Early American Medicine


"Traditional Hidatsa medicine was a blend of practical knowledge in treating ailments and injuries like frostbite, wounds, snow blindness, and broken bones and Supernatural intervention through shamanistic healing. Hidatsa doctors were paid for their skills, and the healing process was accompanied by sacred songs, symbolic healing, and sweat baths. Modern medical etiology and practice now dominate among the Three Affiliated Tribes, although traditional practices such as the use of the sweat lodge and its associated ritual are still followed." [from Hidatsa - Religion and Expressive Culture]

Early Medicine is a topic of heightened interest by Americans these days. The term could refer to natural herbs, medicinal substances used by Native Americans, or native substances used for medicinal purposes. Regardless, it carries a connotation of using natural plants for health and medicine, many of which were so used by Native Indians and early European settlers, and that is our intended meaning here.

The greatest contribution of America to world-wide health care and medicine comes not from its modern preachers, medical doctors, and practitioners, but from its natives and their pioneering and time-proven health measures. At times when political leaders are shouting "too ineffective, too expensive, and too limited in coverage" with every frantic attempt to reform modern drug-oriented societies and their drug-promoting media and commercial traffic "pharms", natives quietly resorted to their own remedies. Some native cures have survived the test of hundreds of years of usage; for an interesting comparison, see The History of the Headache. vs. Headache Treatments By Native Peoples...

Indian Paintbrush

Information about the effectiveness of potential early American health remedies was mostly communicated from one generation to the next by word-of-mouth. Over time, some of the various treatments were integrated among different tribes, making it difficult to trace the origin of a specific healing technique. Others died with the passing of tribal elders. According to HealthLine and other sources, there is no typical Native American healing session. Methods of healing included prayer, chanting, music, smudging, laying of hands, massage, counseling, fasting, harmonizing with nature, dreaming, sweat lodges, taking hallucinogens (e.g., peyote), inner silence, going on a journey, and ceremony.

Native American healing is considered to be a gift from the Great Spirit. Gifts to the healer were welcomed, and the offering of a gift helped ensure success of treatment -- healing spirits appreciated the kindness and generosity. Such gifts may include food, clothing, or other personal effects signifying respect and appreciation. Despite the spiritualism, the Encyclopedia of Native American Religions claims that natural diseases like broken bones, childbirth complications, and accidental wounds were treated "pragmatically" and without ritual or ceremony.

Many native plants had multiple uses among the natives. An example is Common Bitterroot Lewisia redivia, shown above. This low-growing herb is the state flower of Montana now, but in times past it served as a treatment for diabetes, poison ivy rash, heart and blood ailments, pleurisy, sore throat, and poison ivy; in addition, only 50 to 80 grams were needed to sustain a person for a day according to montana.plant-life.org. Other non-food and non-medicinal but still health-related uses existed for many plants. Native plants of the genus Gaillardia (top left) are called 'Blanket Flowers', so named after the flowers' resemblance to the brightly patterned blankets made by Native Americans (see The Titi Tudorancea Bulletin. Flowers of Aquilegia (Columbine, upper right) were used in small quantities by Native Americans as a condiment mixed with other fresh greens, and are reported by Wikipedia to be safe if consumed in small quantities; in large dosages columbine poisonings may be fatal.

Many websites offer tips on what medicinal plants to grow in the family garden. The Alternative Medicine Zone has an article on The 10 Most Useful Medicinal Plants For Your Garden, and the site LiveStrong.com offers similar suggestions for developing a "Backyard Pharmacy".

To examine the current knowledge base for Native American good health, browse the book selections in our Native Medicine department. For up-to-date books and references on current events in the ongoing health care debates, including new communications technologies and their costs, have a look in the Healthcare Communication and Healthcare Finance departments, respectively. Finally, for more tips and home remedies than you probably want, be sure to check out the Health Tips books. We suggest these products for your use but make no additional recommendations or endorsements for individual use. Please consult a health care professional.

The Native American Medicine Wheel dictated the native approach to a healthy life. The circle has 4 principal directions that correspond to different stages in life. Understanding these facilitates made for a happy and healthy voyage through life.

Despite an abundance of information on natural and alternative medicine, reliable and authoritative treatments are often poorly communicated to the public. Fortunately, this situation is changing with the emergence of carefully documented references such as Garrett's Cherokee Herbal and mass media groups such as Natural Solutions. Extensive online databases and Medical Schools such as The University of Miama Miller School of Medicine are available to provide online search capability and using up-to-date mass media inform the public: "Our office is available 24 hours a day, every day, to respond to inquiries from the media. Our media relations staff responds rapidly to media requests, and we encourage you to call our office if you have any questions. We can help put you in direct contact with a wide variety of experts in numerous medical specialties." One of the best sources for natural medicine information is the University of Michigan Ethnobotany Database.

Did you know..


Native Remedies
Medicinal Healing Herbs : Properties and Uses
Native American Herbal Remedies (Cherokee Messenger)
Native American Medical Remedies
Native American Healing (Cancer)

Further Reading

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