Native Nations Medicine: Indigenous Healing in North America

indigenous healers jodynoe sage wintergreen women healers of the world May 29, 2024
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Excerpted from Holly's documentary book, Women Healers of the World: The Traditions, History and Geography of Herbal Medicine, now celebrating its 10-year anniversary through SkyHorse Publishing:

Today 566 tribal nations call the United States their home—and since each region fosters its own kind of healing using herbs and trees endemic to its area, the broad collection that is native healing is rich and vibrant. While it’s well known that native North and South American food plants such as corn, tomatoes, potatoes, cocoa, cranberries, ramps, juniper berries, squash and pumpkins were new to European settlers/invaders in 1492, it’s not so well-known that North America has its own abundant healing herbs, as well. 

Native Nation Herbalism

Throughout history, native nations have used wild herbs as medicine to treat a wide variety of conditions, from headache and sore eyes to heart problems, skin issues, digestive disturbances, cancers and more. Women’s reproductive issues are commonly listed in books about native medicines and many plants were given monikers referring to their use for women, such as squaw vine (Mitchella repens).

Native plants include the bayberry shrub; the berberine-containing plants barberry, goldenseal and coptis (goldthread); black cohosh and blue cohosh; bugleweed; boneset; chicory and dandelion; and the food plants cranberry and lamb’s quarter. In addition to a myriad of edible and medicinal mushrooms, native people harvested bloodroot and other herbs to use as dyes and paints, and they used many grasses and barks for cordage and rope-making.

Sassafras was a popular herb when Captain Bartholomew Gosnold sailed the northeast seas in the late 1500s and early 1600s; its name is likely a corruption of saxifrage and the root was quickly shipped back to Europe as a potential cure for syphilis. The fragrant roots, twigs, bark, pith, and leaves of the tree were used by native tribes to treat fever, infection, nosebleeds, and to purify the blood.

Native healing methods are not restricted to botanicals; some tribes use fasting or cleanses before taking medicines, others include extensive prayer and spiritual shamanism. The sweat lodge is not only a place for stories and singing but is a vital instrument for healing since letting go of waste products from the body and soul is required before healing can begin. Certain herbs are associated with this cleansing, as well, including sage, tobacco, cedar and sweetgrass.

Healing methods in the native Indian repertoire were more extensive than in European medicine; for example, one common way to relieve chest congestion was to inhale the smoke of burning herbs through a pipe; crushed leaves could be used as a snuff for headaches. These types of methods were seldom employed in other Western systems.  Native medicine also included the widespread use of poultices, teas, rinses (eye problems were common), douches, and ointments.

Today there are roughly 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska natives living in the U.S., which represents 1.7% of the U.S. total population.1 By far the largest tribal grouping is the Cherokee, followed by the Navajo, Choctaw, Mexican American Indian, Chippewa, Sioux, Apache, and Blackfeet.

To read more about this and16 other incredible world healing and health traditions, see the book Women Healers of the World, available here, now celebrating its 10-year publication anniversary.

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