Native American Medicine

Good 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.  The picture to the right is a painting by George Catlin of a medicine man.

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.    Don’t forget to pick up your copy of SENECA SURRENDER or BLACK EAGLE today!

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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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25 thoughts on “Native American Medicine”

  1. Very interesting post. As someone who is allergic to today’s corn, I found the food info especially interesting.

    I have read about pioneers who knew enough to adapt customs, food prep, herbs from the Native Americans. They often did better than those who thought they knew better about the land. I would have been in the “what can I learn?” category. That is why my husband and I, when we travel, always go where the locals tell us to eat!

    Alternative medicines now include herbal remedies that have been around for centuries. We are going back to practices that used to work which involved a more holistic approach. The mind is being considered in treatment for illness as well as the bodily symptoms.

    And how often have we been told fresh air and exercise are the best for us?

    It is sad that the things that killed so many people were diseases introduced by the settlers. Today it is disease resistant bacteria, new viruses, new poisons which attack all of us. Again, folks research ancient ways to attack these new problems.

    Okay, better stop this essay. Thanks again.

    Peace, Julie

  2. Hi Kay,

    What a great eye-opener! Who knew corn was so healthy? My doctor tells me to “run away” from it since I have diabetes, but of course, as you say, it’s totally different now than it was then.

    One of my writing students is an elderly Choctaw woman–she tells the story of going to a medicine man when she had terrible back pain and his treatment of warm stones on her back. He “spit out” the bad spirits, and when he was done, her pain was completely gone and has not come back since. Very interesting. I would love to talk with him, but he’s a bit reclusive.

    I loved your post, as always–so informative!


  3. Good Morning, Great info about the corn. If I had lived back then, I would have had to take the time to prepare all these things. We don’t ‘have time’ now adays because we think we are very busy. But we have to remember that the Natives had all the time they needed. I live in the high desert and use the sage for many things. Since there are hundreds of varieties of this plant you have to have some knowledge of which does what. But using one particular type to rinse your hair after washing is THE BEST. Takes all the ugly stuff out of your hair and really makes it soft.
    The California Indians learned (somehow) to cleanse the acorn before eating it. It can be poisonous if not taken through this process. If you have never tssted Acorn, you should–it was used like Grits is used in the South. A side dish and a thickener. Don’t you ever wonder who the first one was to do a particular thing, like cook and eat a turkey???? Crab???

  4. I remember in Louis L’Amour books, he’d say people who lived in the mountains and in remote areas wouldn’t get infections from cuts like they did in settled areas.

    So, like tetanus from a cut? What is tetanus anyway? Does it have to come from somewhere? Is it part and parcel of the metal or rust?

    It seems like if you lived in a place with little disease and fairly minimal contact outside your tribe, then there would be nothing to catch.

  5. Hi Julie!

    Like you I have allergies to different things and so I have to watch it. Like you, also, I go for the more natural, holistic approach. I figure the creature of the world in which we live had more data and more information than our “life scientists.” And these new GMO’s that they are introducing into the wild are creating problems we’ve never had to face or deal with on this planet.

    So much for playing God. But I so agree with you on the more natural, holistic approach. We would like to think that our medical practices “know it all,” but again, they are not the creators of this world and I’m certain there are things (even in all their wisdom) that are strange and new and not known to them. Otherwise, I think their rate of cure would be better.

    Right now it’s not very good — they talk about dealing with the problem — not curing it — big difference. In the old days, one talked about cures, not managing the symptoms. 🙂

  6. Hi Mary J!

    Yes. Yes. The California Indians put those acorns through a big process of water and rinsing, etc. I once watched the process or at least was told about the whole process. But here’s something interesting.

    In the old days, did you know that our grains were mostly fermented? Seeds, nuts, grains, beans — all soaked and fermented. I even remember as a child reading the package of beans and reading that they should be soaked for at least a day before eating and that the water should be discarded.

    Modern technology destroyed most of this knowledge — but if you think about it, there’s a reason. All grains, nuts, seeds, beans contain anti-nutrients (phytates) that keep the seed from sprouting until ready to grow. That’s why cows and that sort of animal have 3 different stomachs in order to digest these properly.

