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Native American Medicine
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Americans go back for thousands of years, as the many
tribes of North America learned that by mixing
and other natural plants, that they could heal various medical problems.
But, remedies were not the only part of the
With more than
2,000 tribes of indigenous people in North America, the healing practices
varied widely from tribe to tribe, involving various rituals, ceremonies,
and a diverse wealth of healing knowledge. While there were no absolute
standards of healing, most
tribes believed that health was an expression
of the spirit and a continual process of staying strong spiritually,
mentally, and physically. This strength, as well as keeping in harmony
with themselves, those around them, their natural environment, and
Creator, would keep away illness and harm. Each person was responsible for
his or her own health and all thoughts and actions had consequences,
including illness, disability, bad luck, or trauma. Only when harmony was
set right, could their health be restored.
Herbal remedies filled an important role
within these healing practices, stretching beyond the body's aches and
pains and into the realm of the spirituality and harmony.
herbs and other natural products used in remedies, were
generally gathered from their surrounding environment, resulting in a wide
variety of cures. However, sometimes items that were unavailable
locally were traded over long distances.
Herbs and medicinal plants were
often seen as deeply sacred.
Medicine Man holds incense over a medicine bundle,
Edward S. Curtis,
1908. This photo available for photo prints &
"... everything on the
earth has a purpose, every disease
an herb to cure
it, and every person a mission.
This is the Indian theory of existence.
-- Mourning Dove, Salish,
Many of the
various practices have been passed down orally from generation to
generation and never documented in writing, which leaves many of the
healing remedies a mystery. Only rarely did the healers, such as the
Cherokee, who developed a written language, put their formulas or
practices in writing.
Europeans arrived in the United States more than 500 years ago, they were
surprised to see
Americans recovering from illnesses and injuries
that they considered fatal. In many ways, the
were far superior to those known to the new immigrants. But, for the
Americans, they had no remedies for the "diseases of civilization,"
or white man's diseases, such as measles and small pox, which would wipe
out thousands of them over the next few centuries. Not only lost were
Americans, but also, bodies of knowledge that went to
the grave with healers. Despite the loss of some of the information, much
of it has survived to this day, utilized by both
non-natives alike. Many modern medicines are based on the plants and herbs
that were used by Indians for thousands of years. In fact, more than 200
botanicals, derived originally from
Americans, have been or are
still in use in pharmaceuticals.
American healing and conventional medicine, both
in the past and present, is the role of spirituality in the healing
Americans believe that all things in nature are connected
and that spirits can promote health or cause illness. Therefore, it is
necessary to heal not only the physical parts of an individual, but also
their emotional wellness, and their harmony with their community and the
environment around them. In addition to herbal remedies, the community
often came together to help an ill person in ceremonies, dances, praying,
medicine focuses only on science and the mechanistic view of the body,
Americans continue to include the spirit as an
inseparable element of healing.
Referred to as
healers, Medicine Men, or Medicine Women by their
tribes, they have also
been called “Shamans” by people of European descent, though this term was
not used by the
Americans. These many
healers' primary role was to secure the help of the spirit world,
especially the “Creator” or “Great Spirit,” for the benefit of the
community or an individual.
The Medicine Man
was also a priest in addition to being a doctor. Believing that disease
could be caused by human, supernatural, or natural causes, the healer was
equipped to treat illness in any of these categories. Masks, which were
often grotesque and hideous, were worn by healers to frighten away the
spirit causing the disease or pain. Beating drums and shaking rattles
while dancing around the patient were also used to exorcise the demons.
The Medicine Man combined rights of exorcism with other practical
procedures, using plant and animal substances. In addition to herbal
remedies, suction tubes or cups were also used by many healers, as well as
purging and purification.
were often born into a family with many generations of medicine people.
Others may have had a vision that lead them to study medicine. In either
case, those that wished to become healers would first serve a long
apprenticeship with an experienced medicine person before they were
qualified to act alone.
respected member of their
tribes, being a medicine person was a full-time
job, ensuring the well-being and balance of both individuals and the tribe
itself. In return for his or her services, the healer was provided for in
all ways, including food, shelter, and any assistance that might be
needed. Gifts were given to the healer for services rendered, which might
include a wide variety of skills such as herbal medicine, bone-setting,
midwifery, and counseling.
Tools were used
by the healers which were made from nature, including fur, skins, bone,
crystals, shells, roots, and feathers. These were used to evoke the spirit
of what the tool was made of, calling for the assistance of the spirits of
the tree or animal from which the tool was made. Feathers, linked to the
air and wind, were often use to carry the message to the Great Spirit. In
some cases, the healer may go into a trance state and seek the help of
conditions such as birth defects or retardation were generally not
treated. Other conditions were also not always treated if the medical
person felt it was the result of a patient's behavior, and was a life
lesson which needed to be learned.
American Medicine bags,
Edward S. Curtis, 1910.
This photo available for photo prints &
Medicine Woman, No-Ah-Tuh, Harris and Ewing, 1913.
This photo available for photo prints &
Healers kept their remedies and tools in a medicine bundle, made from
cloth or hide that was tied securely. There were several types of bundles
– the healer's personal bundles, the tribe's, and bundles utilized for
special purposes, such as festivals and ceremonies. The contents of each
medicine bundle are sacred and asking about the contents of a personal
bundle was generally forbidden. Medicine bundles belonging to
were sometimes called "grandmothers," because of the power they held to
nourish and nurture the group. One tool often found in medicine bundles
are medicine pipes, that represent the ebb and flow of life. It is
believed that the exhaled smoke carries prayers up to the Great Spirit.
One aspect of
the healing practices with individuals is that it was considered a
private matter between the healer and the patient. In addition, the
preferences of the patient are always respected within his or her cultural
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