Traditional Treatment

Indian medical treatment is seen as a combination of rational and religious practices being performed collectively by the same functionary.  There are variations in healing procedure from tribe to tribe and in different cultural areas.  However, there are some methods which are nearly universal.  Common methods of treatment include prayer, chanting, music, herbalism, counseling, and ceremony.

Although the type of traditional treatment can vary widely from tribe and disease a description by Pierre de Liette on the Illinois-Miami tribe gives an idea of a typical procedure. “Most of the old men were healers and when a person was sick, his relatives would hang in the cabin certain gifts for the medicine man, such as a kettle, gun, or blanket.  The healer was summoned and would question the patient about the nature and extent of his illness.  The healer would then leave and return with his bag of medicines and gourd rattle.  The rattle was shaken, while the healer intoned in a loud voice that certain animal spirits had revealed to him the proper remedies, which were certain to cure. The healer would take some of the medicine in his own mouth, spout it upon the seat of pain, and bandage it.  He returned twice a day and sang incantations, followed by violent sucking of the ailing parts of the body.  He then revealed an object said to have been drawn out of the body, such as an eagle claw or cougar’s hair, which was the cause of the ailment.”

It is thought that chanting ceremonies aid healing by expressing harmony, rebirth, vitality, and a will to live.  The use of rattles or drums is universal.  The drumming or rattling entrains the minds of both healer and patient and leads them to an expanded awareness of self and spirit.

Herbs are another important part of native healing.  The herbs employed by the medicine men are believed to derive their strength from the ceremonies performed to make them powerful.  “Like cures like” was the essence of their herbal belief.  Yellow plants are good for jaundice; red ones are good for the blood.  Some part of the plant might resemble the organ of the body it is designed to cure.  The form and the Indian name for ginseng indicated its value to the Penobscots for promoting female fertility.  The use of wormroot for worms, snakeroot for fits or contortions are determined by their appearance.  Elm bark is used by this tribe for bleeding lungs because of its slippery quality and bloodroot is used to prevent bleeding because of the red juice it contained.

The Indians also commonly believed that certain roots or plants were beneficial to the system because they are distasteful and injurious to the demons causing disease in the host body.  Consequently, foul-tasting medicines, emetics, and purges are often used.

Indian medical treatment was scarcely ever confined to only the used drugs with ritualistic procedures.  Other measures frequently used, especially in external ailments, included bleeding, cautery, cupping and sucking, enemas, smoke treatment, massage, and in some cases surgery.

Two common methods still frequently used today include smoke treatment and massage.

Smoke treatment: Many western tribes treated respiratory, rheumatic, and other diseases by heating or burning substances such as cedar branches or sweet smelling herbs over live coals.  Sometimes an infusion of herbs was poured over hot stones to form steam.  Among the Navajo the latter treatment is used along with the appropriate song and ritual to treat headache, insomnia, eye trouble, and arthritis. Substances they use included juniper, sage, and the prickly pear cactus.  The Plains Indians often use Echinacea and red cedar in the smoke treatment of headache. The Dakotas, Omaha, Ponca, and Pawnee burned the twigs and inhaled the smoke for head colds.

Photo Courtesy of the Indian Health Service/U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services.

Massage:  Native healers use massage to relieve tensions, pain, and to remove spiritual intrusions and bring in healing powers.  The Cherokee often use it to relieve painful menstruation, sprains, swellings, and snakebites.  Before applying massage, the medicine man warms his hands over live coals, then rubs the affected part with the palms.  The Pawnee treat colic by rubbing the abdomen with an ointment made from buffalo fat and the seeds of the black rattlepod.  Massage is also used with ointments to relieve pains of rheumatism, labor pains, and to aid in the expulsion of the fetus.


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