Native American medicine
To Native Americans, health is a continual process of staying strong spiritually, mentally, and physically. This strength keeps away or overcomes the forces that cause illness. People must stay in harmony with themselves, other people, their natural environment, and their Creator. Adhering to traditional beliefs and obeying tribal religious tenets is another part of staying healthy.Native Americans believe in a Supreme Creator; most tribes also have lesserdeities like Mary or Jesus figures and mediators between the spirit world andthe earth (similar to saints in Christianity). They believe that people should try to maintain constant, daily harmony and contact with the Creator, follow all sacred teachings, and treat all life (animals, plants, rocks, rivers,rainbows, etc., along with people) with respect. Native Americans believe that violating tribal tenets or laws has consequences like physical or mental illness, disability, ongoing bad luck, or trauma. The violation must be set right before harmony and health can be restored. They believe that most illnesses are related to a spiritual cause, which creates an imbalance between the body, mind, and spirit. It is bad spirits that cause the harm.
The body is an expression of the spirit to Native Americans. Each person is responsible for his/her own health. All thoughts and actions have consequences, creating harmony or disharmony. Disharmony can cause illness.
Native American medicine includes a variety of rituals and practices; the useof herbal remedies gathered from the surrounding environment and sometimes traded over long distances; and healing by medicine people who use naturalistor personalistic healing. Rituals and practices bring participants into harmony with themselves, their tribe, and all of life. They include the use of sweat baths, usually in a "sweat lodge," to purify and heal; wearing medicine bags and charms; and the use of ancient healing rituals and ceremonies. When amedicine person helps a person heal him/herself, this is considered to be a private, doctor/patient relationship. Ceremonies are used to help groups of people return to harmony, but they are not used for individual healing.
Native Americans used herbs to purify the spirit and bring balance to peoplewho are unhealthy in spirit, mind, or body. They learned about the healing powers of herbs by watching sick animals. Tobacco, one of the most sacred plants to Native Americans, is used in some way in nearly every cure. It is smokedpure and is not mixed with chemicals. Sage, an abundant and pretty plant with blue flowers and light white or grayish leaves, is believed to protect against bad spirits and to draw them out of the body or the soul. Native Americans use sage for many purposes: to heal problems of the stomach, colon, nasal passages, kidneys, liver, lungs, pores of the skin, bones, and sex organs; onthe hair and scalp; to heal burns and grazes; as an antiseptic for allergies,colds, and fever; as a gargle for sore throat; and as a tea to calm the nerves. Cedar, a tall evergreen tree, is a milder medicine than sage. It is combined with sage and sweetgrass, a plant that grows in damp environments like marshes or near water, to make a powerful concoction used in the scared smudging ceremony. Cedar fruit and leaves are boiled and then drunk for coughs. Forhead colds, cedar is burned and inhaled.
Medicines that treated some of the oldest known diseases were used and spreadby Native Americans; many had important medical uses and are still used today. In the Andes, Incas used "Peruvian bark," or quinine, to cure cramps, chills, heart-rhythm disorders, and other ailments. In the early 17th century, quinine was used in Europe to treat malaria, marking the beginning of modern pharmacology. Indians of the Amazon cured amoebic dysentery (a deadly infectionof the intestines) with a medicine they called ipecac, made from the roots of the plants Cephaelis ipecacuanha and C. acuminata. Ipecac makes people vomit, thus expelling the poisons from the body. It is still used for this purpose today by poison clinics worldwide. Curare, used as a poison on arrows by Native Americans in the Amazon, is used as a muscle relaxant in modern medicine. It was the first treatment for tetanus, and was used to relaxabdominal muscles before surgery and to relax patients enough to permit a breathing tube to be inserted into the windpipe during surgery. Today, curare is part of many different muscle-relaxant drugs. The most commonly used laxative worldwide came from Native Americans in northern California and Oregon, who used the bark of the cascare buckthorne as a cure for constipation. Although other cures for constipation existed at the time, this laxative was much milder. In South America, Native Americans used the coca bush, which replaced ether and launched local anesthesia in medical use. Today, cocaine is used innovocaine, one of the most important anesthetics in the world.
