Health, Medicine Men and Healers

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.

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 quite 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 and to make that person well.  They didn’t “manage” illness, they were expected to cure it.

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.  .  So come on in and let’s talk.  Don’t forget, SENECA SURRENDER is still on sale at stores everywhere.

  Almost forgot.  I’ll be giving away a dreamcatcher to some lucky blogger today.

Website | + posts

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.
Please refer to for all contest rules.

32 thoughts on “Health, Medicine Men and Healers”

  1. When you mentioned tooth decay it reminded me about a documentary I saw about first Europeans and how the change from hunters and gatherers into farmers caused certain health problems to them, like tooth decay (not to mention many other problems), which in turn meant there was need for a new trade: dentists.

  2. Thanks for the reminder, Karen. We could all benefit from a whole foods diet and more exercise. And think of an environment with no pollution and plenty of room for everyone. I’m sure that Native Americans had their own problems, but they certainly led a healthy lifestyle.
    Isn’t the bottom photo Quanah Parker? Whoever it might be, he was a very handsome man.

  3. An informative and interesting post which was thought provoking. Diet and exercise is what is vital to keep our bodies young and healthy. It is necessary to have whole foods, herbs and stay away from processed foods and carbs. Natural cave man foods are the best.

  4. Hi Minna!

    What interesting observations. There was a dentist, Weston A. Price, who traveled extensively in the early part of the last century, visiting native tribes to study their diets and their teeth.

    What he found was amazing, and has formed the basis of the diet that I currently try to keep. Absolutely no processed foods (unless I process them myself), etc.

    Thanks for your thoughts. The website is

  5. Hi Elizabeth!

    That is Quanah Parker. He was very handsome, wasn’t he? There’s another Indian — a Lakota Indian, Red Shirt. He was a chief and an extremely handsome man.

    If I ever run across his photo on the internet, I’ll post it.

  6. Kay, we could certainly take a page from the Native American’s handbook. So many people are sick these days and/or dying. We’ve polluted our air, the food supply, and basically ruined the earth with our own selfish desires. I don’t know what it would take to get back to the way we were hundreds of years ago. And even if we’d change now I imagine we’re too late at this stage of the game.

  7. Hi Linda!

    Gosh, what good observations. Amazingly, there is something we could do that would put (at least water) back to pristine condition and in a very short time. It’s a product that utilizes enzymes and naturally occurring bacteria in all living water, etc, to clean it up. Here’s the link to the video and the fight they are taking to try to get officials to clean up the gulf mess. So far, they’re mostly being ignored, much to our National shame, in my opinion.

    Here’s the link:

    If you have a chance, please do watch it!

  8. Perhaps a return to some of the eating habits of the past would be good for all. I know that mine are horrible…too much ‘instant’ food. Too much instant everything in my life.

    The Medicine Men have always facinated me, as have all stories about our Native Americans.

  9. Hi Kay, as always a fascinating and informative post. And Adam always makes my day 🙂 I truly believe the artificial chemicals and additives can do harm. That said, I need to exercise more LOL. Thanks for the thought-provoking topic. oxoxo

  10. It reminds me of how my ancestors lived.They were from Sicily. Most lived to their nineties. They ate little meat, grew their own vegetables or fished from the sea. Got milk daily from goats. No pollution or chemicals. No perservatives in their food. They were physically active. My mom is 88, her brother 90 and her sister 86.

  11. In this same documentary I mentioned (I saw it yesterday, actually) they also talked about how we are -still- really more adapted to hunter’s and gatherer’s food than farmed food or milk. They said it’s quite a small percentage of the world population that can actually use for instance cow milk without getting an upset tummy.

  12. Yeah, it was a big step for me to stop eating anything processed by anyone else than myself. The reason I did it was that I learned that they can put upwards to 500,000 chemicals into that processed food without ever telling you — and in organics, they can put upwards to 50,000 chemicals in your food without ever having to tell you or list it on the label.

    When I learned that, it changed my cooking habits. I now spend a little more time in the kitchen, but my family really appreciates it. 🙂

  13. Wow! Minna, thank you. I would like to know how to make my own cheese and soap. As it is, I make my own kefir and yoghurt and fermented foods — even my own mustard and ketscup. This is great!

