Native American Medicine

As a biologist, I have always been fascinated by the wondrous world of North American flora.  In college, I absolutely loved botany class and while others were banging their heads trying to distinguish their Acer rubrum (red maple) from their Ampelopsis arborea (pepper-vine) I was busy studying the secrets of photosynthesis and trying to understand the mysteries of the Calvin cycle and ATP (adenosine triphosphate).  My interest in botany took me to Jamaica in January of 1974 to study the plant life of the island with my professor for an entire month, and – believe it or not – I absolutely loved studying medicinal chemistry in graduate school.

I share this with you because I truly did a great deal of research about the medical practices of the Native Americans in the late 17th and early 18th centuries because I wanted to be as accurate as I could in those parts of the book that speak to the care of the injured and ill.  It was a difficult task because the term “Native American medicine” refers to the historical collection of information garnered over thousands of years and treatment modalities of many different North American tribes.  Unfortunately, much of what we know about the practices of these various peoples have been passed down strictly through oral traditions, a factor that makes documentation of its origin, and initial use a relative mystery.

What we do know is that much of their existing medicinal knowledge was in use when the Europeans first visited the North American continent more than 500 years ago. Some estimates suggest the first medical practices of the North American Indians occurred some 40,000 years ago.  Imagine the painstaking observations that had to take place over generations and generations of practitioners to hit upon a single plant extract that actually worked.  I still don’t understand how they did it – but they did.  

Who was the first person to figure out that the lowly willow tree contains salicin – acetylsalicylic acid – the active ingredient in today’s aspirin, and how did they ascertain that by making a tea from the dried extract of the bark they could lessen the pain of their injured comrades?  But more than the acute pain of wounds and injuries sustained in battle, they figured out that they could use this stuff for headaches (yes they even got them back in the 1600s) joint pain, and toothaches.  That is why to this day the willow tree is known by its nickname, “the toothache tree.”

The pharmaceutical industry of today grew out of the Native American’s use of the medical healing plants.  It may be a bit of a stretch to say that without the Sioux, Cheyenne, Choctaw and Cherokee there would be no Abbott, Bristol-Myers, Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKline – but you get the point.  Over 200 of today’s medical drugs have their origin in the Native American use of healing plant raw materials.

Here is just a partial list of some of the plants that were used by the Native Americans and how the medicines extracted from them were used to care for the ill and injured:

Black Cohosh: This plant has strong pain relieving and muscle relaxing properties that were used to treat a variety of ailments including joint pain, sore throats, menstrual cramps and it was used to relieve the pain of childbirth.  For this reason, it was also known on the frontier as “Squawroot”.  A powerful antispasmodic herb relieving or preventing spasms and muscle relaxes.

Boneset: Native Americans use this herb to relieve break-bone fever, caused by a strain of influenza. It was also used as an infusion to relieve snakebites and indigestion.

Echinachea: Used to treat toothaches, snake bites, and insect bites. It contains a natural antibiotic that makes it an effective antibacterial agent to fight infection.

Evening Primrose: From the Great lake region, Native Americans used the entire plant as a sedative and painkiller. Sometimes it is called “sun drop.”

Goldenseal: Has a long history of use among Native Americans.  The Cherokees would use it for sore eyes, mouth ulcers, tuberculosis, and insect repellent.

Hops: Some Native Americans used the blossoms for its sedative effects, and dried the flowers for a toothache remedy. It removes pain and inflammation in a very short time. The hops can be applied as a poultice to the forehead for relaxation and sedation.

Juniper: Native Americans made juniper tea to relieve colds, joint pain, and stomach aches. Clinical studies have concluded that juniper can inhibit prostaglandin synthesis. These studies clearly indicate that there is sound scientific basis for the use of juniper in the treatment of joint pain.

Passion Flower: Native Americans used a poultice made from the leaves of the passion flower and applied the poultice to a number of different kinds of injuries. I have not been able to find what the effects of the application were meant to do at the site of the industry, nor any scientific basis for the use of the plant.

Psyllium Plantago: Native Americans used the leave to treat sprains, cuts, and as a wash for sore eyes.

Sage: Used to clean their teeth and to heal sores.

Uva Ursi: Native Americans would make a poultice of the leaves for sore muscles.  They would also mix the leaves with tobacco leaves and smoke the mixture to achieve the same relief of muscle pain.  This is an example of a medicine being delivered via inhalation through the respiratory tract.  There are many others Native American medicines that were administered in the same way.

Valerian: a strong astringent and clotting agent, the plant was used for treating wounds.

Wintergreen: Was used as a tea to treat joint pain and sore muscles.

Yarrow: Used as a tea to treat fever, stomach aches, and used as a poultice to treat burns, cuts, they would also chew the leaves to relieve a toothache. The plant also has salicylic acid, the active painkiller in aspirin.

My search for the medicinal practices of our Native American cultures taught me that it is a tradition that is rich in subtlety, and difficult to document.  The practices are even more difficult to understand – and more difficult still to communicate –  without an appreciation for the context within which their varied traditions and ceremonies took place. With the body of knowledge spread across hundreds of tribes, thousands of miles, and many years of unrecorded use, we will never know what has been lost to time and what could have been captured if a Sequoyah (the creator of the Cherokee syllabary or written language) had been born into every tribe.

Although similarities in approach can be seen across the various tribes, the differences are also clear, often relative to the lifestyles and needs of each specific region.  Differences were in no small part due to the medicinal properties of those plants native to specific regions as well.

As the tide of medical theory begins to swing back towards an approach that recognizes, and respects every aspect of the individual, medical science, and pharmacological research will undoubtedly continue to search for the science behind these highly regarded Native American traditions.

I leave you with a quote attributed to the Wabanaki Alonquin healer known as Big Thunder (Bedagi).  His words, though foreign to our modern way of thinking, convey a truth that the human spirit understands and is hard pressed to dismiss out of hand.  See if this doesn’t ring true:

“The Great Spirit is our father, but the earth is our mother. She nourishes us: that which we put into the ground she returns to us, and healing plants she gives to us likewise. If we are wounded, we go to our mother and seek to lay the wounded part against her, to be healed. Animals too do thus, they lay their wounds to the earth.”

There is just so much that we simply do not know.