Traditional Native American Healing & Medicine: Living Naturally & Holistically

First Nation’s Belief System

While western medicine doesn’t understand the importance of the mind-body connection (the relationship between spirituality, mind, and body) and medicine, the Native American way of curing an illness relies on the concept that we are all one or connected – Mother Earth, humans, and Great Mystery (Spirit or God). Through this concept, when illness grabs hold of the human being, you are not just treated with tradtional medicine, but also, through spiritual, emotional, environmental and physical terms.

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If the world around the patient is out of balance, it is believed to conjure up illness and disharmony in life, especially in emotional and mental sickness. Relaxation or going within one’s self, and applying the techniques known for years, such as the sweat lodge, gives an opportunity to avoid the destructive lifestyle and to return to normal health.

The subject of medicines from the First Nations remains vast, expanding into the spiritual beliefs of not only Native American culture but of so many others who have taken on the belief that we are all one with Mother Earth and God. To cover the topic fully, the elements of herbs, spiritual outlook, connections between all living things, energy flow and other components of the human body, mind, and soul that affect our wellness need to be discussed as well. Although the discussion of these topics needs to occur to give a full explanation of Native American medicines, the basics of medicinal rituals and beliefs will be covered due to the expansive nature of the subject as a whole.

Healing Traditions

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Though history shows that Native American medicine is categorized as an indigenous healing tradition, more than 80% of the world’s populous can’t afford the western higher-tech medicines and procedures, so the use of indigenous traditions have begun to play a more important healthcare role. This has become so overwhelmingly true that the World Health Organization has recommended that the traditions and beliefs for treatment of patients be integrated into the healthcare policies and programs throughout the nation.

(Important Note: The herbal/plant medications listed below should not be used without the supervision of a trained herbalist or doctor. Improper use of these medications can be dangerous.)

To describe certain medications used outside of the spiritual rituals, many natural herbal remedies are, and have been, used through the years to assist tribal members in their healing.

  • For instance, catnip was boiled and used as a tea for infants suffering colic.
  • Diabetes could be assisted using of blossoms of the wild carrot. In addition, the root bark of the devil’s club plant to offset the effects of diabetes.
  • Diarrhea could be taken care of with blackberry roots, fermented black cherries, dogwood bark, geranium plant, white oak bark, black raspberry root bark and star grass leaves. Relief from dysentery, diarrhea and bleeding piles could also be found through these plants.
  • Dandelion and yellow root teas assist with the discomfort of digestive disorders.
  • Green hellebore, American hemp and dogbane can assist a patient through body pains, as heart medication, with kidney problems and for dropsy. The Menominee tribe treated piles or hemorrhoids using white oak.
  • The Fendler’s bladderpod, purple coneflower, stiff goldenrod, trumpet honeysuckle, wild onion and garlic, saltbush, broom, snakeweed, and tobacco are all used by various tribes to treat insect bites and stings.
  • Insect repellent and natural insecticides were concocted by pounding goldenseal roots into a mixture of bear fat. This mixture was also used as a tonic, stimulant and astringent.
  • Sedatives could be found in a form of wild black cherry root bark, boiled into a tea. The Mohegans used hops as a sedative medication. They would sometimes heat the blossoms and apply them on a toothache and the tea of strobiles would be used to relieve the pain of digestive organs by the Menominee tribe, as well. Wild lettuce could be used for nervousness and sedation needs.
  • Thrush was cured by the Cherokee nation by boiling geranium with wild grape and rinsing the mouths of children. Persimmon bark was boiled to use as a mouth rinse to help with the cure of thrush and to use as a precautionary measure against its return.

