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Native American Medicine

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Jesse Henne
Professor Kurt Siedschlaw
CJUS18801
25 March 2013

Medical Cures and Healing Beliefs of Native Americans

The medical cures and healing traditions used by the Native Americans are rather interesting and different compared to modern day Anglo Saxon cures. Native Americans, using their basis of ideas and beliefs, have developed a general idea of naturalistic cures and healing processes. Although the cures and healing processes are much different than Anglo Saxon ideas of curing and healing, the Native American processes tend to work well and even better than many Anglo Saxon cures. Native American medical and healing beliefs and processes are generally based on a more natural curing or purification process than the processes of modern day Anglo Saxons. Many Native American healing processes have been practiced for around 40,000 years. Different Native American healing traditions have appeared to share roots with different cultures, such as ancient Chinese traditions. Although many of the Native American healing traditions appear to share roots with ancient Chinese traditions, the greatest influence on Native American healing is the environment in which they have lived. The different plants and animals around them influenced their healing practices to be all natural. Another influence on their healing practices was other tribes. The migration of tribes around them allowed the tribes to share their knowledge of natural cures. Trade was also very helpful in Native American healing practices because many of the natural remedies required herbs from surrounding environments or long distances, and being able to trade with traveling tribes saved much travel time and risk. Although Native American healing practices have proven to be successful, a lot of their traditions have been lost. Many of the practices were driven underground and lost because they became banned or illegal in many parts of the United States. After 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, and the Native Americans were once again allowed to practice their healing traditions. The long gap without practicing certain healing processes resulted in the loss of many of their practices, however. Even today, there are still difficulties with Native Americans being allowed to perform different ceremonies and rituals because the land serves other purposes. (www.cancer.org). Native Americans have successfully lived for many years by using their own idea of natural cures and purification. Native American healing is a broad term that includes different healing beliefs and practices of hundreds of indigenous tribes or North America. It combines religion, spirituality, herbal medicine uses, and purification rituals that are used to treat the indigenous people either medically, emotionally, or behaviorally. According to Lakota Sioux, the basis of natural beliefs and connections comes from the story of the white buffalo. The story begins with a woman appearing during the time of famine. She was wearing a white buffalo skin and carrying a sacred pipe. After appearing to the tribe, she explained to them that the wooden stem was for the trees and everything growing on earth. Her red bowl was to symbolize the flesh and blood of all people and the smoke was the breath of their prayers going to Wakan Tanka, the creator. The woman then presented the pipe ceremony to the tribe, which included offerings made to the four directions while drums were played and sacred songs were sung. The people then began to understand the connection between sky and earth and the unity of all life. Before leaving, the woman said she would return when the time was right and turned into a buffalo, changing colors several times. Finally, she became a white buffalo calf and disappeared. The people followed her teachings and were no longer hungry. Years later, a white buffalo calf, very rare, appeared and changed colors throughout its life. The calf is believed to be the woman. (www.native-americans-online.com). Through this story, many indigenous tribes have believed nature to be the cures and purifications needed for the soul to become whole. There are many types of Native American healing practices, and they are promoted to help with a variety of ills. Some of the most common aspects of Native American healing include the use of herbal remedies, purifying rituals, shamanism, and symbolic healing rituals to treat illnesses of both the body and spirit. Herbal remedies are used to treat many physical conditions. Practitioners use purifying rituals to cleanse the body and prepare the person for healing. Shamanism is based on the idea that spirits cause illness, and a Native American healer called a shaman focuses on using spiritual healing powers to treat people. Symbolic healing rituals, which can involve family and friends of the sick person, are used to invoke the spirits to help heal the sick person. (www.cancer.org). The Native American belief in spirituality caused the Native Americans to believe that diseases are caused by an object piercing the soul through sorcery. A disease can also be believed to be the complete absence of a free soul. Their naturalistic beliefs allowed them to believe