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Native Americans and Herbal Medicine

Native Americans and Herbal Medicine

The information available on Native Americans and herbal medicine is vast and incredibly interesting. The writers at Paper Masters will custom write research on medicines first used by the Native Americans, such as Lobelia, or any aspect of medicinal studies of the early people of the Americas.

The Native Americans had many herbal healing methods that amazed the colonists enough to entice them to record what they learned. When early European settlers first arrived on North America's eastern shores, they were ill prepared for many of the problems they would soon be facing, including disease. Since few physicians joined the initial passages to the New World, the settlers eventually came to rely on the medicine of aboriginal tribes. For a long time, Native American herbals provided the only medical relief for the white man, who often became indebted to the local chief for the tribe's services.

Among the first herbal medicines to emerge from the Native Americans was Lobelia. Lobelia was used for the following by Native Americans:

  • Generations of North American peoples induced vomiting by ingesting the powerful emetic lobelia (Lobelia inflata). This plant, also known as gag root or purge weed, was first introduced to New England physicians in 1775 by Dr. Manasseh Cutler in his treatise, "Account of Indigenous Vegetables."
  • Native Americans smoked this weed for respiratory ailments, and hence it became known as Indian tobacco.
  • Lobelia contains lobeline, which causes the bronchial tubes to dilate. It has been used to treat asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough.
  • Lobelia also contains constituents that mimic the qualities of nicotine, although with fewer repercussions. The toxic plant induces vomiting and disrupts digestion.Because lobelia has a narcotic effect, it can also repress critical functions of the brain and nervous system.

The FDA currently restricts lobelia's use. However, the plant is approved for use in oral preparations intended to reduce withdrawal symptoms from nicotine.The FDA is continually at odds with Native American groups and those who advocate herbal remedies.The standards for herbal medicines are often difficult to draw the line between effective herbs, narcotics and dangerous toxins.

For the Native Americans, herbal remedies are useless without the proper ceremonies to accompany them. Often times, the purpose of the herb is purely ceremonial verses medicinal. For example, the Lakotas Indians use sage, the tops of Artemisia spp., to ward off evil spirits and exorcise evil influences. Sweetgrass, the tops of Savastana odorata, is used to invite benevolent influences. Both are taken in by the spreading or inhaling of the smoke.

Non-ritual herbal medicine is a minor component of current Native American medicine due to the fact that the dislocation of tribes in the 19th Century made it difficult to obtain the herbs they were familiar with. White colonists were the best source of herbal medicine because they picked up the traditions directly from the Natives they traded with.

The following are examples of herbs used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans:

  • Rabbit tobacco (Gnaphalium obtusifolium) - It is used to treat colds, flu, neuritis, asthma, coughs, and pneumonia. The decoction is drunk hot, like most medicinal teas, and is said to cause profuse sweating.
  • Poke (Phytolacca americana) - It is used to treat asthma, spring tonic, boils (risings), sores, intestinal worms in people or chickens, cramps, and stomach ulcers. Poke is said to inhibit gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria and is listed as a parasiticide in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia.
  • Pine (Pinus echinata, P. palustris, P. virginiana) - Pine is used to treat colds, flu, pneumonia, fever, heartburn, arthritis, neuritis, and kidney problems.
  • Oak (Quercus laevis, Q. phellos) - Oak is used to treat kidney problems (including Bright's disease), bladder problems, virus, menstrual bleeding, diarrhea, sores, sprains, and swellings.
  • Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) - Ii is used to treat measles, chicken pox, colds, flu, and fever. It is also used as a "shotgun heart remedy," a blood purifier, and a spring tonic.
  • Bloodroot (Sanguinaria) - It has been used to treat chronic bronchitis, diphtheria, sore throat, uterine and other cancers, tetterworm, deafness, and dyspepsia; it has also been used as a pain reliever and sedative. In Appalachia it is carried as a charm to ward off evil spirits.
  • Witch hazel - A proven astringent and hemostat (to stop bleeding).
  • Coneflower (Echinacea, Rudbeckia) - Echinacea (purple coneflower) reportedly increases resistance to infection, bad coughs, dyspepsia, venereal disease, insect bites, fever, and blood poisoning.
  • Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) - Early Native American Indians used the roots as a strong purgative, liver cleanser, emetic, and worm expellant. A resin made from the plant has been used to treat venereal warts and exhibits antitumor activity; it also is used for snakebite and as an insecticide for potato bugs.
  • Wild cherry (Prunus virginiana) - Native American Indians treated snow blindness by leaning over a kettle of boiling bark "tea." The bark has been used to treat sores and wounds, diarrhea, cold and cough, tuberculosis, hemoptysis, scrofula, sore throat, stomach cramps, and piles. Some smoked the bark for headache and head cold.
  • White willow (Salix alba) - It is used to treat calluses, cancers, corns, tumors, and warts. Salicylic acid (used to make aspirin) is found in white willow. Leaves and bark of different willows are used in a tea to break a fever. Some Native American Indians burned willow stems and used the ashes to treat sore eyes.

Today, modern medicine insists on extracting the ceremony of the Native Americans from the herbal remedies and provide a simple solution to a much more complex set of beliefs. According to Sylvanus Morley "When a man was ill he summoned a priest, a medicine man, or a sorcerer—Landa [Diego De Landa, writing in Mexico, 1938] lumps all three together. This curer of ills, by a combination of prayers, ceremonies, and administration of herbs, either cured or killed his patients, his reputation as a healer depending upon which of the two predominated. Yucatan has many medicinal herbs and plants, and an extensive pharmacopoeia was at the disposal of these sorcerer-doctors. Several seventeenth-Century Maya manuscripts, listing many ills and their corresponding cures, have come down to us, and some of their remedies have merit. Many of them, too, smack of medieval European superstition mixed with Maya magic" (178-179). Therefore, only the herbs themselves are used and the ceremonies remain a curiosity of culture. America is far beyond comprehending the complete picture that herbal medicine is part of an all-encompassing respect for what nature provides man. The destruction forests, the urbanization that has spread to the far reaches of once sacred land, and the lack of care for the environment leave Americans culturally void to understand what the ritual and tradition of herbal medicine has to offer in addition to the healing aspects.

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