Injury, Pains & Aches

  • Backaches are a constant pain for some. Arnica root, made into a tea, was the solution for the Catawba Indians. NOTE: The Dispensary of the United States, 22nd edition, states the drug can be dangerous if taken internally or that it has caused severe and even fatal poisoning in some cases. The Native Americans used the root to soak sprains and bruises.
  • Gentian roots were steeped in hot water first, and then applied as a hot pack to the aching back. The Catawba crushed horsemint, steeping the leaves in a cold-water rinse, and then drinking it to stop back pain.
  • Burns could be healed by the yellow-spine thistle blossoms that were boiled and applied to the burn or skin sore.
  • Pennyroyal leaf tea is known to cure headaches.
  • Witch hazel leaves were boiled and the liquid was rubbed into the legs of the tribesmen that were playing in sporting games. The twigs of witch hazel were used to help pain in backs, and steam that is derived from them treats aching muscles.
  • Pokeweed berries reduced rheumatism pain. The root was also used to keep inflammation at bay. Bloodroot was also a tea that was used to help with rheumatism by the Indians of the Mississippi region.

Colds and Flu

  • Boneset tea was used as a home remedy during the last century to reduce fever, relieve stomachache, for body pain and fever and colds in various tribes.
  • The solution of gentian roots steeped in hot water was used to stop inflammation, and relieve chills and body aches.
  • Feverwort, willow and dogwood were given for the reduction of fevers and chills as well as to induce sweating.
  • Flu season saw the use of a tea made from the native hemlock by the Menominee. The Forest Potawatomi used it to induce sweating and to relieve colds and fever.

Women’s Medicines

To speed up childbirth, partridgeberry was found useful by the Cherokee in the form of boiled leaves made into a tea. The tea was ingested on a frequent basis to speed up the expected date of delivery. To promote a rapid delivery, the roots of the blue cohosh plant were drunk as tea several weeks preceding the delivery date.

During the delivery, if there was any hemorrhaging, the Hopi women were given a buckwheat plant to stop the bleeding. The black western chokeberry was given to the Arikara women who encountered this problem during childbirth. The smooth upland sumac fruits were applied as an external wash to stop the bleeding.

The Cherokee used wild black cherry through the childbirth process to relieve pain. The women were given a tea of inner bark to reduce the pain of early stage labor. Cotton plant roots were used by the Omaha by boiling them and given as a tea.

Indian paintbrush was a tea that the Hopi women drank to help “dry up the menstrual flow”. Chippewa women drank powdered blue cohosh root to promote menstruation. Many Navajo women drank a tea made of milkweed to help with healing after childbirth.

The Navajos used the ragleaf bahia herb as tea for contraception. The herb was boiled for thirty minutes before drinking. A tea of leaves from the American mistletoe plant was used to induce abortion or to prevent conception. Antelope sage helped with menstruation and stoneseed roots soaked in cold water could be drunk as a tea for six months and would ensure permanent sterility.

Respiratory Ailments

For bronchial inflammation, or bronchitis, a creosote bush was consumed as a tea. Pleurisy root was used as a tea as a remedy for pneumonia and later on as an expectorant. Boiling the leaves of local species of wormwood, was found by the Yokia Indians of Mendocino County to be an excellent cure for bronchitis.

Skunk cabbage carries properties to assist the stimulation of phlegm in asthma. The rootstock of this plant was in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1882, listed as a use for respiratory ailments, nervous disorders, rheumatism and dropsy. The Winnebago and Dakota tribes used it mainly as a medicinal plant.

Mullein was introduced by the Menominee, Forest Potawatomi, the Mohegan and the Penobscot tribes, who pulverized, and then smoked the dried root for respiratory ailments. The Catawba Indians used this root in a boiled fashion, removing sweetened syrup through the boiling process. Giving it to children, they found it helped with coughs, soothing the bronchial tract.

For coughs, the aspen, wild cherry, white pine and sarsaparilla bark and roots were used as teas for coughs andas well as colds and even lung trouble and diarrhea.

Native Healing

Along with other daily living rituals, the Native American tribes existed through their belief of everything being connected, and the concept of living off the land with the return of full respect of the blessings Mother Earth has extended to them. Replacing plants, trees and environmental needs is a large part of the respect these tribes have for the environment and the connection we all have with it. Even today, these practices are still taken seriously for those on or off reservations. The infusion of modern science has also played a large part in the healing medications taken today; however, those respecting their heritage, rely on the ways of old with a touch of the new.

Traditional native medicines consisting of natural elementals are just one gift the planet gives to its inhabitants. The need to return the favor is the lesson we can all learn through the Native American belief system. Hopefully, we learn sooner, rather than before it is too late.