants proved particularly promising. One, rhododendron tomentosum, or Small Labrador tea, seemingly blocked the absorption of glucose, or high blood sugar, which afflicts diabetics, reported The Concordian. Taken with food, Small Labrador tea may regulate glucose levels, the study indicates.
The sudden validation of traditional medicine lead Wootton to enlist lawyer Elisabeth Patterson to protect aboriginal knowledge. The results were even translated into Cree and distributed among elders for approval before publication.
“We didn’t want to have the same experience other indigenous groups have had, especially in South America, where researchers were plying people for their knowledge of local plants and then leaving the indigenous people out of the benefit sharing,” Wootton told the CHB. “Our final research agreement states that we will have co-ownership on any information developed from traditional knowledge.”
The CHB recently initiated a two-year study into how to incorporate traditional and clinical medicine. Ultimately, elders elected to keep the two separate, “because of the smell that results from making some remedies,” Paul Linton, CHB director, told The Walrus. Now, clinical staff measure blood sugar and pressure of study participants, who visit healers remotely to learn how to make their own medications.