It would be preposterous to speak of 'Native American Medicine' as if there was a unified system that this term could be applied to across all Native tribes. Native American tribes vary hugely in their traditions, their medical practices and the herbs they use. Of course, much depends also on their native lands and the plants with which they share it. Thus, Woodland Indians native to the forested northeastern part of the US have an entirely different repertoire than Pueblo Indians of the Southwest.
It would be beyond the scope of this article or indeed this newsletter to try and differentiate the various belief-systems and practices except in general terms - so please excuse the superficial treatment I am forced to give it here.
Back in the early days the pioneers that came to settle in the Indian lands could be divided into two basic types - the ones who were prepared to learn and listen from the native people and those who did not. The latter, often members of the so called 'educated classes', were often possessed by such deeply ingrained ethnocentric arrogance that they could not and would not perceive any value in Native practices at all. Nevertheless, the Native people frequently took pity on them and saved their lives with their 'primitive remedies'.
As was common among many indigenous medical believes, Native Americans attributed various types of diseases to more or less three distinct types of causes: natural causes, evil sorcery, secret or unfulfilled desires and supernatural causes.
Natural causes were common illnesses, wounds or broken bones, which could be healed with herbal knowledge and skill.
Evil sorcery included things like spirit object intrusion, splints, hair, or stones that had magically entered a persons body and caused the disease, for which a shaman was required in order to remove such objects and neutralize their power. Supernatural causes included the consequences of taboo transgressions or the loss of soul due to sudden frights.
Native medicine has always excelled in the treatment of wounds and surgery, such as mending broken bones etc, a branch of medicine that during the pioneer era was a most barbaric torture in western medicine. Hygiene was poor and anaesthetics unknown. Barbers doubled up as surgeons. Even today Western medicine is indebted to indigenous medicine for the most commonly used anaesthetic derived from Coca - a plant that South American Indian doctors have used for this purpose since pre-Colombian times.
Indeed there are numerous plants of both south and North American Native origin that have enriched modern western herbalism and medicine. However, in Native traditions it's not just the plant that makes the medicine, but first and foremost the power of the spirit that governs the plant. A plant as such would be considered useless unless it were gathered and prepared with due respect, prayer and rituals with which the healer seeks the support of the plant spirit to help him affect a cure.
Healing rituals usually involve a process of physical and spiritual cleansing. The patient may have to fast for a period of time, or he may be given purgatives. Some tribes make extensive use of sweatlodges as a way of mental, spiritual and physical purification - both as a curative and a preventative measure.
The intense perspiration helps the body to eliminate toxins through the skin. Herbal teas support this process and the smoke released from smudging herbs cleanses the heart, mind and atmosphere and dispels the evil spirits of disease. Jumping into a cold river after the intense sweating also helps to stimulate the circulation and the immune system.
Native Americans placed a high value on personal hygiene and daily bathing, usually in the cold waters of a nearby river was a common daily routine for men, women and children. In times of sickness they would often seek out healing springs. Springs were considered sacred in many ancient traditions due to their purifying, life-giving and restorative powers. The healing waters were also used internally for therapeutic purposes.
Native people also had the good sense to isolate their sick - a practice that was virtually unheard of among whites. Sick people often had to stay in special huts or lodges where they were being cared for. Fumigation or smudging was a frequent practice. The sacred smoke of the holy sage and other special herbs not only served as a carrier of prayers and as food for the gods and spirits, but also helped to purify and disinfect the air.
In actual healing rituals the burning of tobacco - the holiest herb of all, played an important role. In this case though, the shaman or healer would smoke the tobacco, but rather than inhaling the smoke, would blow it at the patient in order to dispel evil spirits and cleanse his or her aura. Tobacco also played a hugely important role in the actual ritual of gathering medicinal herbs - it served as the mediator between the human and the spirit world. It was the gift offered to the spiritual beings when asking permission to pick herbs and seeking their blessing.
The ritual itself usually involved chanting and drumming. The task of the healer is to determine the cause of disease and help the spirit of the patient to realign himself with the greater order of the universe and his community. Only once this spiritual aspect of healing has been affected will the herbs be considered useful as a supportive measure to clear the body of the patient from the weakness and debris of the disease.
Many but not all tribes had special 'medicine societies' each of which was responsible for caring for a particular type of disease. In some cases the members were people who had suffered and recovered from the respective disease and individuals could not choose to join one group or another - the disease itself elected them. Elsewhere the traditions were passed down from uncle to nephew or aunt to niece.
Not only western herbalism, but also western medicine is indebted to Native American medicine for many remedies now commonly used. It is a pity though that not more of the philosophy and preventative approach also found its way into western medicine - much still remains to be learnt from these ancient wisdom ways. Sadly, with the advances of modern medicine and lifestyles much of this wisdom is now endangered. In many places the elders don't find enough young people interested in learning the old ways and keeping the traditions alive. At the same time money hungry impostors jump on the 'native American bandwagon' and promote their own brand of healing and spirituality as native wisdom, but which only increases the mistrust and protective secrecy with which the real knowledge is guarded. But what will happen when the last keeper dies? Who will carry on the flame? Who will protect the knowledge and who will protect the flames when there is no-one left to care?
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