Tag Archives: medicine man

Natural Medicine

Woman Digging Roots

Woman Digging Roots

Before modern pharmaceuticals, people looked to nature for their cures. The Chippewa, for instance, used numerous plants to treat ailments, often in conjunction with special songs and music. Red baneberry treated the “diseases of women,” giant hyssop treated cough and pain in the chest, and jack-in-the-pulpit was useful for sore eyes. Other plants, like wild sarsaparilla and white mugwort, could be used for both medicine and as charms.

Medicine Man Preparing Medicine, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Medicine Man Preparing Medicine, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Isabelle Thing, a Kumeyaay Indian Traditional Healer

Isabelle Thing, a Kumeyaay Indian Traditional Healer

Chippewa plant names often indicated the appearance of the plant, the place where it grew, one of its properties, or its use. Blue cohosh was called becigodjibiguk; becig meant “one” and djibiguk meant “root,” thus “the plant having a tap root.” Often, one plant had several names, and individual gatherers often gave a plant a name, as well. Sometimes when a medicine man taught someone about a plant, he would show the person the plant without telling its name, in order to keep it secret.

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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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Appropriate Care

Native American Known as Shields Who Served as a Healer or Medicine Man, Crow Creek Reservation, courtesy Blue Cloud Abbey Native American Photograph Collection

Native American Known as Shields Who Served as a Healer or Medicine Man, Crow Creek Reservation, courtesy Blue Cloud Abbey Native American Photograph Collection

Though some patients may have considered their stay at an asylum as a period of respite from the cares of the world, most patients just wanted out. Some understood that they needed help and could agree with the commitment decision, but even these patients wanted to get well and go home. Native American patients would have had these same feelings, but their stay in a facility like the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians probably helped them less than asylums helped Anglo patients. Unless their mental symptoms resulted from physical  ailments–which would benefit from nutritious food, rest, and mild medications–asylum medicine was so different from Native American practices that it was not likely to help them.

Both native peoples and newcomers relied on herbs and nature-based tonics to help them get well, but except for certain very well-known ingredients, the herbal preparations of either group could be hit or miss when it came to curing ailments. However, Native Americans derived a great deal of benefit from their culture’s method of treatment as well as from any herbal concoction they might take in conjunction with it. Native peoples were community oriented, and relied heavily on ceremonies, chants, music, dancing, and so on that required many participants. This sort of community medicine varied greatly from the much more private doctor/patient practice of Europeans. When Native Americans went to a non-native hospital (or asylum), they had to step out of their culture and away from all the comfort, security, and faith that it held. Without their customary practices in place, particularly with mental issues, there would be little hope of gaining a cure.

Sand Painting in Sacred Kiva, circa 1890 to 1900

Sand Painting in Sacred Kiva, circa 1890 to 1900

 

A Navajo Man in Ceremonail Dress, Including Mask and Body Paint, 1904, Edward S. Curtis

A Navajo Man in Ceremonial Dress, Including Mask and Body Paint, 1904, Edward S. Curtis

 

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