Category Archives: Native American customs

Native Americans had created a rich cultural history that was usually disregarded, disdained, and rejected by the larger Anglo-centered population. Native peoples had their own languages, medical methods, religions, rituals and ceremonies, and world outlooks. When the federal government changed its policy from overt warfare, it did not stop trying to destroy Native Americans. The government pursued a policy called “assimilation” which tried to erase all Native American heritage and culture. Fortunately, Native peoples proved themselves stronger than these policies and held on to many of the cultural aspects the government tried to erase.

Combating Smallpox

Lokata Sioux Winter Count Showing Smallpox Outbreak, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Lokata Sioux Winter Count Showing Smallpox Outbreak, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Smallpox decimated Native Americans (see last post) after Europeans arrived and spread this virulent disease on a population with no immunity to it. However, the disease was not simply accepted and endured. Though native peoples did not immediately connect smallpox with Europeans, they did understand illness and how to treat it.

Native Americans first turned to traditional medical practices to help combat smallpox. Drums, rattles, and incantations helped patients rally, while fasting and dreaming also followed traditional healing ways. Herbs and oils were used to alleviate discomfort. Unfortunately, the common use of the sweat lodge in treatment may have made a patient’s condition worse, since heat and steam caused sweating and dehydration, while cold water plunges may have overly shocked the body.

The Cherokee developed a Smallpox Dance in the 1830s, and other tribes formed curing societies and developed healing rituals. Families eventually stopped their traditional practice of crowding around a sick patient and allowed a quarantine for those with smallpox; people also avoided traveling to places with active cases, and burned (or thoroughly cleaned) homes where someone had died of smallpox.

The smallpox vaccine was available as early as the 1700s, though Native Americans were not routinely vaccinated. When the vaccine was offered, however, many native peoples took advantage of it. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was the official vaccination administrator, but missionaries and  traders also urged vaccines. Traders, especially, who cared little for Washington politics and did not need to put white settlers’ needs ahead of their trading partners’, were probably just as successful in helping the vaccination effort as the BIA.

The Mandan Tribe Suffered Greatly From Smallpox

The Mandan Tribe Suffered Greatly From Smallpox

Medicine Man Administering to a Patient, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Medicine Man Administering to a Patient, courtesy National Institutes of Health

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Misery on Display

The Public Outside Utica State Lunatic Asylum

The Public Outside Utica State Lunatic Asylum

Most patients, of course, did not want to be in an asylum, and moving into one very likely added to whatever problem that had brought them there. Doctors’ management of their conditions may or may not have alleviated their distress (see last post), since much of the available medication in the 1800s and early 1900s had undesirable or unpleasant side effects.

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Another Sad Twist

A Bedridden Patient With Visitor at Blackwell's Island Hospital for Incurables

A Bedridden Patient With Visitor at Blackwell’s Island Hospital for Incurables

The argument can certainly be made that very few patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians were what might be called “classically insane,” with complete disassociation from reality, a complete change in personality, or a complete inability to function within their traditional society. Continue reading

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Winter As a Time of Reflection

Rosebud Indian Agency, courtesy South Dakota State Historical Society

Rosebud Indian Agency, courtesy South Dakota State Historical Society

In most earlier cultures, life slowed during the winter months; people could not plant seed in frozen ground, days were short and dark, and most agricultural tasks were complete. As in today’s practice of contemplation at the New Year, native peoples used winter as a time to reflect on the important events of the previous year. Continue reading

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Preserving Food

William We-ah-lup Smoking Salmon, 1906, Tulalip Indian Reservation, courtesy University of Washington Libraries

William We-ah-lup Smoking Salmon, 1906, Tulalip Indian Reservation, courtesy University of Washington Libraries

Patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, though forced to eat a relatively poor diet of increasingly refined foods provided by the government, benefited from the fresh food and meat raised on the asylum grounds. However, there never seemed to be a sufficiency that allowed the kitchen staff to do much in the way of preserving this more nutritious food for winter use. Continue reading

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Food Woes

Smoking Fish for Preservation

Smoking Fish for Preservation

Choices concerning Bran Flakes and Shredded Krumbles (see last post) weren’t the only food problems patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians suffered. They, like most Native Americans, had already lost a basic underpinning of life–their traditional foods. This loss led to nutritional deficiencies and diseases that had never affected them before encountering the white man’s culture. Continue reading

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Native American Ghosts

Navajo Shaman Ceremony

Navajo Shaman Ceremony

Native Americans believed in ghosts–spirits who were not at peace. This could happen because someone who died had not been at peace, personally. Unrest could also occur because a person was not buried properly or respectfully. Continue reading

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Native American Harvests

Buffalo Skulls

Buffalo Skulls

Many people believe buffalo was the primary foodstuff for Native Americans, but that is only a stereotype. Most Native Americans had a bountiful, healthy diet during good years, and preserved food for winter use and bad times. Some tribes grew their own food crops, while others gathered from wild sources.

The “three sisters” is a famous combination planting of squash, beans, and corn in which each crop benefits the other, but Native Americans also ate a wide variety of greens, wild onions, herbs, cactui, nuts and other nutritious foods that were readily available. It is a bit ironic that one of the growing food trends today is foraging for wild edibles.

Indian Woman Working in Cornfield, 1906, Edward S. Curtis

Indian Woman Working in Cornfield, 1906, Edward S. Curtis

“Weeds” such as purslane, ramps chickweed, watercress, and dandelions supply nutritious greens to modern diets, while mushrooms have always been treasured gifts of nature. Experienced foragers are welcome lecturers at organic food conferences and similar venues, and books abound on the topic. Foraging appeals to those who want to lessen their carbon footprints, eat organically, add adventure to their food experience, or prepare for a doomsday scenario.

Native Americans Developed Five Varieties of Corn from a the Plant, Teosinte

Native Americans Developed Five Varieties of Corn from a the Plant, Teosinte

Unfortunately, even this ancient gathering system can create problems in the environment if its practitioners are not careful. Native Americans foraged a wide variety of foods and were careful to leave enough behind to regenerate. Over-enthusiastic gathering today could well play out the way buffalo hunting did, and simply eradicate certain particularly valued wild food. Foraging experts urge newcomers to follow Native American practices of conservation and stewardship so that these wild sources of food remain viable.

 

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Time Matters

Charles Eastman, 1897, courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Charles Eastman, 1897, courtesy Smithsonian Institution

The world was truly a different place when the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians first opened on the last day of 1902. Even something as simple as clothing was remarkably different from what we typically see and wear today. Men dressed far more formally and women were tied down (and sometimes literally weighted down) with voluminous dresses and hats. Continue reading

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Tiny Steps

ield Matron and Assistants, 1905

Field Matron and Assistants, 1905

Most Europeans settlers believed that their respective cultures were superior to Native American ones, and set about imposing their own ideas upon native peoples as soon as they were able to do so. Continue reading

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