Theory of Medicine

A long time ago,an “Old Man” appeared at the edge of the Rotinonshonni Village.

He was limping and had to use a stick to help him walk. His Buckskin clothes were dirty and ragged with many holes. and he looked very tired and sick. He came to a Bark covered Long House that had a Turtle Skull over the hide covered doorway. He knew he had reached the Dwelling of the Turtle Clan. An Old Woman was scraping a Deer skin nearby, so he asked her if she would give him something to eat and a place to rest for awhile. She looked up at this ragged and dirty Old Man and scowled. She told him to go away and that she had no food. So, the “Old Man”staggered away.

Soon he came to another Lodge that had the Skull of a Wolf over the doorway. As he approached a young Woman pulled back the skin covering the entrance and began yelling at him to go away. She began throwing sticks and stones at him so he ran away as fast as his old legs could carry him.

After awhile he came to a third Bark covered Lodge that had a Bear’s Skull over the Doorway and he knew that it was the Home of the Bear Clan. As he approached, a Young Woman, who had been kneeling in front of the Fire Pit, came foreward to greet him. “Kwe! Kwe! Doda.” (Greetings Grandfather) “You don’t look well.” “Come inside and rest while I get you something to eat.” She got him a bowl of Corn Soup from the Clay Pot that had been sitting on three stones near the Fire. When she took it to him, she saw that he was in pain and had a Fever.. In a weak voice, he asked her to go to the Brook nearby and and gather some Willow Bark. When she returned he told her to scrape off the inner layer from the Bark and steep it in hot water. After he had drunk the Tea, he began to feel better and the Fever broke.

But, almost immediately he began to have Stomach Pains. He sent the Young Woman to gather a certain Root from a small shrub that only grows on the Northern side of the Mountains. When she returned, he had her cut the Root into small pieces and Boil it to make a Tea which took away his Stomach Cramps.

Each time she cured him of one Sickness, He immediately contracted another and so on until she had learned all the Cures for the common ailments of the Onkwehonwe. (Real People)

As she opened the Doorway Flap the last time, there was a Bright Light illuminating a Handsome Young Man standing there. He said to her,” Please don’t be afraid. I am Shonkwaiiatison ( The Maker of Our Bodies). Since you have been so kind and helpful to me, from this day forward, all the Medicine Men and Women, of the Onkwehonwe, shall be members of the Bear Clan.

…And so it is to this Day…

Native healing of externally caused injuries, in which the origin of the ailment is perfectly obvious, is usually rational and often effective. In such a category are fractures, dislocations, snake and insect bites, skin irritation, and bruises.  Minor internal illnesses, such as colds, headaches, and digestive disorders are treated with herbal remedies.  In cases of persistent internal disease where the cause is not apparent, the usual Indian custom is to attribute the disease to some supernatural agency. If ordinary medicine did not soon bring relief, they resort to shamanistic methods, such as incantations, charms, prayers, dances, the shaking of rattles and beating of drums.  The supernatural causes of disease among American Indians societies included sorcery, taboo violation, disease-object intrusion, spirit intrusion, and soul loss.  An additional disease cause, prevalent among Iroquoian tribes, is unfulfilled dreams or desires. In certain tribes and areas, some of these causes are more important than others.

 “Of the supernatural causes of disease, the most important are the spirits of the animals, who thus gain revenge for slights and abuses. Disrespect toward fire, such as urinating on the ashes, or spitting on it, will bring disaster.  Insults to nature bring about a specific penalty.  Human ghosts who naturally feel lonesome for their friends and relatives cause a disease, so as to provide congenial company, while an animal ghost will cause trouble if respect has not been shown to its body after it has been killed. A powerful disease-bringer is the magic used by witches to cause sickness.  Other causes of disease are dreams, omens, neglected taboos, and the evil influence attributed to woman during her catamenial period. ( The Medicne Man of the American Indian).

