________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 22 . . . . June 22, 2007


Spirit Doctors.

Marie Burke (Writer & Director). Bonnie Thompson (Producer). Graydon McCrea (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2005.
42 min., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9105 207.

Subject Headings:
Native peoples-Social life and customs.
Native peoples-Religion.

Grades 11 and up/ Ages 16 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

*** /4

Spirit Doctors is the story of a spiritual journey. Marie Burke, the writer and director of the 42-minute DVD, travels into rural British Columbia to meet with Mary and Ed Louie, practitioners of traditional Native spirituality and medicine. In making this film, Burke wants to explore and clarify her own beliefs, as well as to know her own heritage more deeply. As well, she wants non-Native viewers to become aware of the depth and richness of these beliefs.

     Ed and Mary live close to and in harmony with the land, with Mother Earth; they gather herbs and plants for their medicines, and each of the Earth’s gifts is acknowledged with praise and gratitude. Their marriage is truly a partnership, with each one recognizing the strengths which the other brings to their life together. They share a commitment to traditional beliefs, and in living in harmony with these beliefs, they show strength and conviction. Their work also demands personal sacrifice, but there is no question that they have complete faith in the value of the spiritual work which they undertake.

     Because the Indian Act outlawed traditional Native spirituality, practices such as the sundance, potlatch, and the sweat lodge persisted only through secrecy. Not surprisingly, many native Canadians grew up without much knowledge of their spiritual heritage. Such an example is Don Howell, the sound technician for the film’s crew, who, in the course of filming, is diagnosed with throat cancer. Initially, he pursues treatment options coming out of western medical practice; however, over time, he decides to work with Mary and Ed, not because he expects a “miracle cure”, but because he sees value in a different approach to healing. Mary speaks of the need of the individual seeking help to undertake responsibility so that, ultimately, the goal is that he or she can “stand alone.”

     Throughout the film, Mary Burke wrestles with the problem of whether or not she is being ethical in filming practices which are sacred, and when Don Howell participates in the healing ceremonies with Mary and Ed, we do not see all which is undertaken. In one sequence of the latter part of the film, four elders from other tribal groups discuss the issue of using modern technology to record traditional practice and ceremony. Their perspectives differ, and we sense the tension between traditional belief and modern existence, a tension which must be experienced by many natives who now live in urban settings disconnected from the land. 

     Spirit Doctors certainly provides a much-needed perspective on the nature of Native spirituality, particularly as it is practiced in a contemporary context. As such, it can find a place in senior high school courses in Native Studies and Sociology. And, for schools with courses in Comparative Religion, the film provides an insight into the ways that belief systems, practiced with faith and sincerity, share many similarities.


Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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