Native American Medicine


Incense over a medicine bundle, by Edward S. Curtis, 1908

Incense over a medicine bundle, by Edward S. Curtis, 1908.

“… 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, 1888-1936


Native Plants - Native Healing

Native Plants – Native Healing

The healing traditions of Native Americans go back for thousands of years, as the many indigenous tribes of North America learned that by mixing herbs, roots, and other natural plants, that they could heal various medical problems. But, remedies were not the only part of the Native American healing process.

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 spirituality and harmony.

The 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.

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.

When early Europeans arrived in the United States more than 500 years ago, they were surprised to see Native Americans recovering from illnesses and injuries that they considered fatal. In many ways, the Indians‘ herbal remedies were far superior to those known to the new immigrants. But, for the Native Americans, they had no remedies for the “diseases of civilization,” or white man’s diseases, such as measles and smallpox, which would wipe out thousands of them over the next few centuries. Not only lost were these many Native 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 Native Americans, and non-natives alike. Many modern medicines are based on plants and herbs that were used by Indians for thousands of years. In fact, more than 200 botanicals, derived originally from Native Americans, have been or are still in use in pharmaceuticals.

Spirituality and Connection:

The major difference between Native American healing and conventional medicine, both in the past and present, is the role of spirituality in the healing process. Native 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, and chanting.

Today, modern medicine focuses only on science and the mechanistic view of the body, while many Native Americans continue to include the spirit as an inseparable element of healing.


Native American Medicine bags, Edward S. Curtis, 1910.

Native American Medicine bags, Edward S. Curtis, 1910.

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 Native 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 was also used to exorcise the demons. The Medicine Man combined the 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.

Medicine people were often born into a family with many generations of medicine people. Others may have had a vision that led 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.

Always a 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.

Medicine Woman

Medicine Woman.

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, 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 used to carry the message to the Great Spirit. In some cases, the healer may go into a trance state and seek the help of “spirit guides.”

Inherited 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 that needed to be learned.

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 tribes 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.

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