Manataka American Indian Council






Remedies From

Native American Cultures

Liz Serflek

"Mike Spring, paralyzed from the waist... down and in constant pain, sailed  to the Azores and back. On his return, he confounded his TV interviewer with  the statement that the only way he was able to obtain relief from the pain  that continually racked his body was to press his back to an oak tree. This  simple and cost-free action would then afford him several hours of complete  relief and helped him to carry on in life. When asked for a scientific  explanation, Mr. Spring replied that he had none-- it simply worked! He had heard of  the treatment from an American Indian source and had been using it successfully  for years"  (Psychology of Healing- Murry Hope 89).

How can that possibly be? A tree curing backaches? He must have been taking some aspirin, too, many of us assume. It is not uncommon for a person in  Western culture to be thinking this way. We were raised with the belief that our  medical society largely based on chemical concoctions is powerful because it  has cures for everything from various cancers all the way down the list to  the common cold. Don't get me wrong, the medical profession is quite effective,  but for several generations, Native Americans have been using herbs to cure  aches and pains, and various other illnesses. Many of the herbs used by  Native Americans are the ones you can actually find in aspirin and other medications today. In fact, many ingredients used in various modern medications are  actually derived from Native American cultures. (

Herbal medicine is being reintroduced through various forms of alternative  medicine. Out on the market we see aromatherapy, acupuncture, herbology, and  many more forms of alternative medicine.

Herbology is a practice which seeks to heal people through a variety of herbal supplements. Howard Buckingham, a clinical herbalist that works with North  American herbs, comments that he "sees clients with arthritis, skin  problems, prostate, impotence and hormonal problems, menopause- a lot of different  ailments that people have....Taken in the right dosage and often in the right  combinations, herbs can help a person a great deal" (in Wolf 1). He further  discusses how people use herbs to help relieve the side affects they experience  through Western medical procedures.

Aromatherapy deals with various scents to change the mood of individuals.  Melinda Wolf comments that "In addition to candles and oils, consumers can  purchase soaps and shampoos that can be used to practice this alternative  medicine. Those who use this method say the scent can alter moods and enhance the  body, mind, and spirit" (1).  Aromatherapy is very powerful according to Mary  Emmons, a massage therapist in Wauwatosa, WI. "Different scents have different  effects.  Lavender helps bring peace and balance and has been known to help  ease respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis; basil helps stimulate  brain function; mandarin has a cheerful refreshing and inspiring effect in the  individual" (in Wolf 7).

Acupuncture, considered a form of alternative medicine in Western culture,  is considered mainstream in China. Acupuncture involves using needles to treat  a variety of ailments. Dr. Lizhi Wei of an acupuncture practice in  Shorewood, Wi reports it is used to treat "back and neck ailments, arthritis, anxiety,  headaches/migraines, indigestion, and even infertility" (in Wolf 8).

Through these various forms of alternative medicine, Native American beliefs  pertaining to nature and spirituality are being awakened in American  culture.

Why is alternative medicine becoming so popular? Are people starting to  doubt the effectiveness of Western medicine? Wolf notes that "In some instances,  individuals suffering from chronic ailments become disenchanted with Western  medicine's ability to help them cope with those ailments. In other instances,  individuals have chosen alternative methods to take a more proactive stance  on treating their ailments"  (1). Americans looking for new ways to cure  themselves from various illnesses may be finding that escaping from all the  technology and stress of the Western medical society makes it easier to deal with  their illness and to focus on getting better. Herbal remedies are not as  stressful and depressing as some medical techniques because the main focus is on  making peace with nature and the whole body, not just the place of illness.  According to the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), "Pharmaceutical drugs  are seen as over prescribed, expensive, and dangerous whereas herbal remedies  are seen as less expensive and less toxic" (185).

How exactly are alternative medicine and Western medicine related? in  Alfonso Ortiz and Richard Erdoes suggest that "Mysterious but real power dwells nature ( -- in  mountains, rivers, rocks, even pebbles. White people may consider them  inanimate objects, but to the Indian, they are enmeshed in the web of the  universe, pulsating with life and potent with medicine" (in Paula Gunn Allen 2).  Nature is the most important aspect of the universe in which humans only play a  part. That is why Native Americans spend a great deal of time restoring balance  and harmony with nature. Native Americans believe that the reason why a  person becomes ill is because the balance with nature has been disturbed. By  performing shamanic healing practices through various rituals, the Navajo Native  Americans believe they have solved their problems with the Gods and  Goddesses.

The Office of Alternative Medicine comments on two Navajo healing chants.  They cite that Holyway chants "are used to attract good, to cure, and to  repair" (98). They went on further to say that "Lifeway chants are used to treat  what westerners would call 'physical' injuries and accidents; such treatment  includes both restoring cosmological harmony and repairing trauma- by setting  broken bones, for example' (98). Beautyway is another Navajo healing chant not  mentioned by OAM. Beautyway is sung for aching feet, legs, arms, waist and  back, swollen ankles, mental confusion, and itching skin.

