Wellness: Warrior Plant Medicine

Devil's Club

My fierce friend lives alongside Bathtub Trail. Battered and bloodied by careless hikers & bikers, the devil’s club plant (Oplopanax horridum) tenaciously refuses to give way to oncoming traffic. Heedless passersby will be reminded of their painful encounter with the warrior for days to come. Her sharp, flat yellow spines bristle from every surface including the leaf veins, petioles & stems. These spines easily pierce and lodge deeply in human flesh where they can be very difficult to to remove. Containing little or no internal wood fiber, they frequently break apart during the extraction process and the pieces left behind inevitably cause painful infections.

Native to the North American Pacific Northwest, devil’s club is known by 38 linguistic groups comprising 9 language families of indigenous people inhabiting the Yukon, Alaska, BC, Alberta, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. There is historical record of it also being a valuable commodity of commercial trade between these Nations and those living in areas of British Columbia and the Yukon where it does not grow.

Devil’s club was and continues to be of significant spiritual, medicinal and cultural value to indigenous people inhabiting the regions of its geographic location.

The Council of the Haida Nation identifies ts’ihlanjaww (devil’s club) as one of only five plants accorded a Class 1 Haida Forest Feature designation. This top level ranking indicates the highest order of cultural, spiritual and environmental importance to their people and its protected status in the Haida Gwaii.

In all references to devil’s club by people of the various Nations, it is considered a powerful medicine that is well suited to the medical exigencies of an active, outdoor life. Ethnobotanists reference the cross-Nation medical use of devil’s club for 34 categories of somatic and psychic complaints. In commercial trade it was sometimes referred to in English as Tlingit aspirin.

Traditional prescribing includes but is not limited to the treatment of respiratory ailments (TB, diphtheria, pneumonia, influenza), skin afflictions (ironically including those infections caused by deeply embedded devil’s club thorns), joint and muscle problems (arthritis, rheumatism), sugar in the urine (diabetes), cancers, and wasting diseases.

For the purposes of what Dr. Angayuqaq Kawagley terms ‘Eurocentric scientific research methods’, it is convenient to categorize the various indigenous uses made of devil’s club under the headings of ‘medicinal’, ‘cultural’ and ‘spiritual’.  However, this rationalistic view is probably not accurate because it obscures traditional holistic practices wherein good health reflects harmonious balance between these categories and disease is indicative of imbalance. In such a world-view, medicinal and cultural uses of plants are inseparable from spiritual beliefs and practices that together are capable of restoring and maintaining good health.

Records of the medicinal effects of this plant used in traditional ways indicate frequent successes in the treatment of serious diseases.

It is interesting that Eurocentric scientific investigations that are devoid of spiritual and cultural considerations do not usually reproduce the positive results of traditional methods. Repeated failures to reproduce positive results are then interpreted to mean that the plant medicine ‘does not work’ but historical records of 10,000 years of  First Nation’s survival in their territories may belie this rationalistic assumption.

It may well be more accurate to say that medicinal treatment that is devoid of cultural and spiritual beliefs and practices may not be as effective for serious diseases as traditional healing methods.

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