Indian Medicine

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Medicine is an agent or influence employed to prevent, alleviate, or cure some pathological condition or its symptoms. The scope of such agents among the Indians was extensive, ranging, as among other primitive peoples, from magic, prayer, force of suggestion, and a multitude of symbolic and empirical means, to actual and more rationally used remedies. Where the Indians are in contact with whites the old methods of combating physical ills are slowly giving way to the curative agencies of civilization. The white man in turn has adopted from the Indians a number of valuable medicinal plants, such as cinchona, jalapa, hydrastis, etc.

In general the tribes show many similarities in regard to medicine, but the actual agents employed differ with the tribes and localities, as well as with individual healers. Magic, prayers, songs, exhortation, suggestion, ceremonies, fetishes, and certain specifics and mechanical processes are employed only by the medicine-men or medicine-women; other specific remedies or procedures are proprietary, generally among a few old women in the tribe; while many vegetal remedies and simple manipulations are of common knowledge in a given locality.

The employment of magic consists in opposing a supposed malign influence, such as that of a sorcerer, spirits of the dead, mythic animals, etc., by the supernatural power of the healer’s fetishes and other means. Prayers are addressed to benevolent deities and spirits, invoking their aid. Healing songs, consisting of prayers or exhortations, are sung. Harangues are directed to evil spirits supposed to cause the sickness, and often are accentuated by noises to frighten such spirits away. Suggestion is exercised in many ways directly and indirectly. Curative ceremonies usually combine all or most of the agencies mentioned. Some of them, such as Matthews describes among the Navaho, are very elaborate, prolonged, and costly. The fetishes used are peculiarly shaped stones or wooden objects, lightning-riven wood, feathers, claws, hair, figurines of mythic animals, representations of the sun, of lightning, etc, and are supposed to embody a mysterious power capable of preventing disease or of counteracting its effects. Mechanical means of curing consist of rubbing, Pressure with the hands or feet, or with a sash or cord (as in labor or in painful affections of the chest) bonesetting, cut sucking, cauterizing, scarifying, cupping (by sucking), blood-letting, poulticing, clysmata, sweat bath, sucking of snake poison or abscesses, counter irritation, tooth pulling, bandaging, etc. Dieting and total abstinence from food were forms of treatment in vogue in various localities. Vegetal medicines were, and in some tribes still are, numerous. Some of these are employed by reason of a real or fancied resemblance to the part affected, or as fetishes, because of a supposed mythical antagonism to the cause of the sickness. Thus, a plant with a worm-like stem may be given as a vermifuge; one that has many hair-like processes is used among the Hopi to cure baldness. Among the Apache the sacred tule pollen known as ha-dn-tin is given or applied because of its supposed supernatural beneficial effect. Other plants are employed as remedies simply for traditional reasons, without any formulated opinion as to their modes of action. Finally, all the tribes are familiar with and employ cathartics and emetics; in some cases also diaphoretics, diuretics, cough medicines, etc. Every tribe has also knowledge of some of the poisonous plants in its neighborhood and their antidotes.

The parts of plants used as medicines are most often roots, occasionally twigs, leaves, or bark, but rarely flowers or seeds. They are used either fresh or dry, and most commonly in the form of a decoction. Of this a considerable quantity, as much as a cupful, is administered at a time, usually in the morning. Only exceptionally is the dose repeated. Generally only a single plant is used, but among some Indians as many as four plants are combined in a single medicine; some of the Opata mix indiscriminately a large number of substances. The proprietary medicines are sold at a high price. Some of these plants, so far as they are known, possess real medicinal value, but many are quite useless for the purpose for which they are prescribed. There is a prevalent belief that the Indians are acquainted with valuable specifics for venereal diseases, snake bites, etc., but how far this belief may be true has not yet been shown.

Animal and mineral substances are also occasionally used as remedies. Among Southwestern tribes the bite of a snake is often treated by applying to the wound a portion of the ventral surface of the body of the same snake. The Papago use crickets as medicine; the Tarahumare, lizards; the Apache, spiders’ eggs. Among the Navaho and others red ocher combined with fat is used externally to prevent sunburn. The red, barren clay from beneath a campfire is used by White Mountain Apache women to induce sterility; the Hopi blow charcoal, ashes, or other products of fire on an inflamed surface to counteract the supposed fire which causes the ailment. Antiseptics are unknown, but some of the cleansing agents or healing powders employed probably serve as such, though undesignedly on the part of the Indians.

The exact manner of therapeutic action is as absolutely unknown to the Indian as it is to the ignorant white man. Among some tribes the term for medicine signifies “mystery,” but among others a distinction is made between thaumaturgic practices and actual medicines. Occasionally the term “medicine” is extended to a higher class of greatly prized fetishes that are supposed to be imbued with mysterious protective power over an individual or even over a tribe (see Orenda). Such objects form the principal contents of the so-called medicine-bags.

In many localities there was prepared on special occasions a tribal “medicine.” The Iroquois used such a remedy for healing wounds, and the Hopi still prepare one on the occasion of their Snake dance. Among the tribes who prepare tiswin, or tesvino, particularly the Apache, parts of a number of bitter, aromatic, and even poisonous plants, especially a species of datura, are added to the liquid to make it “stronger”; these are termed medicines.

