Melamen —Secwepemc for medicine — can be found all around you in the wilderness of the Cariboo Chilcotin.
The spring and summer are commonly the best seasons to collect the inner bark, roots and branches of qwlsellp (green willow) that can be used for pain relief and to help treat eczema.
From elder to child, the medicinal properties the hundreds of plants and berries hold continues to be passed down from generation to generation.
Marry Harry, family liaison at Three Corners Health Society in Williams Lake, knows.
With jars of melamen she picked inside her home, Harry said she always has kewku (sage) and sekwew (rosehip) on hand in the winter when cold and flu season is in full swing.
“In our culture, if your mom isn’t the one showing you then it’s either the other females who know how to do some of the plants,” she said.
Told qwllillennllp (birch bark) could relieve some of the pain her partner was experiencing from having broken their femur, Harry it had helped.
“You have to use the medicines to be able to understand them and you also have to believe that the medicines will help you because they also have a spirit, and that’s why we always give an offering when we’re taking plants to thank them for whatever ailment they may be helping us with,” she said, adding they also ask the creator for permission to pick berries in the territory amongst bears and protection from them.
Common to most areas, sxusem (soapberry) is used to not only soak tired and sore muscles but can be made into a nutritious ice cream or a cleansing tonic.
As family connection liaison Barb Wycotte went to grab a bowl, handheld mixer and some sugar, Harry recalled how her grandmother who did not have a blender at the time would use corn husks tied onto a stick to whip the berries until frothy.
“Nowadays I see some people add raspberries,” she said of sxusem ice cream.
When refrigeration was not common, the berries were dried into ‘cakes’ that could be soaked and made into ice cream.
Adding small amounts of water, Wycotte showed how a ‘whipped cream’ texture eventually formed after whipping the berries and adding some sweetness to the earthy and slightly bitter tasting mixture with sugar.
Melamen has played an integral role at the Three Corners Health Society, which published a 39-page Secwepemc Traditional Medicine book in 2018 authored by elders Clara Camille of Stswecem’c Xgat’tem (Canoe/Dog Creek), Cecilia DeRose of Esketemc (Alkali Lake) and Jean William of T’exelc (Williams Lake).
Heather Camille of the Northern Shuswap Tribal Council also assisted.
“We wrote the book for our youth and for us to have an opportunity to share with our families traditional healing,” said executive director Lori Sellars, who found it important to incorporate their knowledge of melamen with the Western healthcare model.
One of the Secwepemc’s most powerful medicines is stsmut’elqe —the black fungus found on birch trees. Besides being boiled in water to make a tea, it can also be used to smudge.
Because not everyone knows how to appropriately preserve and use melamen, it is important to always discuss with a knowledgeable elder before using any traditional medicines.
“I know some communities are not apt wanting to share it,” Sellars said, noting melamen is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
Some melamen can be collected year round such as spitpetqin (rock lichen). The lichen off of rocks can be used as a poultice or body/bath wash to assist in aiding a variety of skin conditions such as impetigo and thrush.
Regularly attending Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations in Williams Lake in June at Boitanio Park, the Three Corners Health Society hosts an annual melamen celebration on Sept. 12 where Indigenous people from neighbouring First Nations communities gather to share stories and traditions alongside melamen and food.
Although Indigenous Peoples Day was cancelled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sellars confirmed Melamen Day will go ahead this year where it will be held via a much smaller gathering at the Three Corners Health Society.
As more turn to outdoor activities for their mental well-being and to safely connect with close family and friends, interest in continuing a tradition long practised by their ancestors of collecting and practising Indigenous traditional medicine has risen.
“When you’re out on the land and actually in that environment, you slow down and I find that in itself can be healing,” Sellars said.
Three Corners Health Society is working on completing a second edition of Secwepemc Traditional Medicine which is anticipated to be published before the end of the year.
“If we do a book every three to five years that will be good,” Sellars said.
“It’s identifying and sharing because every year it’s sad because we lose more of our elders, and in order to incorporate and ensure we don’t lose the language we need to make sure we practice the knowledge.”
Cheryl Pope, who grew up with her family at Canoe Creek, has been absorbing as much knowledge as she can about traditional medicines in recent years.
“I have been around some traditional medicine practices all of my life thanks to my grandmother, mother and extended family but only recently have come to appreciate plants and trees and how they can be used to support our health in a natural way,” said Pope, financial manager for Three Corners Health.
“I have done some harvesting on my own and more recently learning from Dr Jeanne Paul who has provided a formalized approach of studying traditional medicines and in her own words, she ‘brings our medicines to the 21st century’ by combining science and her medical background with her in-depth knowledge and passion for traditional medicines.”
Pope said it’s fascinating to carry on the knowledge and share what she learns with her family and community to support their health and wellness in a natural way.