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What Native Americans Knew About Medicine Long Before There Were Drugstores

Updated on March 19, 2018
Casey White profile image

Dorothy McKenney is a former newspaper reporter turned researcher. Her husband, Mike, is a professional landscape/nature photographer.

A Holistic Approach

Native Americans used a holistic approach to healing, relying heavily on plants and devising a unique use for each of them.
Native Americans used a holistic approach to healing, relying heavily on plants and devising a unique use for each of them. | Source

Native Americans and Zoopharmacognosy

Long before there were drugstores on every corner, Native Americans had effective medicine for treating many medical problems, relying on nothing more than the plants that were growing around them. The great outdoors was the only pharmacy to which they had access, and they made the best of what they had.

Trial and error had to have played a part in the system they used to determine which plants could be used for a particular problem, but many believe they observed the plants eaten by wild animals, unaware that they were participating in something that today is called zoopharmacognosy (the study of how animals use leaves, roots, seeds and minerals to treat a variety of ailments). Science has only been studying zoopharmacognosy for the past 30 years, which pales in comparison to the thousands of years of study by Native Americans. The term zoopharmacognosy was coined in 1993 by Cornell University biochemist and professor Dr. Eloy Rodriguez in collaboration with Dr. Richard Wrangham at Harvard University.

There have been countless stories about various indigenous cultures learning about their medicine by observing animals as they self-medicate themselves.

Science Has Verified Plants' Medicinal Value

Scientific studies conducted by the National Institute of Health have verified the medicinal value of many of the plants that Native Americans have been using for thousands of years. They administered medicine using teas or pastes that were either ingested or applied externally. Often, the plants were eaten as food or added to food or water. In the case of an open wound, they used a salve or poultice. And, they never needed studies to know the "medicine" was working.

Native American (NA) traditional healing is identified by the National Institutes of Health/National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) as a whole medical system that encompasses a range of holistic treatments used by indigenous healers for a multitude of acute and chronic conditions or to promote health and wellbeing.

— Mary Koithan and Cynthia Farrell, Co-Authors of "Indigenous Native American Healing Traditions"

Driving Away Negative Energies

Smudging with sage by Native Americans calls on the spirits of sacred plants to drive away negative energies and restore balance. It has been a part of Native American tradition for thousands of years.
Smudging with sage by Native Americans calls on the spirits of sacred plants to drive away negative energies and restore balance. It has been a part of Native American tradition for thousands of years.

Tobacco and Sage

Two of the most popular plants used by Native Americans were sage and tobacco, but unlike today, the tobacco was not mixed with other chemicals and was smoked pure; it was used to heal many conditions and became a part of their culture, tradition, and lore.

Native Americans set a non-abusive example and used tobacco sparingly; mainly for healing and special occasions. The abuse of tobacco didn't begin until Christopher Columbus arrived on the shores of North America, but that's another story.

Sage has typically been used by several tribes as a ceremonial plant (incense and a purifying herb). Before traditional ceremonies, it was also used for "smudging," a Native American ritual that's akin to a spiritual house cleaning or spiritual purification. The smoke was used to bless, cleanse and heal by washing off the outside world upon entering the sacred space. Plus, sage was used to heal multiple problems of the stomach, colon, kidneys, skin, liver, lungs and more.

Most Animals Know Instinctively Which Plants to Eat When Sick

Chimpanzees, when they are sick, instinctively know which plants to eat.  A wild animal is genetically stronger against health risks than a pet or a human.
Chimpanzees, when they are sick, instinctively know which plants to eat. A wild animal is genetically stronger against health risks than a pet or a human.

Aspirin/Salicylates

Aspirin is derived from salicin, a chemical in the inner bark of willow trees that was used during ancient times for fever and pain. In topical form, it is generally considered safe, but can be lethal in high doses.

American Ginseng and How It Was Used

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was used to heal a variety of ailments, but it was also used for spiritual and ceremonial purposes. The Seneca used it for flu, fever, colds; sinus problems; to reduce swelling, and also as a laxative. The Iroquois, on the other hand, smoked the herb like tobacco, while the Seminole used it in sweat baths. Teas and tonics were made from the dried herb by several tribes for a variety of medicinal purposes (the Cherokee, Houma, Mohegan, Potawatomi and Creek tribes).

Even today, ginseng is one of the most popular herbal remedies available, but there is no conclusive evidence to determine this herb's true effectiveness in regard to many therapies.

An American ginseng mature plant with berries is easily identified although the leaves resemble a strawberry plant.  It is legal to harvest ginseng, but only during a specific season (defined by each state).
An American ginseng mature plant with berries is easily identified although the leaves resemble a strawberry plant. It is legal to harvest ginseng, but only during a specific season (defined by each state). | Source

The Importance of Symbolism

There are many cultures in which the people utilize symbolism found in their various religions and spiritual practices to deal with various health problems.

