Ancient Native American Medicine – The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee Nation

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Through their intimate relationship with nature, the original Americans developed a thorough knowledge of the use and preservation of plants for both nourishment and healing. No tribe was more knowledgeable in natural medicine than the Cherokee Nation.

Many members of the Cherokee Nation retain the knowledge that thousands of years of tradition and experience have developed. They still practice in the traditional ways of their ancestors, communing with the plants; asking their permission to pick them, and thanking them by leaving a small gift of thanks. They care for these precious natural resources by harvesting them conservatively; picking only every third plant to maintain a constant supply.

Following you will find a sampling of traditional herbal curatives used by the Cherokees. Though natural, these herbs and plants contain powerful ingredients and should not be experimented with. Treatment with any natural herbal products should only be practiced under the supervision of a qualified and licensed herbal therapist. Misuse of these valuable natural medicines can be extremely dangerous and even cause death. The Cherokee herbalists who administer treatment with these botanicals are very experienced, and proper and effective use of those listed in this article is largely limited to them.

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Cherokee Herbs and Their Uses

Blackberry

Blackberry grows wild in many areas around the world. Their fruit is delicious and though surrounded by thorny brambles, are harvested as a summertime treat by nature lovers around the world. What many of those who enjoy the fruit don't know is that the Blackberry leaves and root are effective natural medicines. The Cherokee used an infusion of the leaves as a general tonic for the entire body. Western herbalists often prescribe the same to rejuvenate those suffering from colds or the flu. Both schools use a decoction of the roots to alleviate stomach ailments such as diarrhea or dysentery. Unique to the Cherokee is their sugar or honey sweetened syrup made from a decoction of the roots and used as an expectorant.

Black Gum Bark (Black Tupelo)

Extremely unique to the Cherokee and a few other Native American tribes, a mild tea concocted from tiny twigs and small pieces of the bark of the Black Gum tree is used to relieve chest pains.

Hummingbird Blossom (Buck Brush)

The Buck Brush tree was used by Native Americans for a number of things. The rigid material of the shrub was used by some tribes to make seed beaters, others used the same material to make “digging sticks.” The length, strength, and color of the young shoots make them ideal for basket crafting, a trade still practiced today by many tribes. Medicinally the Cherokee used the roots to formulate a decoction to stimulate kidney function. Western herbalists have found Buck Brush to be effective in treating lymphatic blockages and high blood pressure.

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Cat Tail (Typha)

Found mostly in wetlands throughout the Northern Hemisphere, there are approximately a dozen species of this plant in existence. Some species were used as a food source by a few tribes; the roots processed into a flour, the pollen of the flowers used as a thickener. Depending on the species and part used, Cat Tail can be used to treat a variety of conditions such as kidney stones, abdominal cramps, whooping cough, and diarrhea, and is also effective as a poultice to treat burns, wounds, and infections. The Cherokee used the plant more as a preventative than a curative, the roots prepared like potatoes and eaten boiled or mashed, the pollen used as a supplement to the flour processed from the roots.

Green Briar

Known as Smilax to western herbalists, there are a few hundred different species known to botanists, but the Cherokee used a species they called “Pull out a Sticker” as a mild diuretic and blood purifier. Pig fat was mixed with the leaves and bark to make a salve for treating minor scalds and burns by some practitioners, while others treated arthritis with a tea made from the roots.

Mullein

The Cherokee call Mullein “Tobacco-like-Plant” and it is one of the oldest herbs known to Cherokee medicine men. The smoke of smoldering roots is inhaled to relieve chest congestion or asthma attacks, while the swelling or inflammation of joints can be soothed with a decoction of the same part. A mild sedative can be fashioned from a tea of the dried flowers.

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Common Sumac

Common Sumac, “Qua lo ga” to the Cherokee, is a versatile plant from which every part can be utilized as an herbal remedy or food source. The berries, roots, and young shoots are all eaten raw for their nutritional value and tonifying effects, the berries being extremely high in Vitamin C. Fevers can be reduced by drinking a tea made from the dried leaves and berries, while the fresh fruit and leaves can be ground and smashed to form a poultice for treating conditions like poison ivy. Even the dried flowers were infused to make an eye wash, while a decoction of the roots is useful for treating diahreah or as a gargle for sore throat.

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Wild Ginger (aka Canadian Snakeroot)

A mild tea from the roots of this plant, known as “Big Stretch” to the Cherokee is used to tonify the digestive system and to treat specific stomach ailments such as indigestion, gas, or colic. The Cherokee as well as other tribes used the roots as a seasoning, and they can be substituted for normal store bought ginger which has many of the same properties.

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Wild Rose

The Cherokee used the ripe fruit of Wild Roseas a tonic to prevent and treat the common cold and the hips to make a tea which serves as a diuretic that stimulates the kidneys and bladder. A decoction of the roots is also effective in treating diarrhea, while an ancient remedy for sore throat is made from the petals.

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Yarrow

Yarrow is traditionally used by western herbalists to stop bleeding; the crushed leaves cause the blood to clot when they are applied to an open cut or wound. It can even be used to treat internal bleeding by drinking a mixture of its fresh juice mixed with distilled or spring water. Drinking an infusion of the leaves is also believed to be an effective abdominal tonic and an aid to the functioning of the gall bladder and kidneys.

Yellow Dock

The Cherokee consider Yellow Dock, known to them as “Looks-like-Coffee” as both a food and medicine. Containing more vitamins and minerals than spinach, the leaves are eaten, especially as a rich source of iron. Medicinally it is especially useful for treating chronic skin diseases such as psoriasis, eczema, acne, and herpes. A decoction of the crushed roots is used as a wash to disinfect the skin by Cherokee herbalists, and the pure juice of the root is used by them to treat ringworm.

Summary and Caution

Please remember that these plants are effective as medicines because of the strong chemical powers they contain, and these chemicals can be lethal if used in the wrong way. Cherokee herbalists have great experience, and have gone through extensive training and have the benefit of centuries of observation. Novice herbalists and those interested in using these herbs for treatment are advised to seek out and establish a close relationship with Cherokee herbalists or their elders to learn how to use these medicines properly.

The intent of this article is to offer historical uses of herbs and health foods.

YOU SHOULD ALWAYS SPEAK WITH A HEALTH CARE PRACTITIONER BEFORE TAKING ANY DIETARY, NUTRITIONAL, HERBAL OR HOMEOPATHIC SUPPLEMENT.

The statements made about products, herbs, and/or remedies have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (U.S.). They are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, mitigate, or prevent any condition or disease. Please consult with your own physician or health care practitioner regarding the statements made in this website. If you have, or think you have, a condition which requires medical attention, you should seek qualified medical care immediately.

Information provided by the Cherokee Nation Cultural Resource Center.

Short Video on Native American Herbal Medicine Featuring John Twobirds

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