  14. Yes, Catslady,

    Interesting how much good food can be for your health…go figure…

    Like your ancestors, Indians lived to an old age, retaining their minds and physical activity. I wish we had learned more from them. I’ve always believed that their magic wasn’t tricks, but real magic. We’ve almost lost that.

  15. You know something, Minna, I disagree on the milk issue. Raw milk (not pasturized) has been used by almost all civilizations since we first met the cow — almost over 10,000 years.

    There’s nothing more nourishing than mother’s milk and amongst the Amish, it’s well known that when one is sick, one should revert to the “baby diet.” Pure raw milk.

    At the beginning of this century, the Mayo Clinic published a book on raw milk, calling it white blood — that book’s name is: MILK DIET, As A Remedy for Chronic Disease. A very hard to find book. I just bought it when I was one the road home and stopped by an Amish farm to buy some cheese.

    Pasturized milk is nothing more than poison disguised as food. But raw milk is something the body can readily assimilate and has been doing so for thousands of years.

    Here’s a site to go read more:

  16. Well, cow milk is just one type of milk and some people are probably able to digest, say, reindeer milk, even if they can’t stomach cow milk. Yeah, I know there are many people who can drink raw milk even if they can’t drink pasturized milk.

  17. An excellent post which should be required reading for most. So much has changed for the worst in eating habits. It is a shame because it is simple, just focus on the basics such as fruit, veggies and what we grow.

  18. Great post Karen. So much has changed since then and its not always for the better. Now of us really eat right now. When you go to the doctor now they just throw pills at you, and everything has side efficts to them.

  19. I know I’m late, but just logged on. My late father in law had great teeth. My husband, too. He always said that to keep teeth in good shape you ate hard crust bread and tough meat and that kept them healthy. OK, I’ll go with the hard crust bread (like the Basque sheepherders use), but I don’t like tough meat. Father in law was full blood MONO. He would have lived to be pretty old, but got cut down at age 37 by a car wreck—in 1937. Can you imagine?
    I always learn more from your blogs. Thanks. I can use a dreamcatcher, too.

  20. Thanks for another interesting post. Eating a good diet, getting plenty of exercise, and a lack of pollution in the air and water did much to make healthy bodies. A strong, healthy body is better able to fight off an illness. Belief in the treatment does itself make a difference in how effective it will be.
    Foods have always been an interest. Wherever we travel, we always explore the local foods and preparation methods. We have done so with several of the native peoples in the US today. Would certainly have done it had we lived long ago. It would have been more important back then to get the most benefit from and make the best use of the foods available.

    Glad you are home safely and back in the swing of things.

  21. Hi Minna & Estrella!

    Yes, there is also camel’s milk and goat milk and probably all kinds of other mammal milk (including mama’s milk). And thanks Estrella. 🙂

  22. Dear Quilt Lady,

    Gosh you said it. Pills will never substitute for real food, no matter the propaganda of Big Pharma. Not that there isn’t a place for drugs that help, but Big Pharam has exceeded its use, I do believe.

  23. Hi Mary J.!

    Wow, that’s really interesting what your father said. I’ve heard that before — not just that tough meat helps your teeth, but actually that it’s better for you.

    Thanks for all your thoughts.

  24. Hi Patricia!

    Always an interesting post that you make and thank you for remembering that I’ve been gone and had a long drive home (which we make without stopping). We trade off driving while the other sleeps. But oh, how I love these trips.

  25. What interesting information. One of my great aunts had written down that we had a medicine man as an ancestor but we really have no way to prove it. I find all of this fascinating. I don’t know how they managed back then, I’m not much for the outdoors myself. I love dreamcatchers and have often thought about learning to make them.

  26. Hi Linda!

    So nice to see you here. Really, a medicine man in the family? Wow! I’m not much of an outdoor person, either, but I do think I’d grow to like it and probably make it — like Indian women did long ago — a home. 🙂

  27. Hi Kay,
    Late to the party, as usual, but I just had to comment on this wonderful post of yours. SO INTERESTING! It’s amazing how much the earlier societies knew about food and nutrition and medicine that we ignore today. Thanks so much for this informative post–I really did enjoy it!
    Cheryl P.

Comments are closed.