A Canadian First Nations Girl Who Chose Traditional Medicine Over Chemo Has Just Died

Makayla Sault, an 11-year-old Ojibwe girl with leukemia, chose indigenous medicine rather than chemotherapy.

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23 January 2015, 6:31am

Photo of Makayla Sault via Facebook

This post first appeared on VICE Canada.

Makayla Sault died Monday following a stroke she suffered over the weekend. The 11-year-old Ojibwe girl had been suffering from a highly treatable form of leukemia for the last year but refused chemotherapy because it had become unbearable and she believed that she had already been healed.

The above YouTube video shows Makayla, who was raised as an Evangelical Christian, claiming that a "beautiful" and "long-haired" Jesus Christ visited her hospital room at McMaster Children's Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario, and told her not to be afraid because he had healed her.

Despite being given a 75 percent chance of survival by the doctors treating her, chemo was stopped in May when her parents, acting legally on her behalf, opted instead for Native and holistic treatments. A video from October shows an animated Sault saying she felt "alive and well" and "healed."

A strongly worded press release issued by the Sault family following her death claimed that their daughter was "on her way to wellness, bravely fighting toward holistic well-being after the harsh side effects that 12 weeks of chemotherapy inflicted on her body." The statement goes on to blame her death on the chemotherapy that "did irreversible damage to her heart and major organs. This was the cause of the stroke." Medical professionals have not confirmed if this was actually the case.

Divine intervention aside, the real issue was Makayla's legal status as a member of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation. In an effort to legally impose chemotherapy on her, McMaster Children's Hospital referred her file to the Brant Children's Aid Society, who initially challenged Makayla's decision but ended up not intervening.

"We have to recognize the traditions and the community of First Nations people," the Children's Aid Society director Andy Koster told the National Post regarding Sault's refusal of chemo, adding, "I think people much more knowledgeable than ourselves need to be involved to look at what types of traditional medicines are being used, how does it fare up to some of the chemo treatments."

The Children's Aid Society's hesitance to take on such a legal hot potato may have been well advised given that aboriginal people's right to traditional remedies, even in cases of deadly diseases like cancer, was upheld in a recent precedent-setting court case.

In November, Ontario Court judge Gethin Edward heard an almost identical case and ruled that traditional aboriginal medicine definitely existed before Europeans arrived in North America and that it is still an "integral" part of aboriginal culture today. Legally, that makes it an "aboriginal right," which means that a hospital cannot force a member of an aboriginal group to undergo life-saving treatment because such rights are constitutionally protected under section 35 of the Constitution Act.

The decision sparked a national debate while being hailed as a "monumental" and "precedent-setting" legal victory by aboriginal groups. The 11-year-old Six Nations girl in that case, known only as JJ because of a publication ban, is currently being treated with lasers, Vitamin C injections, a strict raw food diet, and "positive attitude" therapy for leukemia originating in her bone marrow. Following a biopsy at Toronto's SickKids Hospital, her family told aboriginal media outlet Two Row Times that there are currently no visible signs of cancer in her bone marrow or spinal fluid.

Makayla Sault's case, much like JJ's, has prompted an outpouring of support from many aboriginal communities across Canada who think of court-ordered medical treatment as a continuation of colonial practices.

"Forcing a First Nations child to undergo unwanted, mainstream medical treatment is an affront to the dignity and autonomy of the child, our cultures, and our nations," the Six Nations Council said in a press release following the JJ decision. "McMaster Children's Hospital sought to undermine our cultures and ways of life."