With health concerns being in the news more and more these days, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at the average person’s state of health in the Native America of the past, as well as medicine, as defined by Native Americans, what it was — and medicine men — who were they? What did they do? And who were shamans?
Let’s begin with medicine. In Native America, medicine meant the great mystery. If one could cure the sick, that person had great medicine. If a man could go to war and come home alive, he had great medicine. Plants had medicine. Animals had medicine. And certain parts of nature had medicine. The word medicine did not mean a pill or even an herb or remedy. It meant simply that a man or a woman had a special connection with the great mystery or with the Creator. When the white man came with his boats and guns and various things that the Native Americans could not easily explain, the old time Indian called these things (not necessarily the person who used them — but the things used), medicine.
The Native Americans of North America enjoyed great health and a physcial beauty that would rival the most beautiful of the ancient Greeks. So writes George Catlin in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as Prince Maximillian and Bodner, Maximillian’s friend and artist, who travelled with the Prince to America. The Native Americans of the past had no processed food, and, depending on the tribe, they ate many things raw or dried. Many of the North American tribes were tall and firm of limb and body and as history tells us, a very handsome people.
Food, clean water and fresh air was their medicine. True, there were herbs that the medicine men & women might use to help their people, but a medicine man’s stock and trade was not merely in herbs alone. Indians of North America (before their diet was changed) were known for their straight teeth, which did not decay, even into old age in many cases. There was a saying with the settlers — “teeth as strong as an Indian’s.” There was little tooth decay, illness was not the norm amnong the people, and many of the diseases that plague us today were completely nonexistent. People lived (if they weren’t killed in wars) to a grand old age. There were many people who lived well into their hundreds, keeping hold of their facilities until death.
They lived in a land of beauty with fresh air, warm breezes, wholesome food and the love of family. So what did a medicine man (or shaman) do if presented with illness? Or physical problems due to injury? Well, I can’t say exactly, since I have not this lifetime been trained in the Native American way of medicine. I do, however, know this. The stock and trade of the medicine man was his ability to drive out the evil spirits which inhabited the sick person’s body. It was known by these men that illness was often caused by evil spirits that would make their way into a person’s body. So a medicine man’s cures often had to do with driving these spirits away. Thus, the rattles and drums of the medicine man.
How successful were these people? According to legend, they were fairly successful. While they didn’t keep statistics as we do today, their fame was only as good as they could cure those who were sick. While using herbs collected and dried, they never forgot that their aim was to rid the person of the evil spirit which had taken over a part of the person’s body.
On a final note, since whole foods were the basis of their “medicine,” let me take a moment to tell you about corn, as prepared by the Native Americans. The Iroquois built strong, tall and healthy bodies based on the three sisters, corn, beans and squash, with corn being their main staple. The diet was augmented with meat when it was available, but corn was their main diet.
However, it was a different kind of corn than what we know of it today. Our corn has been altered, and cross-bred and genetically modified until it is almost completely a carbohydrate. Not so Indian corn. The Indians knew that corn had to be soaked for days in lime water before it could be used as a food. Of course we know today that corn has many anti-nutrients — phytates — those things that protect the seed or grain, but are irritating and stressing to the human digestive system. Soaking the corn in lime did two things: 1) it got rid of the phytates or anti-nutrients in the grain, and 2) it changed the nutrition of the corn into a per protein with all the amino acids present. This tradition of soaking cornmeal or corn in lime before use is still with us in the southern part of the country — masa flour is often soaked in lime. And on this sort of diet, the Iroquois built a confederation that was so strong, that it influenced a whole generation of our forefathers, who saw in the Five Nations Confederation, an organization of government that permitted every individual in the nation freedom of mind, freedom of spirit and freedom of body.
Well, that’s it for today. So tell me, what do you think of the medicine’s stock and trade? What do you think of their main medicine — whole foods? If you had lived at that time, would you have taken the time to learn about their foods and how they prepared them?
I’d love to hear from you. And I should probably start letting you know, I have a new book coming out soon, called THE LAST WARRIOR. March 2008 is the release date and I just happen to have a graphic of the cover. So come on in and let’s talk.
THE LAST WARRIOR