Medicine Man of the Cheyenne by HOWARD TERPNING


Belief in witchcraft as a cause of disease is especially prevalent in Southwestern tribes.  When an epidemic or persistent misfortune continues to affect the tribe, witchcraft is usually suspect.  The blame usually could be placed upon some old, friendless man or woman who was then pressed to confess.  If they did confess they were exiled, if they did not, they were severely tortured and maltreated and sometimes killed.

Taboo Violation:

In some cultures an Indian who hunted animals or gathered herbs must always sing the necessary songs or prayers or offer gifts of tobacco to the spirits of the animals or plants. Failure to do so might lead to bad luck or illness.  “When one is ungrateful to the water animals, as a wasteful fisherman, or a hunter who kills muskrats or beaver without asking permission or offering tobacco to their spirits, he becomes strangely ill.” (American Indian Medicine) This theory is especially prevalent among the Cree. Nearly every disease has the name of an animal which is supposed to have caused it.

Disease Object Intrusion:

Disease object intrusion means that a worm, snake, insect, or small animal has entered the body and caused illness.  The disease-causing object is eliminated by drumming and singing, sucking, and sometimes by bitter medicines which were supposed to make the patient’s body an uncomfortable place for the invader to reside.  Sucking is commonly employed in removing foreign objects from the body, and is usually done with the assistance of a hollow tube, often a bone.  The object extracted is not always animate; sometimes a stone or stick can be the alleged offender.  At other times, such as in the treatment of wounds or snakebite, sucking served a therapeutic purpose by drawing out pus or venom.

Spirit Intrusion:

The American Indian societies recognize several kinds of disease causing spirits, both animal and human.  The medicine man’s task is to determine which spirit is causing the trouble and prescribe a cure.  The Cherokee and Iroquois are two tribes which held that pestilence and disease were often the work of evil spirits.  Witches as well as poisonous roots and plants were possessed by such spirits.  At religious festivals the aid of the “great spirit” and his entourage are invoked to shield the people from the intentions of bad spirits.

Another kind of spirit intrusion is the return of the souls of the dead to live in the bodies of their living relatives.  For example, an Eskimo father, for three months after the death of a son, may not drink from an uncovered cup for fear of swallowing some ghost impurity which would cause certain death.  The Huron did not fear the souls of friends and relatives or enemies killed in battle, but the souls of tortured captives.  The Alabama believed that persons who had been near a grave would attract ghosts which could cause fits in those with whom they came into contact.

Soul Loss:

Soul loss occurs when the soul, during a dream, leaves the body and travels about.  Unless the soul can be brought back by some means, the patient will die.  Sometimes the soul is stolen by malignant shamans, witches, evil spirits, or earth dwarfs.  Some Huron believed that souls were stolen by the Jesuit priests.

Some tribes which hold the soul-loss belief do not believe that the soul can be recovered once it was lost. In others, it was the function of the medicine man to recover the soul using the appropriate rituals.

Unfulfilled dreams or desires:

The idea of disease causation from unfulfilled dreams or desires was most highly developed among the Iroquois.  The Jesuit priest Joseph Jouvency wrote:

They believe there are two main causes of disease… one of these is in the mind of the patient himself, which desires something and will vex the body of the sick man until it possesses the thing required.  For they think that there are in every man certain inborn desires, often unknown to themselves, upon which the happiness of the individual depends.  For the purpose of ascertaining desires and innate appetites of this character, they summon soothsayers who have a divinely imparted power to look into the inmost recesses of the mind.

– American Indian Medicine

Such unfulfilled desires are sometimes revealed in dreams. Dreams occupied an important place in the disease theory of these tribes.  It is firmly believed that whatever a person saw in a dream revealed desires which must be fulfilled in order to cure sickness.  If a man dreamed of fish, the medicine man declares that the ghosts of some of the fish he has taken have entered his body to trouble him. He then recites a prayer calling upon some larger fish, or perhaps a fishhawk to come banish the disease causing fish.


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