Cherokee Medical Practice

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Taking the Dispensatory as the standard, and assuming that this list is a fair epitome of what the Cherokees know concerning the medical properties of plants, we find that five plants, or 25 per cent of the whole number, are correctly used; twelve, or 60 per cent, are presumably either worthless or incorrectly used, and three plants, or 15 per cent, are so used that it is difficult to say whether they are of any benefit or not. Granting that two of these three produce good results as used by the Indians, we should have 35 per cent, or about one-third of the whole, as the proportion actually possessing medical virtues, while the remaining two-thirds are inert, if not positively injurious. It is not probable that a larger number of examples would change the proportion to any appreciable extent. A number of herbs used in connection with these principal plants may probably be set down as worthless, inasmuch as they are not named in the Dispensatory.

The results here arrived at will doubtless be a surprise to those persons who hold that an Indian must necessarily be a good doctor, and that the medicine man or conjurer, with his theories of ghosts, witches, and revengeful animals, knows more about the properties of plants and the cure of disease than does the trained botanist or physician who has devoted a lifetime of study to the patient investigation of his specialty, with all the accumulated information contained in the works of his predecessors to build upon, and with all the light thrown upon his pathway by the discoveries of modern science. It is absurd to suppose that the savage, a child in intellect, has reached a higher development in any branch of science than has been attained by the civilized man, the product of long ages of intellectual growth. It would be as unreasonable to suppose that the Indian could be entirely ignorant of the medicinal properties of plants, living as he did in the open air in close communion with nature; but neither in accuracy nor extent can his knowledge be compared for a moment with that of the trained student working upon scientific principles.

Cherokee medicine is an empiric development of the fetich idea. For a disease caused by the rabbit the antidote must be a plant called “rabbit’s food,” “rabbit’s ear,” or “rabbit’s tail;” for snake dreams the plant used is “snake’s tooth;” for worms a plant resembling a worm in appearance, and for inflamed eyes a flower having the appearance and name of “deer’s eye.” A yellow root must be good when the patient vomits yellow bile, and a black one when dark circles come about his eyes, and in each case the disease and the plant alike are named from the color. A decoction of burs must be a cure for forgetfulness, for there is nothing else that will stick like a bur; and a decoction of the wiry roots of the “devil’s shoestrings” must be an efficacious wash to toughen the ballplayer’s muscles, for they are almost strong enough to stop the plowshare in the furrow. It must be evident that under such a system the failures must far outnumber the cures, yet it is not so long since half our own medical practice was based upon the same idea of correspondences, for the mediæval physicians taught that similia similibus curantur, and have we not all heard that “the hair of the dog will cure the bite?”

Their ignorance of the true medical principles involved is shown by the regulations prescribed for the patient. With the exception of the fasting, no sanitary precautions are taken to aid in the recovery of the sick man or to contribute to his comfort. Even the fasting is as much religious as sanative, for in most cases where it is prescribed the doctor also must abstain from food until sunset, just as in the Catholic church both priest and communicants remain fasting from midnight until after the celebration of the divine mysteries. As the Indian cuisine is extremely limited, no delicate or appetizing dishes are prepared for the patient, who partakes of the same heavy, sodden cornmeal dumplings and bean bread which form his principal food in health. In most cases certain kinds of food are prohibited, such as squirrel meat, fish, turkey, etc.; but the reason is not that such food is considered deleterious to health, as we understand it, but because of some fanciful connection with the disease spirit. Thus if squirrels have caused the illness the patient must not eat squirrel meat. If the disease be rheumatism, he must not eat the leg of any animal, because the limbs are generally the seat of this malady. Lye, salt, and hot food are always forbidden when there is any prohibition at all; but here again, in nine cases out of ten, the regulation, instead of being beneficial, serves only to add to his discomfort. Lye enters into almost all the food preparations of the Cherokees, the alkaline potash taking the place of salt, which is seldom used among them, having been introduced by the whites. Their bean and chestnut bread, cornmeal dumplings, hominy, and gruel are all boiled in a pot, all contain lye, and are all, excepting the last, served up hot from the fire. When cold their bread is about as hard and tasteless as a lump of yesterday’s dough, and to condemn a sick man to a diet of such dyspeptic food, eaten cold without even a pinch of salt to give it a relish, would seem to be sufficient to kill him without any further aid from the doctor. The salt or lye so strictly prohibited is really a tonic and appetizer, and in many diseases acts with curative effect. So much for the health regimen.

In serious cases the patient is secluded and no strangers are allowed to enter the house. On first thought this would appear to be a genuine sanitary precaution for the purpose of securing rest and quiet to the sick man. Such, however, is not the case. The necessity for quiet has probably never occurred to the Cherokee doctor, and this regulation is intended simply to prevent any direct or indirect contact with a woman in a pregnant or menstrual condition. Among all primitive nations, including the ancient Hebrews, we find an elaborate code of rules in regard to the conduct and treatment of women on arriving at the age of puberty, during pregnancy and the menstrual periods, and at childbirth. Among the Cherokees the presence of a woman under any of these conditions, or even the presence of any one who has come from a house where such a woman resides, is considered to neutralize all the effects of the doctor’s treatment. For this reason all women, excepting those of the household, are excluded. A man is forbidden to enter, because he may have had intercourse with a tabued woman, or may have come in contact with her in some other way; and children also are shut out, because they may have come from a cabin where dwells a woman subject to exclusion. What is supposed to be the effect of the presence of a menstrual woman in the family of the patient is not clear; but judging from analogous customs in other tribes and from rules still enforced among the Cherokees, notwithstanding their long contact with the whites, it seems probable that in former times the patient was removed to a smaller house or temporary bark lodge built for his accommodation whenever the tabu as to women was prescribed by the doctor. Some of the old men assert that in former times sick persons were removed to the public townhouse, where they remained under the care of the doctors until they either recovered or died. A curious instance of this prohibition is given in the second Didûnle´ski (rheumatism) formula from the Gahuni manuscript, where the patient is required to abstain from touching a squirrel, a dog, a cat, a mountain trout, or a woman, and must also have a chair appropriated to his use alone during the four days that he is under treatment.

In cases of the children’s disease known as Gûnwani´gista´i (see formulas) it is forbidden to carry the child outdoors, but this is not to procure rest for the little one, or to guard against exposure to cold air, but because the birds send this disease, and should a bird chance to be flying by overhead at the moment the napping of its wings would fan the disease back into the body of the patient.



MLA Source Citation:

Mooney, James. Sacred Formulas Of The Cherokees. Published in the Seventh Annual Report, Bureau of Ethnology, pp. 301-399. 1886. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 20 October 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/cherokee-medical-practice.htm - Last updated on Jun 11th, 2013


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