    But we have only one stomach. So in the old days these things were always soaked and usually sprouted and fermented before ever cooking them or eating them — cooking doesn’t destroy the anti-nutrients.

    We lost much when the industrial age came in and took over, I’m afraid.

  7. Hi Cheryl!

    Yeah, if one soaks that corn in wood ash or what I do is soak it in lime water — not the fruit, bu the mineral — you can get this as pickling something or other — can’t remember the exact name of it — what you use when making pickles — and soak that overnight or for at least 7 hours — then that changes the amino acid content of the corn — but never use GMO corn — always organic — and most of the corn nowadays is GMO — although I don’t think they have made blue corn into GMO yet. GMO’s — well, no one knows what they do or will do to people. So far the test results on mice and cows isn’t good — so don’t use GMO corn as I don’t know what that would do.

    Anyway, yes, how to get a protein when there is no ready meat available. 🙂

  8. i TOTALLY agree that whole foods and lifestyle is the number one factor in health
    so many people think diseases are genetic…but studies have proved over and over it’s not genetics–but lifestyle
    if you move traditional -remotely living-chinese (or another population with low rates of disease) who are very healthy to the united states to eat and live as our culture does their rate of cancers and disease goes from almost none to the same as the rest of us in one generation….
    so though you may have cancer in your family–it’s really your lifestyle that’s triggering it and not genetics
    we eat so much garbage these days are body can hardly recognize it as food
    many doctors have shown how cancers and heart disease, diabetes, etc can be reversed with a healthy whole foods diet
    it’s just no one wants to admit their health lies in their own hands and take the steps to live healthfully–it’s hard in today’s culture

    i would love to live as the native americans did–i would miss some of the modern amenities….but i bet i would feel really good and be happy with very little

    kay, have you made/ate corn the way the native amercian people did?
    i’m with you and all the gmo’s…it’s a quick fix for now but i think will end up leading to problems larger than anyone can imagine
    i have a great local farm that preserves and sells heirloom seeds and it’s all i grow in my garden…i have some popcorn this year…but my sweet corn cross pollinated with the popcorn and was a disaster…oh i have a lot to learn 🙂
    thanks for another great post!

    ps–i agree that good medicine is as much mental as physical in most cases
    it’s amazing how our minds affect our physical body

  9. Hi Karen,
    Wow! What an interesting post.I didn’t know all that stuff about corn. I bet those early Indians wouldn’t recognize what passes for food today. I can’t remember the last time I had a good watermelon or even a good peach.

  10. Lots to think about here, Kay. Was just listening to a radio program in my car about how stress is directly or indirectly responsible for most doctor visits these days.
    If the shamans could get rid of stress (in the form of evil spirits), it makes sense that their medicine would work.
    As for whole foods – absolutely agree with you, we eat so much garbage. I am trying to do better here, but don’t always succeed. Thanks for a great post.

  11. Hi Kay, another fascinating look at history! Love it, love Adam of course. I love corn, beans and squash so that diet totally appeals to me…but I guess the corn on the cob we had last night wasn’t that good. Yikes, I love it.

    Like Elizabeth, I try to do better. oxoxox

    Thanks for all of this!

  12. So many good topics from this one blog. In some respects you could probably exchange the word medicine for magic. Although not when it came to their herbs. High fructose corn syrup – the current no. 1 enemy to our health. We sure have ruined corn. And I’m guessing it helped their teeth that they weren’t eating surgary foods. And like you said, what they ate was natural and healthy and pretty much, none of our food is that way any more. Big is not better. The bottom line anymore is to make more and make the biggest profits. Eggs anyone?

  13. Thanks for another informative post. The health problems this nation is plagued with today have a lot to do with our reliance on overly processed foods. What makes no sense is having to pay more for foods that have had less done to them.. Because of the way most of us live our lives, it is much easier to grab what you can or fix something quickly. It takes a little more thought to use whole grains, but once you make it part of your routine along with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, it isn’t any harder. It is a matter of getting the other stuff out of the house and using the good, nutritious stuff.