Much research on the healing rituals and herbal medicines of Native Americans has not been performed because the technology to test whether or not the  procedures work is not yet available. Tests for Western medicinal procedures  are the only kinds of tests available. Those testing procedures cannot examine  alternative healing methods because of the differences between the two  styles. Testing alternative methods require different types of tests. Although alternative  healing methods are not yet testable, Native Americans still claim that they  can cure ailments and diseases. Some of those ailments and diseases that  they claim to have healed are thyroid conditions, asthma, heart disease, and  cancer (OAM 99).  (

According to Dr. Zimmerman, Director of anthropology at the University of  South Dakota, Native Americans use poplar or bark to cure headaches.  These plants ( contain the ingredient salicin, which is found in aspirin ( (149). In addition, white willow  bark can be used to treat tumors, warts, cancers, calluses, and corns. It can  also be used to fight fever and to treat sore eyes (OAM 196). Zimmerman also  points out that Native American Indians believe that "chewing certain roots  helped to relieve sore throats and headaches, while teas made from various  plants eased indigestion" (111).

Several over- the - counter and prescription drugs contain ingredients such  as taxol, ergot, and vincristine, which were derived from Native American  medicinal herbs. The OAM reported that "cough drops that contain menthol, mint,  horehound, or lemons are herbal preparations;  chamomile and mint teas taken  for digestion or a nervous stomach are time- honored herbal remedies; and many  simple but effective OTC ache-and pain- relieving preparations on every  druggist's or grocer's shelf contain oils of camphor, menthol, or eucalyptus.  Millions of Americans greet the morning with their favorite herbal stimulant--  coffee" (185).

The Office of Alternative Medicine also listed a variety of Native American  medicinal herbs that can be found to treat many of the sameillnesses that  the medical profession treats with pharmaceuticals. I am only going to list a  few. Rabbit tobacco is used by Native Americans to treat colds, flu, asthma,  coughs, and pneumonia. To treat menstrual bleeding, diarrhea, sores, sprains,  swelling, and kidney problems including Bright's disease, Native Americans  use oak. Bloodroot has been used to heal uterine and other cancers, sore  throats, and chronic bronchitis. It has also been used as a pain reliever (196).

To treat stomach cramps, sores and wounds, tuberculosis, and colds and  coughs, Native American cultures use Wild Cherry. Cherry is a common ingredient  found in cough drops- a synthetic pharmaceutical. All pharmaceuticals contain  ingredients that are derived from nature, and many of the ingredients were  originated in Native American cultures.  The OAM supported this viewpoint when  they commented that "Well into the 20th century much of the pharmacopoeia of  scientific medicine was derived from the herbal lore of the native peoples"  (183).

If so many ingredients in pharmaceuticals contain herbs originated in Native  American culture, then why does the medical society denounce the Native  American healing methods?

Most Americans have forgotten or have never learned that our medical society  originated from Native American cultures. Our society has neglected the fact  that over- the- counter drugs and prescription drugs are derived from Native  American herbs. In the past doctors used to rely on Native American herbal  resources such as leaves, berries, trees, roots, twigs, barks, and flowers to  treat many illnesses (OAM 185). It was not until medical technology was  advancing and becoming popular that people began to lose touch with their herbal  heritage. 

Before medical technology was available, doctors relied on Native  American knowledge of nature to heal illnesses. When medical technology became  available, people started to depend heavily on the technology and seemed to  have forgotten about their roots ( in Native American cultures. People began to focus more  on advancing technology and to try improving the ways that medicine works,  that they forgot to thank the people who gave them their beginning knowledge:  the Native American Indians.

When discussing the differences in medical values between the Western  medical society and the Native American Indians, Candance Croft, a Psychology  professor at Clarke College, pointed out that Native Americans feel that if you  believe a certain remedy will work, then you will see it working. Western  medicine say that in order to believe a certain remedy works, they must first see  it working (personal interview). Croft went on further to note that the  medical society's focus is on "curing" people while the Native American's focus on  "healing" people. When Native American medicine men and women are healing  people, they are not only treating the illness such as a sore throat, for  example, but they are also healing the whole body. Native Americans believe that  the only way a person can be healed is if they can rid the body of the evil  that has fallen upon it. Paula Gunn Allen states that "Healers...must know the  spiritual causes of diseases, the spiritual condition of patients, and the  spirit that informs each plant and animal entity they use in treatment" (12).  Healers must also know the physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental state of  the patients as well (12). Gunn went on further to point out that "Native  healers don't apply the same medication or process to the same physical symptoms in different patients because they treat entire entities, whole persons, not  symptoms" (12). At the other extreme, the medical society uses identical  treatment techniques and medications on patients who share similar symptoms.  Furthermore, the medical society has far more advanced technology and  medications to help them treat patients. Native American healers use knowledge,  nature, and prayer to heal their patients.

Both Native American Indians and the medical society have similar types of  medicine, the two just use them in contrasting ways. The medical profession  uses strong manufactured pharmaceuticals while Native healers present their  herbs in the form of food to be eaten, teas, and poultices. Having specifically  calculated pharmaceuticals makes it easy for the medical society to  scientifically explain their medicine. Native healers, on the other hand, use their  own knowledge and their spiritual visions to formulate their mixtures. While  the commercially manufactured pharmaceuticals are sometimes more powerful, the  vast majority of herbal content is similar to the mixtures of Native healers.  In addition, native healers rely on their spirtual beliefs as well as their  own physical procedures to heal their patients. The medical society, on the  other hand, holds an objective belief in medicine.  Western medicine relies  completely on physical methods when curing their patients.




Submitted by Andre Cramblit,



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