The causation and the nature of disease being to the Indian in large part mysteries, he assigned them to supernatural agencies. In general, every illness that could not plainly be connected with a visible influence was regarded as the effect of an introduction into the body, by malevolent or offended supernatural beings or through sorcery practiced by an enemy, of noxious objects capable of producing and continuing pain or other symptoms, or of absorbing the patient’s vitality. These beliefs, and the more rational ones concerning many minor indispositions and injuries, led to the development of separate forms of treatment, and varieties of healers.

In every Indian tribe there were, and in some tribes still are, a number of men, and perhaps also a number of women, who were regarded as the possessors of supernatural powers that enabled them to recognize, antagonize, or cure disease; and there were others who were better acquainted with actual remedies than the average. These two classes were the “physicians.” They were oftentimes distinguished in designation and differed in influence over the people as well as in responsibilities. Among the Dakota one was called wakan witshasha, ‘mystery man’. the other pejihuta witshasha. ‘grass-root man’; among the Navaho one is khathali, ‘singer’, ‘chanter’, the other izéëlini, ‘maker of medicines’; among the Apache one is taiyin, ‘wonderful,’ the other simply izé, `medicine.’

The mystery man, or thaumaturgist, was believed to have obtained from the deities, usually through dreams, but sometimes before birth, powers of recognizing and removing the mysterious causes of disease. He was “given” appropriate songs or prayers, and became possessed of one or more powerful fetishes. He announced or exhibited these attributes, and after convincing his tribesmen that he possessed the proper requirements, was accepted as a healer. In some tribes he was called to treat all diseases, in others his functions were specialized, and his treatment was regarded as efficacious in only a certain line of affections. He was feared as well as respected. In numerous instances the medicine-man combined the functions of a shaman or priest with those of a healer, and thus exercised a great influence among his people. All priests were believed to possess some healing powers. Among most of the populous tribes the medicine-man of this class were associated in guilds or societies, and on special occasions performed great healing or “life (vitality) giving” ceremonies, which abounded in songs, prayers, ritual, and drama, and extended over a period of a few hours to nine days.

The ordinary procedure of the medicine-man was about as follows: He inquired into the symptoms, dreams, and transgressions of tabus of the patient, whom be examined, and then pronounced his opinion as to the nature (generally mythical) of the ailment. He then prayed, exhorted, or sang, the last, perhaps, to the accompaniment of a rattle; made passes with his hand, sometimes moistened with saliva, over the part affected; and finally placed his mouth over the most painful spot and sucked hard to extract their immediate principle of the illness. This result he apparently accomplished, often by means of sleight-of-hand, producing the offending cause in the shape of a thorn, pebble, hair, or other object, which was then thrown away or destroyed; finally he administered a mysterious powder or other tangible “medicine,” and perhaps left also a protective fetish. There were many variations of this method, according to the requirements of the case, and the medicine-man never failed to exercise as much mental influence as possible over his patient. For these services the healer was usually well compensated. If the case would not yield to the simpler treatment a healing ceremony might be resorted to. If all means failed, particularly in the case of internal diseases or of adolescents or younger adults, the medicine-man often suggested a witch or wizard as the cause, and the designation of some one as the culprit frequently placed his life in jeopardy. If the medicine-man lost several patients in succession, he himself might be suspected either of having been deprived of his supernatural power or of having become a sorcerer, the penalty for which was usually death.

These shaman healers as a rule were shrewd and experienced men; some were sincere, noble characters, worthy of respect; others were charlatans to a greater or less degree. They are still to, be found among the less civilized tribes, but are diminishing in number and losing their influence. Medicine-women of this class were found among the Apache and some other tribes.

The most accomplished of the medicine-men practiced also a primitive surgery, and aided, by external manipulation and otherwise, in difficult labor. The highest surgical achievement, undoubtedly practiced in part at least as a curative method, was trephining. This operation was of common occurrence and is still practiced in Peru, where it reached its highest development among American tribes. Trephining was also known in quite recent times among the Tarahumare of Chihuahua, but has never been found north of Mexico.

The other class of medicine men and women corresponds closely to the Herbalists and the old-fashioned rural midwives among white people. The women predominated. They formed no societies, were not so highly respected or so much feared as those of the other class, were not so well compensated, anal had less responsibility. In general they used much more common sense in their practice, were acquainted with the beneficial effects of sweating, poulticing, moxa, scarification, various manipulations and numerous vegetal remedies, such purgatives, emetics, etc. Some of these medicine-women were frequently summoned in cases of childbirth, and sometimes were of material assistance.
Besides these two chief classes healers there existed among some tribes large medicine societies, composed principally, of patients cured of serious ailments. This was particularly the case among the Pueblos. At Zuñi there still exist several such societies, whose members include the greater part of the tribe and whose organization and function are complex. The ordinary members are not actual healers, but are believed to be more competent to assist in the particular line of diseases which are the specialty of their society and therefore may be called by the actual medicine-men for assistance. They participate also in the ceremonies of their own society. See Anatomy, Health and Disease, Physiology.

For writings on the subject consult

  1. Hrdlicka, Physiological and Medical Observations, Bull. 33, B. A. E., 1907

MLA Source Citation:

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906. Web. 14 April 2014. - Last updated on Oct 15th, 2013

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