While there are many people who are somewhat distrusting of mainstream (allopathic) medical procedures and drugs, the majority of people today depend on them and owe their well being to them, causing allopatic health providers to be unappreciative of the ceremonies that play a very important role in the healing process by Native Americans.

The Native American ceremonies, as well as involving the patient, involve the family and the community in the healing process and ceremonial healing and gatherings can last for days or even weeks. The number of people present at the ceremony determines the level of the healing energy (the more people, the greater the energy).

Native Americans believe that symbolism creates a powerful healing synergy when incorporated into their treatment plan.

The people present at the ceremony, as their way of contributing healing energy that is needed, participate in prayer, music, song and dance. The healing ceremony relies heavily on Christian religious symbols, ritualistic objects and icons, which are used to restore the harmony needed for health by triggering bio-psycho-social-spiritual healing responses.

The disproportionate attention that has been given to the superstitious and unscientific features of aboriginal medicine has tended to obscure its real contributions to American civilization.

— Virgil J. Vogel, Author: American Indian Medicine (1970)
This is an oil painting by Howard Terpning called "Opening the Sacred Bundle." Each bundle contains a collection of objects that have spiritual significance.
This is an oil painting by Howard Terpning called "Opening the Sacred Bundle." Each bundle contains a collection of objects that have spiritual significance.

The Sacred Medicine Bundle

Native Americans use a sacred medicine bundle for religious purposes - a wrapped package that contains a collection of various items such as seeds, pine cones, beads, tobacco, arrowheads, grass, animal teeth or claws, rocks, crystals, bones and other small things that might have a spiritual significance to the keeper of the bundle. The tribal community generally consider the contents of the bundle to be sacred, and the items are not meant to touch the ground. Medicine bundles are sometimes passed down from one generation to another, although some bundles, considered to be a precious possession, are buried with the owner upon his death.

Native Americans believe the bundle's power to be beneficial to an entire tribe, and they are opened according to precise rituals on specific occasions.

The primary role of a healer is to help people who approach him in the correct way, asking for healing and guidance from the Great Spirit. Since the Great Spirit is too holy to be approached directly, the healer must work with Spirit Helpers, the Grandfathers.

— Russell Willer, Co-Author of "A Cree Healer and His Medicine Bundle"

An Anthropologist and a Medicine Man

Russell Willier (left) and David Young, two of the co-authors of the book "A Cree Healer and His Medicine Bundle" photographed on the small island of Gabriola in Canada. Willier is a healer who lives on the Sucker Creek Reserve, also in Canada.
Russell Willier (left) and David Young, two of the co-authors of the book "A Cree Healer and His Medicine Bundle" photographed on the small island of Gabriola in Canada. Willier is a healer who lives on the Sucker Creek Reserve, also in Canada. | Source

In Native American culture there is a saying that “we are all related”; all things live in relationship to one another. Living in harmony with the earth and our environs has meaning and purpose, not only for us but the whole --- the earth, its peoples, and all that is. When we engage in health promotion by “walking in beauty”, we all win.

References

  1. Daniel R. Goldberg (2009). Aspirin: Turn-of-the-Century Miracle Drug. Retrieved from https://www.sciencehistory.org 8/10/2017.
  2. Joel Shurkin (2014), Animals That Self-Medicate, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Dec 2014, 111 (49)
  3. Virgil J. Vogel (1970), American Indian Medicine, Kindle Edition
  4. Young, David; Rogers, Robert; & Russell Willier (2015). A Cree Healer and His Medicine Bundle: Revelations of Indigenous Wisdom, North Atlantic Books, Kindle Edition
  5. Koithan, Mary, and Cynthia Farrell. “Indigenous Native American Healing Traditions.” The Journal for Nurse Practitioners : JNP 6.6 (2010): 477–478.

© 2017 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

Comments

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    • Casey White profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike and Dorothy McKenney 

      13 months ago from United States

      I agree completely. Thanks for reading.

    • profile image

      bruce kuda 

      13 months ago

      I think the mental abilities of the human are degrading as time passes-- earlier men seemed to have a better instinctual ability to know what was good for what---

    • Casey White profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike and Dorothy McKenney 

      13 months ago from United States

      Thanks for reading. We live in New Mexico now and this area has fueled my thirst for writing about Native Americans and New Mexico in general. I have also checked out some of your writings and have found many that I am going to read. Glad we are now following each other.

    • thebiologyofleah profile image

      Leah Kennedy-Jangraw 

      13 months ago from Massachusetts

      It is fascinating to trace back common medicines and discover their origins. We have the Native Americans to thank for many of them. Nice article, interesting topic.

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