Medicine people are community-based traditional healers who have power that other members of the tribe do not have. Their power comes from visions that lead them into studying medicine, or by being born into a family with many generations of medicine people. In many tribes, both men and women can serve as medicine people, but in some, like the Yurok in California, only women can bemedicine people. Some medicine people are also shamans (holy men and women).All medicine people are considered learned and are respected members of the tribe. Different tribes have different names for their medicine people, like shaman, medicine man or woman, or healer.
Medicine people have naturalistic skills. They are generally skilled in herbal medicine, bandaging, and setting bones. Some medicine people specialize inareas like herbal medicine, bone-setting, midwifery, or counseling. Often, the medicine man cured people simply because they believe in him/her. Medicinepeople bring hope, understanding, and confidence to patients; these are oftenas powerful as modern medicine could have been. They work in the unseen world of good and bad spirits to restore harmony and health.
Native Americans believe that they are related to all forms of life. Medicinepeople make medicine tools out of things from nature, including fur, skins,bone, crystals, shells, roots, and feathers. They then use these tools to evoke the spirit of what the tool has been made of, which helps strengthen theirinner powers. For example, a medicine drum is made of wood and animal skins.When medicine people play the drum, they can call up the assistance of the spirits of the tree and the animal from which the drum was made.
Medicine people keep their medicine tools in a medicine bundle. This is a large piece of cloth or hide that they tie securely with a thong, or a piece ofyarn or string. The contents of the medicine bundle are sacred. Each medicineperson may own or share in different medicine bundles: their own, the tribe's, and bundles for special purposes, like seeking visions, hunting, or protection in battle. Some are passed down from one generation to the next. Personal medicine bundles are private and asking about another person's medical tools is forbidden. Some are small enough to be worn around the neck. Medicine bundles belonging to tribes are often called the "grandmothers" because they have the power to nourish and nurture the tribe and promote continued well-being. Tribal medicine bundles grow stronger with each passing year.
Medicine pipes, which are often part of medicine bundles, represent the ebb and flow of life. When Native Americans smoke sacred tobacco and other herbs,their breath, which they consider the source of life, becomes visible. When smoke is released, it rises up to the Great Spirit, carrying prayers. People who share a pipe are acknowledging that they share the same breath. There aremany different types of medicine pipes: for war, sun, and marriage; shaped tolook like certain animals; tribal, personal, or council pipes; ceremonial pipes; and social pipes. The pipe itself, made of wood with a soft pithy center, is symbolic. The bowl represents the female aspect of the Great Spirit-Mother Earth. The stem represents the male aspect of the Great Spirit-Father Sky.Together, the bowl and stem represent the union that brings forth life. Thebowl, in which tobacco is burned to ash, also symbolizes all that changes. The stem signifies all that is unchanging. In all ceremonies, smoking the pipeis a central component which unites the two worlds of spirit and matter.
Medicinal feathers, considered antennae for birds, are used to sense and manipulate energy in smudging and healing ceremonies. Because feathers are linkedto air and wind, enabling birds to fly, they are also used to carry messagesup to the Great Spirit. Eagle feathers are especially powerful.
Tribes carefully guard the knowledge of their medicine people. Members of thetribe who want to become medicine people must first serve a long apprenticeship with an experienced medicine person. In many tribes, medicine men cannotcharge for their services. Gifts, however, are expected. Some tribes do require payment and have set lists of standard gifts. Nearly all tribes recognizetobacco as a gift of respect. Later, a substantial gift is expected.
