Native American medicine represents a harmonious mixture of physical remedies and spirituality which, when used in conjunction, were thought to develop a well-balanced method of healing. Although customs varied across nations, Native American medicine took much of it’s influence from the natural world and has had a lasting impact on the field of modern medicine. Unfortunately, many customs have since been lost due to the fact that many tribal remedies were passed down from generation to generation orally (Weiser). The snuffing out of native culture in the country has also pushed many Native Americans into modern medical offices where their traditions are slowly lost through the passing of time.
Most tribes would have a male or female healer, also referred to as shamans by the Europeans. These individuals served as priests and doctors and were placed in charge of healing and spiritual connection (Weiser). They were respected members of society and, as a result, their basic needs were provided to them by the community. These medicine men and women are often portrayed in art with masks on their faces during rituals. Masks played an important role in medicine because it was believed that the grotesque faces had the power to scare away evil spirits (Weiser). Common tools of the trade included herbs and plants of the region, traded goods, feathers, pipes, shells, bone, furs, roots, and crystals (Weiser). Most of these healing supplies were kept handy in a medicine bundle that could be carried on one’s shoulders and the bag was considered to be sacred. In most instances, the next generation of healer was taught through a lengthy apprenticeship where they were expected to learn through observation before being allowed to practice alone.
When Europeans first began settling in the Americas over 500 years ago, they were surprised by the native people’s ability to heal themselves. Native Americans were even called upon by colonists who lacked a proper understanding of the plants that they encountered in the unfamiliar regions (Gwilt). To this day, at least 200 traditional tribal remedies have appeared in various editions of the United States Pharmacopeia (Gwilt).
Even though Native Americans were excellent at healing themselves from familiar ailments, their immune systems were not prepared for Europeans, or “white Men Diseases” (Gwilt). Two of the most common were smallpox and measles, which decimated the populations of entire tribes in an unsettling short period of time. Disease was even used as a method of gaining power over the Native Americans in order to claim their territories and defeat them in battles. One famous example of this put into practice was the instance where colonists weaponized smallpox by handing out infected blankets to the local natives during a battle at Fort Pitt.
Healing in Practice:
Native Americans used their extensive knowledge of the landscape to collect and prepare tribal remedies. Some of the most commonly used herbs included,
- Tobacco: Dressing wounds, tooth aches, pain reliever, and important in ceremonial events.
- Sassafras: Fever, topical analgesic for gout and rheumatism, and commonly used to treat diarrhea and other digestion-related complications.
- Cotton: Used as a dressing for wounds.
- Cascara: “Sacred bark” that contained anthraquinone glycosides which are effective purgatives.
- Slippery Elm: Used in the treatment of colds, dysentery and as an emollient.
Check out this great resource which lists some main medicinal plants used by Native Americans HERE.
One other common treatment were sweat baths or saunas which were created when water was poured over hot rocks in an enclosed space. These sweat baths were used in holistic healing rituals, as a treatment for symptoms, and for general hygiene practices (Gwilt). Some scholars believe that preventative medicine along with a focus on hygiene helped the tribal communities to remain generally healthy.
The main difference between modern medicine and that practiced by Native Americans is the blending of physical remedies and spirituality. Many tribes believed that in order to achieve optimal health, one had to delicately balance their spiritual, mental, and physical health.
“Our ancestors believed in the Medicine Wheel and Circle of Life. When you fit one upon the other, you will see your world in its true form releasing tears of joy as in ceremony. Everything had a rhyme and reason for doing what we did over countless centuries of honing and practice. It was living in-sync with the natural processes.” -Tony Ten Fingers Oglala Lakota
If you liked this post, check this one put which tells about Charles Byrnes and the story of corpse thievery Here.
Until Next Time,
- Gwilt, John R. & Peter R. Gwilt. “Native North American Medicines.” The Pharmaceutical Journal. 23 December, 2000. Accessed 8 February, 2021. Pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/features/native-north-american-medicines/20003905,article?firstPass=false.
- “Native American Medicine.” ShermanIndianMuseum.org. 2016. Accessed 8 February, 2021. Shermanindianmuseum/native-american-medicine.html.
- Weiser, Kathy. “Native American Medicine.” Legends of America. Updated February, 2020. Accessed 8 February, 2021. Legendsofamerica.com/na-medicine/.