top of page
  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly

Native American Medical Practices and Uses of Plants




 

Editor’s note: The information in this article is strictly for educational purposes and is not a recommendation for the use of any of these plants to treat or cure any medical condition. 

The Norfolk Towne Assembly assumes no responsibility for any use of these remedies by our readers.  It is the policy of The Norfolk Towne Assembly that medical conditions should only be treated by a licensed medical practitioner.


Just as the first European settlers here in North America had healing traditions using plants that they had developed in the old world; the indigenous peoples of North America had spent thousands of years developing their own healing traditions using plants native to their environment here.  Early records of the Europeans indicate that the native peoples of North America were at least as healthy and capable of treating the diseases indigenous to their environment as the Europeans; and possibly even better.  In today’s post we are going to look at some of the North American plants and herbs used by the indigenous peoples of North America.

 

Native American Traditional Healing

Native American (NA) traditional healing is identified by the National Institutes of Health/National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) as a whole medical system that encompasses a range of holistic treatments used by indigenous healers for a multitude of acute and chronic conditions or to promote health and wellbeing.  For thousands of years, traditional indigenous medicine was used to promote health and wellbeing for the millions of Native people who once inhabited this continent.  Native diets, ceremonies that greet the seasons and the harvests, and the use of native plants for healing purposes have been used to promote health by living in harmony with the earth.  Increasingly, younger generations of Native people are abandoning these traditions - opportunities for a close connection to the earth – with a resultant increase in disease and impaired health outcomes.  Less than 100 years ago, diabetes was almost unheard of among Native Americans.  Today diabetes runs rampant through many tribes as they integrate into the mainstream culture and adopt the typical American lifestyle.  The consequences of abandonment of traditional practices can be readily seen when comparing the health of younger generations of Native Americans to their living elders who are engaged in traditional health practices.


16th Century Drawing of Native Healing Practices
16th Century Drawing of Native Healing Practices

Ceremonies play an important role in the overall wellbeing of traditional Native American people but the healing potential of this practice is typically unappreciated by modern health providers.  People of all cultures have always used symbolism found in their various religions and spiritual practices to cope with health problems.  Native American healing ceremonies relied heavily on a combination of traditional religious symbols, icons, and ritualistic objects.  These symbols cued biological, psychological, and social spiritual healing responses by restoring the harmony necessary for health.  Symbolism, whether associated with ceremonies or religious services, were often incorporated into their treatment plan to create a powerful healing synergy.


These practices were transmitted orally through generations and each community had special "experts," the shamans” or "medicine men" (or women) who were thought to have a special communication with this spiritual realm.  Music, dance, the smoking of tobacco as a sacred and medicinal substance, and other rituals were therefore critical to the collective health of a tribe and its individuals.  In this context, "health" was understood in a holistic manner (spiritual, physical, moral).

 

"Medicine Man" performing a ceremony.
"Medicine Man" performing a ceremony.

Difficulties in Trying to Understand Native Medicine

In the early 16th century, accounts of native medicine and ceremony are not reliable sources to understand traditional healing and religious practices due to language and cultural barriers, as well as prejudices early European colonists had against Native Americans.  This largely continued on into the 18th and 19th centuries as evidenced by the writings of Benjamin Rush, a famous physician of the late 1700s.  He made a speech to the American Philosophical Society on February 4, 1774, to inform the gathered audience about what he knew of the medicinal practices of the Native Americans.  However, throughout the speech he consistently put down the Native American’s methods of healing because he did not fully understand or appreciate their value.  This is an important primary source because it exemplifies many of the issues that Native Americans have been facing for centuries.  Rush did not understand how the Native Americans went about practicing medicine, so he wrote their ideas off as being ludicrous and ineffective.


Benjamin Rush
Benjamin Rush

Another book, “The Cherokee Physician,” written by Richard Foreman ca. 1849, details the health practices in the Cherokee tribe.  This account is positive as it attempts to make known the different practices of the Native Americans.  This book is more of a comparison of European and Native methods as compared to the other book which was just more of criticism.  This book is important because it is an example of a more positive and objective view of Native American medicine.  For example, Foreman criticizes the European procedure of bloodletting and recommends the Native process of rest and eating hot food to cure the flu.  Despite the factual inaccuracies in the book, it is still useful today because it shows a bridging of the gap between Native Americans and Europeans through medicine.  Without accounts such as this, historians today would not be knowledgeable about the different types of Native health practices.


The table below lists a few of the many native plants used by the Indigenous peoples of eastern North America for medical reasons.


