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.

The Meaning of a Father’s Goodbye

In Chapter 30, entitled The Parting, Sunlei’s family is gathered in the Shawnee encampment just outside Tuchareegee to say goodbye to her as they turn her over to Seven Arrows.  Those of you who have read the book will recall that the price demanded by Chief Yellow Robe of the South Fork Shawnee for the loss of the tribe’s six young braves is the marriage of Seven Arrows, his only remaining son, to Sunlei-Awi, Tyoga Weathersby’s true love.  It is through their union, Yellow Robe supposes, that the six lives lost will be replaced.

Here is how I describe Sunlei’s parting with her father, Nine Moons:

Nine Moons took his daughter into his arms as he had done a thousand times before. Her head fit under his chin. He gazed off into the distance. “When you were but my baby girl, we would sit together beside our lodge fire long into the night. We would speak of many things,” he softly whispered into his daughter’s ear.

“Yes, Adoda. I remember,” Sunlei replied.

“One of your favorite stories was that of the firefly,” he continued. “Do you remember?”

Sunlei smiled.

“Aukawak, the firefly glows in the night hoping to attract the perfect mate. Flying over the calm, cool waters of Silver Shore pond, she flashes and flashes her beautiful light, hoping to find a mate with the biggest and brightest light of all. After many hours of searching for the one firefly whose light equals the brilliance of her own, she sees on the opposite shore the most glorious flashing firefly she has ever seen. The brightness of the light is illuminating the darkness of the night, and she is certain that he is calling her name. She flies toward him, and his light is getting closer to her. It seems as though they have found one another.”

“But he never makes it across the pond to her,” Sunlei interrupted him.

“That’s right, Little One. The light that he cast was also seen by the pond’s biggest fish. He became a meal before he could become a husband. They would have had many beautiful babies.”

Nine Moons stopped as he felt his daughter begin to shake with the effort to stay strong. He kissed her on the top of her head and continued.

“Do you remember the lesson of the story’s ending, my Little One?” he asked.

“Yes, Father,” she said. “Aukawak’s light does not go out at the loss of her chosen one. She continues to glow until she finds another. Her light never goes out.”

For readers of the Legend of Tyoga Weathersby, this passage isn’t too cryptic. But my intent here was to have the reader think beyond the readily apparent meaning of the tale of Aukawak and consider the lessons to be learned in terms of their own lives.  Aukawak is searching to find what she supposes will be her one true love – the brightest light shining in the darkness.  Her potential mate, located across the pond, is flashing his most brilliant display hoping beyond hope that amidst the millions of other flashing male fire flys – his light will be noticed.  It is noticed, but not only by Aukawak but also by “the biggest fish in the pond.”  Before he can make it across the pond to Aukawak, he is consumed by the fish.  His demise leaves Aukawak available for another male “flasher” that is perhaps beaming his light a tiny bit less bright.

Aside from the obvious parallels to the circumstances in which the main characters find themselves, there are hidden messages told from the characters’ perspectives – Aukawak (Sunlei), the potential flashy mate (Tyoga), and the ponds big fish (Seven Arrows) – that have relevance for us today:

  1. Searching for the “flashiest” fire fly may not be the wisest move.  Ostentatious displays rarely augur the qualities associated with the kind of quality relationship after which most are seeking. So while we may be attracted to the most handsome, hunky guy, or the most beautiful, sexy woman in the room, perhaps that is not where our true happiness lies.  Those that flash less brightly are usually the better catch.
  2. While being the brightest, flashiest fire fly in the night attracts a great deal of attention, the attention thus garnered may come from an unwelcome source.  There is always someone bigger, stronger, smarter, more aggressive and ultimately “better” than even the flashiest man, woman or fire fly.  My mother used to say, “It is the empty wagon that rattles the most.”  So listen rather than speak.  Reflect rather than react.  Better to flash less and let the big fish make a meal out of another.
  3. Sometimes it seems as though circumstances conspire to ensure an outcome that is unanticipated – and unwelcome.  Aukawak sees him.  He sees her.  He begins to cross the pond to be by her side.  WHAM!! He’s sliding down the gullet of an eight-pound bass.  Doesn’t seem fair, does it?  But here the reader has to keep in mind the central tenant of the Promise:  All things happen exactly as they were meant to be.  While it is difficult for us to see why events unfold as they do – the end result is always – always – in keeping with the grand design.  Questioning why is an exercise in futility.  It is – because it was meant to be.  The right or wrong of it is a purely human construct that – in the end – is of no importance at all.
  4. Lost love should never cause us to give up.  There are literally millions of people in the world with which we could forge a loving, committed relationship.  That we are with the person we are with is simply a coincidence of time and space.  A new love will always come along.  It will be different – for we only have the capacity to love a single person in a singular way – but it will be love just the same.  Broken hearts mend.  But they are never the same.  They shouldn’t be.  The scars we carry make us who – and what – we are as living, caring, feeling beings.  We think that a broken heart is unique to the human species.  I think this is a terribly misguided notion.  My dog, Dexter, still lies down next to where he used to sit beside my mother as she brushed his coat and snuck him little doggy treats.  His eyes tell us how much he misses her.

Astute readers will remember that the Awkawak story comes into play later in the book. Sunlei’s life is saved by Nine Moon’s recounting of this tale as he kisses his daughter goodbye for the final time. He knows that he will never see her again, and his final words ultimately give her the strength and courage to carry on.  When Sunlei is sitting on the log by the fire the first night in camp with the Shawnee – just before she is to taken by Seven Arrows – she sees a knife embedded in the log just out of reach.  She plays out in her mind the consequences of taking her own life.  She is shocked back to reality by the cry of a solitary crow.  The sound is AUKAAWWW.  At first, she thinks that it is her father whispering the word “Awkawak” in her ear.  So I used a little sound imagery to remind the reader that if you listen carefully to nature, she will always guide you in the right direction.  She speaks to us just as a parent whispering in our ear.  There is a reason we call her MOTHER Nature.