    If you go back even to the 1950’s and 1960’s, we ate better in some ways – less processed foods, but more butter and other fats. People were less likely to stuff themselves. Kids played outside and got lots of exercise. You only sat around the house if the weather was bad or in the evenings when you might watch a TV show or two. The air was not yet so polluted. I think those times were much healthier and closer to the old ways than they are to today’s way of life.

    We all have our own magic. We either acknowledge it and nurture it, or ignore the gift and lose what it can add to our lives. The really lucky people are those who can tap into that magic to help themselves and others.

    Have a great week.

  14. What a great post Karen. It is a shame that all of that medicinal knowledge has not been passed on to our generation from the Native people who were here before us. If we did, we might not even need hmo’s and ppo’s!
    The information about the corn was facinating. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Wow Tabitha!

    What a great post you put on the comments section. Wow! I agree with you on all you said. I do believe that our health is in our own hands — I don’t think it really can be any other way. Have you ever read Weston A. Price? I think you’d really like the book because he says much the same thing — you take someone disease free and such and have them eat the modern diet and it doesn’t even take one generation to see the results — he took pictures to show what happens.

    Interesting. His book is slightly dry — but filled with good information. 🙂

  16. Yes, Margaret — I bet you’re right — they probably wouldn’t even recognize it. Luckily we do still have organic produce, but our soil is so depleted that even those don’t taste like they used to.

  17. Hi Elizabeth!

    Must admit that I’ve taken on a project each weekend, where I prepare food for the week ahead. After reading so much about GMO’s and foods and such, I can’t even force myself to eat something that isn’t whole and/or organic and something I fixed myself. My trust level of our factory farming has plummeted, I’m afraid.

  18. You could soak it in the lime water and then cook it. We so seldomly eat corn — but when we do, I do soak it in lime water before we eat the corn. It has much the same kind of taste — like a hand-made tamale taste — quite good, actually.

  19. Hi Cats Lady!

    Yeah, just watch. I bet anything the powers that be will decide that all food has to be pasturized or irradiated because of this egg thing. For raw food people, this will be a little like forcing them to eat things they don’t want to eat.

    Interesting how these people seem to feel they know best for us all, and of course have to bypassed own determinism to rule ourselves and be king as far as our own bodies are concerned.

    On the day when someone else tells you what you must eat, where you must work, whom you can and can’t marry — etc., etc., one is then a slave. Unfortunately we’re rather close to that.

  20. What great insights, Patricia. I agree with you on the 50’s. But even then factory farming was creeping in — but it wasn’t a part of your everyday life yet.

    White breads, pasturized milk, margarine made from oils that are hydrogenated that were nothing but trans fats. But there was still eggs and fish and cows that were grass fed here and there. And yes, we got more exercise than today with the kids in front of the computer screen instead of outside. Of course there were always kids that preferred to stay inside and read — but not as many as today that are addicted to the computer screen.

  21. Hi Tammy!

    Yes, in the old days, people lived very long lives (Native Americans) if they didn’t die in war or hunting accidents or child birth. If you read the descriptions of the people at that time, it reads like descriptions of the beauty of Greece. Very interesting. 🙂

  22. They say if you stay away from sugar and fats you’ll live longer. I like fresh fruits and vegetables! Whole grains not so much. I would have a hard time giving up ice cream and chocolate.

    Fascinating info Karen!

  23. Hey Kay! I won’t get into my love of herbs because I’ve done that before… but wow, what a post!

    About the corn… I was researching 19th century household stuff the other day and found a site which talks about cooking without using heat. Apparently, this has been known since at least the 13th century and is a very simple process. You put your food in an enclosed container and place that in a large pot. Then you add lime – yes, lime – and fill with water. Cover it and wait. Within a couple hours, your food, meat, whatever, will be perfectly cooked and have the texture of boiled meat.

    Lime! So, maybe when the natives soaked the corn in their lime water, they were really cooking it.

    Food for thought. LOL

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