Plants and Herbs Used in Native MedicinePlants and Herbs Used in Native Medicine
Plants and Herbs Used in Native Medicine


Some Indigenous Herbs and Plants Used by Various Eastern North American Tribes

Herb or Plant

Part Used and For What

Alder

Bark boiled in water and drunk to relieve cramps and vomiting

American White Waterlily

The rhizomes were used (depending on tribe) as an antiseptic, an antibiotic, an antispasmodic, an astringent, a cardiotonic, a demulcent, and an emollient.  It was used as a decoction for intestinal troubles, as a gargle for sore throats, as eyewash, and was powdered as a poultice for boils, sores, ulcers, and other skin irritations.  The macerated leaves were used as a poultice for swollen neck glands and the limbs.

Balsam Fir

Steam from a decoction of branches was used as a bath for rheumatism and birthing, a decoction of the plant was drunk for rheumatism.  A decoction of the plant was applied for cuts, sprains, bruises, and sores.  A poultice of the gum and dried beaver kidneys was applied for cancer.  Sap was smeared over burns, sores, and cuts as a healing agent.

Barberry

Root or bark was pounded to a mash and applied to ulcerated gums.  Also good for sore throat.

Barren Strawberry

A decoction of the plants was used as a blood remedy, and a poultice of the smashed plants was applied to snakebites.

Black Cherry

The bark was steeped and drunk for a cough.

Black Cohash

Used to treat musculoskeletal pain, fever, cough, pneumonia, sluggish labor, and menstrual irregularities.

Black Haw

An infusion of the plant was taken to prevent recurrent spasms, the root bark was used as a diaphoretic and a tonic, and an infusion of it taken for fever and ague.  An infusion of the bark was used as a wash for a sore tongue.

Blue False Indigo

The roots were used in an herbal tea as a purgative or to treat tooth aches and nausea.

 

Buttercup

A poultice of the smashed plant was applied to the chest for pain and for colds, an infusion of the roots was taken for diarrhea.

Carolina Wood Vetch

This is used for back pains, local pains, to toughen muscles, for muscular cramps, twitching and is rubbed on stomach cramps.  It was also used for rheumatism, taken for wind before a ball game.

Cedar (Arbor vitae)

Leaves were made into a poultice and applied to swollen hands and feet.

Chokeberry

Bark was steeped and drunk for diarrhea.

Common Agrimony

A drink made from the roots was used to treat diarrhea.   Also used to treat fever.

Crested Iris

A decoction of the pulverized root is used as salve for ulcers.  An infusion (tea) was taken for liver problems.  A decoction of the root was used to treat a "yellowish urine."

Dock Root

A piece about 6” long was mashed and heated as a poultice for boils and abscesses

Dwarf Cinquefoil

A pounded infusion of the roots was given as an antidiarrheal.

Few-seed Sedge

A decoction of the plant was taken as an emetic before running or playing lacrosse.

Ginseng

A piece of root, steeped in water was used to increase a woman’s fertility.

Golden Thread

The root of the plant was chewed to relieve canker sores, and is the source of another common name, canker-root.  It was also used to make a tea that was used as an eyewash.

Gray Hydrangea

An infusion of the bark scrapings was taken for vomiting bile, and an infusion of the roots was taken as a cathartic and emetic by women during menses.

Ground Hemlock

Twigs were steeped to make a tea good for colds

Ground Laurel

Used for labor pains in birthing, a decoction used for rheumatism, decoction of the leaves taken for indigestion, and a decoction of the whole plant or roots, stalks and leaves taken for the kidneys.

High-bush Cranberries

Berries were steeped and drunk for swollen glands and mumps.

Interrupted Fern

Used for blood and venereal diseases.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

A preparation of the root was used to treat sore eyes, bronchitis, rheumatism, snakebites, and to induce sterility.

Lady Slipper

The root was much used in North America by indigenous peoples for its sedative and antispasmodic properties and to counter insomnia and nervous tension.

Maiden-hair fern

The plant had a wide range of medicinal uses among Native Americans, depending on tribe), including as an antirheumatic, febrifuge, female gynecological aid, and gastrointestinal medicine.

Moosewood (Striped maple)

The bark was used to treat a variety of ailments including bronchial and kidney troubles, colds, and coughs.

Mountain Ash

Furnished a medicine used as an emetic.

Mud Plantain

A hot poultice of roots was applied to inflamed wounds and sores.

Mullein

The leaves, dried and powdered, were smoked for asthma and to open the bronchial tubes.

New England Aster

Used in a decoction for weak skin, a decoction of the roots and leaves used for fevers, the plant used as a "love medicine."

Ohio Horsemint

Used to make a poultice to treat headaches.

Partridgeberry

Traditionally, the plant had numerous medicinal uses including as a diuretic, a diaphoretic, for women's problems or reproductive issues, and as an analgesic or to reduce fever or swelling.

Pipsissewa

Plant leaves and flowers steeped in water and applied to blisters

Pitch Pine

The pitch was used to treat rheumatism, burns, cuts, and boils.  Pitch was also used as a laxative.  A pitch pine poultice was used to open boils and to treat abscesses.

