In The Media / In The News

"The water from the mountain is sacred. Things that grow around it make powerful medicine."

Healer gives the natural gift of life

by Leanne Tarling

   Each of us has our own gift. It might be as simple as the desire to help a neighbour or as complex as practicing medicine.

   Saik'uz elder Sophie Thomas has the greatest gift of all. She saves lives using her herbal medicines, a gift she shares for free.

   "Everything we use is free," explained her daughter Minnie Thomas, about the natural ingredients they collect in the forest. For them, it would simply be wrong to charge for their healing services.

   One woman came to Sophie after being diagnosed with cervical cancer. She refused radiation therapy because she didn't want to lose her unborn child. After receiving Sophie's medicine, her cancer was cured. Her son is now 18 years old.

   Another man who sought out Sophie's medicine was sent home from the hospital to die. He had cancer in his blood and there was nothing that doctors could do for him. After taking Sophie's medicine, his strength returned and his cancer vanished.

   "One boy came from Prince George, I don't know even his name. I made him medicine, he said he had cancer. He's the only one who came back to thank me. He was so happy he came back every year."

   Sophie is a small, 87-year-old woman, ,a member of the Frog Clan and a native healer. Her parents both died shortly after her birth and Sophie was raised by her grandmother who taught her about medicinal cures.

   "My grandmother showed us," said Sophie. "She would bring us into the bush and show us things and explain. And then myself, I put improvements in it the more I make."

   During the spring and summer months Sophie does her walk-abouts, collecting the ingredients for her medicines in a birch bark basket she made.

   She often fasts and prays before she goes collecting and marks her face with charcoal for protection, and as a sign of respect. When she is finished she leaves a gift of tobacco and thanks the Creator.

   She collects balsam fir sap from the eastside of the tree that is a lung medicine, once used to treat the early stages of tuberculosis. She collects poplar bark, used to stop bleeding, and also as a cough medicine.

   Red alder, chokecherry and wild raspberry branches are the ingredients for her cancer medicine. But they are becoming more difficult to find.

   "They come from the environment," she says of her medicines. If we look after the environment, it will look after us. If we destroy it, we destroy ourselves."

   Sophie is worried about the environment. Her ingredients have become harder to find, and she has to go further and further away to find them.

   Red alder is a little tree that is often destroyed in land clearing and it never grows back. And there is hardly any chokecherry around.

   "There are only two places we go," she said about finding chokecherry. "We leave it to let it grow. We only go when someone needs medicine bad."

   The poor state of the environment hit Sophie hard when she went up to the clear-cut in the Nulki hills.

   "You find lots of things when you go to the bush. But when you go to a clearing, you find little birds all curled up. I thought they were sleeping, but they were all dead. People think they fly away, but they stay in their homes."

   It is not just the trees that Sophie misses. She also misses the river that once flowed freely through her land. For Sophie, the river is a gift, one that was lost when the Kenney Dam was built.

   "They waste our forest when they make a dam. They feed the river not enough and it goes dry. They feed it too much and the fish and duck eggs wash away."

   At one time the Carrier people lived in four different villages in the area, staying at each one for two years before moving to the next. This rotation gave the plants and animals time to replenish and heal.

   Sophie has done environmental work and education for most of her life. She has passed on what she knows to her own children, but she has also shared her knowledge with many others through teaching seminars about her medicines and the environment.

   It was at such a seminar in Seattle in 1989 that Sophie met Terry Jacks, best known for his musical composition, Seasons in the Sun. Jacks, a freelance writer, producer and environmentalist, agreed with everything Sophie had to say.

   In 1992 he came to Saik'uz to make a thirty-second commercial with Sophie for 1993's Year of the Indigenous People. The thirty seconds is now the introduction to a half-hour documentary, produced and directed by Jacks, called The Warmth of Love - the Four Seasons of Sophie Thomas.

   The movie premiered May 6 at the Stoney Creek Multiplex and proceeds from sales and viewing of the film will go to the Sophie Thomas Foundation, a fund set up to help both environmental causes and young people.

   Sophie is an incredibly gifted healer who has touched many lives with her knowlege and kindness.

   "Most healers know one [medicine]," explained her daughter Minnie. "The best, they know four. I've known four since I was young. But Mom does more than ten."

   Minnie is constantly amazed by her mother's talents. She once received a call about a man who was hurt and bleeding but nothing they could do in hospital helped. When she went to knock on her mother's door, she found medicine already prepared on the stove.

   "I feel it," said Sophie. "It comes to me. It keeps bothering me until I make the medicine. And then someone comes when it is ready."