Medicine, Medicine Men & Shamans

horseheader1.jpeGood morning!

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.

native-americans.jpgThe 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.

july06-yukon-photo-4.jpgThey 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.



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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
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20 thoughts on “Medicine, Medicine Men & Shamans”

  1. Wow Karen. I think this is all very fascinating and I would definitely have wanted to learn about their foods and preparation back then, just as I love learning about it now.

    Just imagine if the settlers had taken to using the same type of diet. Imagine if they’d understood the importance of these things in the Native Americans lives and had applied them to their own. There would have been less sickness and stronger people.

    Oh and I have to agree with Cheryl on the last warrior! My my my!!! (which by the way has been on my amazon wish list for a while, to get when it comes out.)

    I did finish Red Hawk’s Woman a little while back and thoroughly enjoyed it. {{hugs}} Thanks for sharing this wonderful info today!

  2. hi Kay. Yes this is amazing stuff. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. When I taught American Lit, we studied the Iroquois constitution and its influence on our own…and the dreadful arrival Old World disease. Just today’s paper noted that Columbus’ crew probably brought syphilis to the New World… as well as the small pox that decimated the tribes they encountered. I get a real theme of preventative medicine in your post. I confess to loving Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, and how she got her name. (P.s. I loved Red Hawk too and now looks like I have another great read ahead!.) Hugs…

  3. Hi Taryn!

    Thank you so much for your thoughts. I know that you know much about Native America, as well. Yes, I agree with you on what it would have been like if the settlers had gained and used some of this knowledge. Of course, we really did gain quite a bit from Native America — but I think our history of today has perhaps lost its way as far as our roots.

    And thank you so much for your compliments on RED HAWK’S WOMAN. This new book, THE LAST WARRIOR, is the last in this series. : )

    Thanks again, Tanya!

  4. Hi Tanya!

    I feel so honored that both you and Taryn are complimenting me on the book. I know that you both are incredible authors and so this goes right to my heart.

    Yes, the diseases really played havoc with the Native Americans and of course we pretty much know about Amherst and his using biochemical warfare 1750’s style. It was Amherst, wasn’t it?

    What we don’t learn from our history books, however, and I so wish this would change, is how much we really did learn from the Indias. Our own Constitution is based on much we learned from the Iroquois. Our foods, corn, squash, dried meats, maple sugar, etc. are from Native America. The very way in which we view our freedoms — that the individual is free to think, to act and to do, comes directly from Native America and has little to do with Europe, which was under the thumb of “The Devine Right of Kings.” Our scouts — the boy scouts particularly, come directly from the scouts of the Plains Indians.

    There’s probably alot more that I’m not mentioning, but the thing that has always impressed me the most is that our own conception of freedom has a long tradition from Native America.

    Thanks so much for your post.

  5. What a great post. Thanks for sharing all the info on what medicine really meant to the Indians. From reading some of your work, I’ve gathered that the Indian people had a beauty and oneness with nature in the way they lived. Something we could all learn from.

    I think every culture has its special gifts, if you look for them. The Indians certainly had theirs.

  6. I find it all very fascinating. The processed food and pretty much everything else we eat today is killing us. My mom lived on a farm and is 85 and healthier than me. I love hearing about Indian traditions and the ways they lived. Too bad the Puritans didn’t learn more of their ways. I think we’d be a lot better off! Love the cover!!!

  7. Karen, I was entralled by all the information you put into your post. I never knew that corn was so different back in the early days and that a person had to soak it in lime! Dumb me thought it was always the way it is now. I should’ve known. Probably few foods today are the same as they once were though. For some reason we always want to tinker with things and change them, thinking we can make them better. And usually it ends up making things worse. So many people are ill.

    My sister has a set of Medicine cards. They’re like Tarot but use animals instead. She did a spread for me and I found out the guardian of my dream world is the buffalo. So that’s good medicine for me.

    Thanks for such a great post! Have a wonderful day, Filly sister. 🙂

  8. Hi Ava!

    Thanks so much for coming here today and for posting! Yes, all cultures have so much to be proud of — but of course I am so much into the Indian culture and so want to announce loudly how much they gave our current culture. : )

    Have a super day!

  9. Hi Jeanne!

    Yes, I think the processed food is really killing us — with it being genetically modifed (not just cross bred), and all the nutrients drained from it (and then pumped back into it in the form of chemicals) and now they’ve just approved cloned meats.

    Goodness! What is as rare as fresh air, good water and sunshine?

    You made some very good points.

  10. Hi Linda!

    Isn’t it interesting? I’m so amazed sometimes that I’ve lived to be as old as I am without knowing some of these things — like how to make corn a complete protein. I think when we became industrialized, we gained much. But I also think we lost some very valuable information and ways of life, as well.

    A buffalo, huh? Wow! As you know the buffalo was very sacred to the Plains tribes.

    Have a super day, my filly sister.

  11. Karen,
    Your invitation to come chat about “medicine” is so timely. I’m a physician, and initially talking about conventional western medicine came to mind, but once I saw your blog, I knew it would be a different approach. However, about 6 months ago I changed my diet to whole, organic foods. I lost 50 pounds and when people ask how, in a few words I say no sugar, no bread and NO CORN. Isn’t it amazing what we have done to corn? I always thought corn was good stuff, but now I steer clear. And steering clear of corn means steering clear of beef as well, because our cows are basically converted corn.

    I really appreciate your insight into “medicine.” Even though I’m an orthopedic surgeon, and what I do frequently involves the knife, I spend a lot of time in the office talking to my patients about their diets and their state of mind. I try to convince as many of them as possible to cure themselves with exercise, diet, stretching and activity modifications…”medicine” not medicine. But in our western culture we have come to associate the doctor with pills and surgery and quick fixes.

    Thanks for inviting me to join you today.

    Barbara Bergin
    author of “Endings”

  12. I forgot to add. . .I wish you a bundle of success with “The Last Warrior.” I know it’s a keeper. You have such a gift for storytelling. And if that cover doesn’t sell a lot of copies I’ll eat my hat! He’s hot.

  13. Great post, Karen. Really interesting. Corn is now pure sugar isn’t it, like corn syrup and the basic sweetener in so many processed foods.
    I read an article about straight teeth once and it said that crooked teeth are a product of intermarriage, as in Swedish teeth in German jaws and Italian teeth in Comanche jaws and Korean teeth in …whatever. That the basic structure of a body is more specialized to each particular group of people than anyone realizes. But because jawlines don’t have a noticable difference one to the other, and because people have intermarried over and over no one quite knows what the original make-up of a skull or jaw or tooth size is anymore.
    I also heard that if you would find a really ancient jaw bone, like cave men, that jaw would have all it’s teeth intact. Before more modern food there just wasn’t tooth decay.
    I think I’ll go on an organic diet too. Let me guess…No more Twinkies, right?
    Not even Diet Coke? Is there organic Diet Coke?
    Okay, gonna have to think about this.

  14. This is a very interesting blog. I would have loved to be able to learn about the foods the Native Americans prepared and ate.
    Just put The Last Warrior on my ToBuy list.

  15. Great post, Karen! Terrific information and so interesting. I think your cover is oh so handsomely done, too. Great success on “The Last Warrior.” I know it’ll be a hit. Phyliss

  16. Hi Karen,

    A little late, but I loved your blog about whole foods. Here in California there’s a move to eat more wholesome foods nowadays, a bit late, but you know what they say, better late than never!

    I never heard the saying, “teeth as strong as an Indian’s”. I learn something from you every time you post!! Thanks for such an insightful blog today.

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