Sweat lodges are used for healing and balancing. Hot stones covered in waterare placed in a small, confined, dark enclosure, creating a steam bath. The stones, considered by Native Americans to be their oldest living relatives, are usually lave rocks that do not break when heated. Sweating removes toxins from the body, stimulates the endocrine glands, and makes the heart pump moreblood. Native Americans believe that sweat lodges also bring balance and health to spirit, mind, and body. They use sweat lodges in many ways: before spiritual undertakings, to bring clarity to a problem, to call upon helpful spirits, and to re-connect with the Great Spirit.
Even the building of a sweat lodge is sacred. Willow saplings are bent and tied together to form a square with four sides. This represents the sacred fourdirections. The connected poles create a frame that looks like an overturnedbasket. The roof is a symbol of the arch of the sky. In some tribes, there are 28 poles, which represent either the ribs of a woman, a female bear or turtle, or the Lunar Cycle. The water poured onto the hot stones rises up to theGreat Spirit as steam and returns to Mother Earth as sweat on the participants in the sweat lodge. The framework of the ribs is covered in the skins of buffalo or other animals, representing the animal world. The sweat lodge is then considered a living being. A small pit, or alter, is dug in the center ofthe lodge for the stones. A branch that represents the tree of life is placedin the middle of the alter and surrounded by small stones. Antlers to move the hot stones and a medicine pipe are placed near the alter. Before the sweatlodge is used, "The One Who Pours The Water" purifies the surrounding area by smudging it with sacred herbs to ensure that positive spirits will be present. "The One Who Pours The Water" is similar to a priest during the sweat ritual. A stone tender stays outside the lodge, heating stones and passing theminside when summoned by "The One Who Pours The Water." One heated stone is not used; it is left for the spirits to sweat with. It honors the spirits who have come to the ceremony.
"Sweeping the Smoke" from a sweat lodge, or smudging, is used for purification, often before other Native American ceremonies. Sage, the strongest cleansing herb, is usually used. The herb is rolled and people pray into it. The rolled herbs are burned until they smolder and give off clouds of smoke. The smoke is then smudged onto people using a medicine feather or a hand.
While most Native American tribes share common spiritual and healing beliefs,there are differences in the way they practice medicine. For example, the Navaho healed through their sand painting. Sitting on the floor of a house, themedicine person began painting, using ground colored rocks and minerals, atsunrise. The paintings depicted the gods, elements of the heavens, and religious objects. After the painting, which included complex forms and designs ingreat detail, was completed, the patient was placed in the center of the painting. The healing ceremony, which included rituals and chants, was performed.Before sunset, the medicine person destroyed the painting. The sands were sent out to the desert and scattered on the four winds. The Iroquois practicedmedicine through their False Faces, a religious society. Each spring and fall, when most illnesses occurred, society members wore strange and distorted masks to drive illness and disease away from the tribe. Wearing these masks andragged clothes, and carrying rattles made from tortoise shells, they performed a dance. After the dance, society members went from house to house to ridthe community of evil. Lakota and Navajo Indians use medicine wheels, sacredhoops, and sings (healing ceremonies guided by a skilled specialist called asinger that last from two to nine days).
Before 1900, Native Americans depended on traditional healers and had littleaccess to modern medicine. During the twentieth century, the Indian Health Service opened more hospitals and clinics. Although the concept of spiritual harmony remained an important part of Native American life, tribal members began to use non-Indian doctors and modern medicines more. They especially soughtout modern medical care to cure the diseases brought by the "white-man" forwhich traditional healers had no medicine.
The Indian Health Service is a comprehensive health service delivery system for approximately 1.5 million of the two million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States. Members of all of the more than 550 Federal recognized Indian tribes are eligible for services provided by the Indian HealthService, which is an agency of the US Public Health Service, Department of Health and Human Services.
There is no virtually formal research on the healing ceremonies and herbal medicines used by Native American Indian healers. Many Native Americans, however, believe that they cure the mind and the body. There are reports of NativeAmerican doctors who have cured heart disease, diabetes, thyroid conditions,cancer, skin rashes, asthma, and other diseases and conditions through complex ceremonies.