The medicine pouch often referred to as a medicine bag, is a deeply spiritual and sacred item that has been use by Indigenous Peoples for thousands of years. As an integral part of their culture and traditions, the medicine pouch is usually a small pouch, worn under clothing or around the neck, and contains particular items, or tokens, that has special, sacred or spiritual significance to that person.
Traditionally the medicine pouch, made of leather, contains items that symbolize personal well-being and community identity. Typically, it contains tobacco and what is referred to as the four medicines. Those are: tobacco, sweet grass, sage and cedar. For Indigenous Peoples these medicines are extremely important, as they provide special protection to the owner, and carry with them special historical significance.
A medicine pouch may also contain a particular token that is special or sacred to the person who owns it. Ojibwe culture often places a “token” item in the medicine bag, that signifies a special memory or person often remembered by the person who owns the medicine bag.
Sharing and teaching the history and meaning behind the medicine pouch
Across Canada, and within our schools, Indigenous culture and history has become part of the curriculum. In that way, students from all cultures are able to come together and engage in learning that facilitates a better understanding of each others way of life. The Ontario Ministry of Education, continues to demonstrate a commitment to strengthening Indigenous learning, with a stronger focus in grade one to three. Most, if not all of the elementary schools in Ontario have an Indigenous lead whose primary focus is to provide opportunities, resources, and training for all staff so that activities such as the making of the medicine pouch is possible.
In learning about the medicine pouch, students at St. Hilary Catholic School, Terrace Bay, Ashley Muir, Native language and culture teacher, organized and helped initiate a learning experience for students from JK to Grade 8, whereby they would learn about the historical significance of the medicine bag.
She saw the opportunity to use this activity as a means of not only teaching but also as a way to reach all students. “I wanted to reach a broader student base rather than just my Native students.” said Muir. In essence she took the activity of making a medicine pouch which holds cultural and spiritual significance to Indigenous Peoples, and provided a venue in which it could be shared with all cultures; as represented by the non-Indigenous students.
Muir shared how students were excited about completing this activity together, and happy to run home at the end of the day to update parents, guardians and caregivers of the progress that they were making during the activity.
When the activity was completed, she described it as being a gift. “It was an activity gifted to them and the first item given to the students to place in the medicine bag, was tobacco; which they used later in a smudging gathering.”
The meaning of the four sacred items/medicines that go into a medicine pouch
The medicine pouch is used to hold four sacred medicines, each with their own meaning. Tobacco, sage, cedar and sweet grass, are used in everyday life and in Indigenous ceremonies. Tobacco is often the first item placed in the medicine bag/pouch.
Traditionally tobacco is used as an offering for everything and in every ceremony. According to Muir, at St. Hilary Elementary School, once the medicine bag was completed, and tobacco was placed into it, which they used for a smudging ceremony. Thus, students were able to learn about another important traditional ceremony, as a result of making the medicine pouch.
In some of our colleges, such as Northern College, Timmins Ont., for example, they also teach about the history and spiritual significance of the medicine pouch. According to their Indigenous Services and Initiatives department, tobacco is given to offer thanks, or to request advice from an Elder. Traditionally, Indigenous Peoples make an offering of tobacco each day.
Sage is used to prepare people for ceremonies and teachings. It is more medicinal and stronger than sweet grass, and so it tends to be used more often in ceremonies. Historically, sage is used for getting rid of negative energy. It is also used for cleansing.
Sweet grass is used when praying, smudging and purifying in ceremonies. It is usually braided, dried and burned. It is believed that by burning sweet grass before praying positive energies become present.
For Indigenous Peoples, cedar traditionally is used for healing and in fasting ceremonies. It symbolizes a form of protection.
The medicine pouch is a sacred item and a very important part of Indigenous tradition, culture and history. As demonstrated by many students, and in particular the students in JK through Grade 8 at St. Hilary Catholic School, in Terrace Bay, sharing this special and spiritual tradition associated with the medicine pouch not only gathered every student together, but taught them the traditions still held dear by the Indigenous students in their school.