Pitcher Plant

The plant was used to treat a variety of ailments, including lower back pain, fever, chills, whooping cough, pneumonia, and kidney problems

Poplar

Bark was steeped for colds.  It produces a sweat.

Rabbit Tobacco

Used for muscle cramps, local pains, and twitching, an infusion of it applied over scratches made over muscle cramp pain.  A decoction was taken for colds, and the plant was also made into cough syrup.  It was used in a sweat bath to treat various diseases, made into a warm liquid blown down throat for clogged throat (diphtheria), chewed for a sore mouth, smoked for asthma, and chewed for a sore throat.

Ramps

Decoction is used to treat worms in children, and they also used the decoction as a spring tonic to "clean you out.”

Rough-stemmed Goldenrod

The whole plant used for biliousness and as liver medicine, and decoction of its flowers and leaves for dizziness, weakness or sunstroke.

Sarsaparilla

The root was dried, crushed, and steeped together with Sweet Flag for coughs.

Sensitive Fern

Used in both oral and topical forms, a decoction extensively applied for women's issues (to initiate menses, fertility, pain and strength after childbirth and stimulating milk flow), for early tuberculosis, treating baldness, as a gastrointestinal aid for swelling and cramps, for arthritis and infection.  A poultice of the top leaves was used for deep cuts and infection.  A cold infusion of the entire fern plant was washed on sores and taken for venereal disease, e.g. gonorrhea.

Silver Maple

An infusion of the bark was taken for cramps, dysentery, and hives.  The inner bark was boiled and used with water as a wash for sore eyes. They also took an infusion of the bark for "female trouble" and cramps.

Snakeroot

Snakeroot was traditionally used as a cure for snakebite by the North American First Nations people.  It was also used for earaches, toothaches, sore throats, croup, and colds.

Spruce

Gum was used as a poultice on boils and abscesses

Squaw bush (Fragrant Sumac)

Bark was smoked to relieve asthma

Sweet Fern (Myrica asplenifolia)

Leaves steeped and rubbed on the skin to cure the effects of poison ivy

Sweet Flag

Root steeped in water and drunk for cholera

Toothwort

An infusion of the whole plant was taken to strengthen the breasts.  The raw root was chewed for stomach gas, a poultice of roots applied to swellings, a cold infusion of the plant taken for fever and for "summer complaint, a cold infusion of the roots was drunk for "when love is too strong."

Twinleaf

an infusion of this plant was used for treating dropsy, as well as urinary tract problems, a decoction was used to treat gall and diarrhea and a poultice was used for sores and inflammation.

Virginia Iris

The root was pounded into a paste that was used as a salve for skin.  An infusion made from the root was used to treat ailments of the liver, and a decoction of root was used to treat "yellowish urine."

White Oak

Bark was steeped and drunk for bleeding piles.

Wild Senna

Plant was used as a worm remedy and a decoction as a laxative.  An infusion was used for cramps, heart trouble and for fever.  A poultice of the root was used for sores.

Willow

Bark was steeped and drunk in quantity for colds

Winged Loosestrife

An infusion was taken for the kidneys.

Withe-rod Viburnum

An infusion of the plant was taken to prevent recurrent spasms, the root bark was used as a diaphoretic and a tonic, and an infusion of it taken for fever and ague.  An infusion of the bark was used as a wash for a sore tongue.

Yellow Ash

The leaves, in a strong, bitter decoction, were given to women after childbirth to cleanse them.

Yellow Giant Hyssop

An infusion of the plant was used as a wash for poison ivy and itch.

 


A Mullein Plant
A Mullein Plant

We hope you enjoyed today's post looking at Native American healthcare and their use of medicinal plants in North America.  Please join us again in February when we will look at “Valentine’s Day – It’s Origins and How it was Observed in the Early United States”.


Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post).  This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles.  We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.


Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.

 


References

Foreman, R., Justice, W. S., & Mahoney, J. W. (1849).  The Cherokee Physician.  Asheville, NC: Edney & Dedman.


Koithan, M., & Farrell, C. (2010).  Indigenous Native American Healing Traditions.  J Nurse Pract., 477-478.


Rush, B. (1774).  An oration, delivered February 4, 1774, before the American Philosophical Society, held at Philadelphia: containing, an enquiry into the natural history of medicine among the Indians in North-America, and a comparative view of their diseases and remedies.  Retrieved from National Library of Medicine, Digital Collections: https://libapps.salisbury.edu/nabb-online/items/show/652.


Speck, F. G. (1917).  Medicine Practices of the Northeastern Algonquians.  Proceedings of the Nineteenth International Congress of Americanists (pp. 303-321).  Washington, DC.: International Congress of Americanists.


Tooker, E. (1962).  An Ethnography of the Huron Indians.  Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office.

 

 

Comentários


bottom of page