that even diseases are considered natural occurrences, and because they occur naturally, they can be cured naturally as well. By using natural remedies, “medicine men” attempted to cure diseases that have invaded tribal villages. Natural remedies used by the medicine men included different concoctions of plants, fungi, or animals that could be eaten or rubbed on a certain area of the body to cure the illness. Before Europeans invaded Native American land, Native Americans had not had an extreme amount of experience in the treatment of disease. However, after the Europeans invaded their land, they (the Europeans) brought many diseases with them. Some of the deadly diseases included smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, typhoid, influenza, and pertussis or whooping cough. At the first sign of the diseases, the indigenous people continued trying their natural remedies, but after many failed attempts at curing the diseases, the people would often avoid the sick and leave them to die because they believed that evil spirits had taken over their soul. With the Europeans bringing many diseases to the indigenous land, the indigenous people believed the Europeans to be evil spirited and deadly. The many diseases brought by the Europeans caused a major Native American depopulation.
In order to try to cure these diseases or other illnesses, Native Americans relied on the use of what they referred to as the “medicine man” or “healer”. The medicine man was very well educated on the surrounding nature and knew what natural remedy would cure the illness. Often times, the medicine man would have to travel to other lands in order to find a certain plant or a fungus that was needed in the remedy. Medicine men were very effective at curing illnesses because of the knowledge they had of nature. Not only did the Native Americans use natural remedies to cure illness, but they also used natural purification processes in order to purify or cleanse their soul in an emotional healing process. The purifying ritual is a ceremony known as a sweat lodge, where the indigenous people would sit in extreme temperatures and sweat out the evil in them which allowed them to be cleansed. To begin the sweat lodge process, one must offer a pouch of tobacco to the medicine man. The tobacco is used to represent the spirit of the person presenting it. By offering the tobacco to the medicine man, one is asking him to work on their behalf in the spiritual world. When presenting the tobacco, one would also bring forth their specific desire such as an alcohol or drug problem. The sweat lodge process begins with the passing of what are known as tobacco ties. Many tobacco ties are hung around inside the sweat lodge and each tobacco tie represents a prayer. The four sacred herbs, sage, sweet grass, cedar, and tobacco, are used in order to help purify the room and allow the spirits to work. Then rocks, primarily lava stones from volcanoes, are heated using a fire until they are white hot. Once the rocks are white hot, they are brought into the lodge in order to begin the sweating process. To keep the rocks hot, water is poured onto them making an immense amount of steam and heating the lodge. Now that the purification process has finally begun, everyone sits in a circle and goes around, one person at a time, offering prayers. After all prayers have been given, the medicine man blends them all together in a mystical process altering the state of mind to something beyond the physical form. This is where the real healing takes place. As the purification process comes to a conclusion, a new ceremony known as wopela begins. Wopela is simply giving thanks. All participants bring in gifts for the medicine man in order to thank him for leading them through the purification process. The medicine man begins a prayerful state and takes the prayer ties and sets them up in the north end of the center. This allows the prayers to be carried to the Great Spirit in a good way. The medicine man then blows out the candles the lodge becomes pitch dark. Another emotional healing strategy is the use of the medicine wheel. The medicine wheel was an important transformation in the process of Native American tribes realizing that they are much different from each other. Basically, the medicine wheel was a sheet decorated in special symbols, colors, or stones that allowed others know about the inhabitants of the tribe. One was placed in front of every tepee or hut to notify others of that individual’s strengths and weaknesses. By doing so, each individual had their own guidelines to follow for personal growth by realizing what one needed to learn and what one needed to teach. After many generations, the people began to lose the concept of blame and anger upon others. One tribe member from Arizona states “If I said to you, ‘Does anyone ever make you angry?’ you would say yes. But in reality, this is totally impossible. You choose to be angry by the way you process the event. This is something you were taught to do as a child. If you could imagine not one person in all of New York City having the concept of anger, that’s what it was like during that time period of no wars before the white man came.”(www.native-americans-online.com). By placing a simple wheel outside their homes, the Native Americans began to learn to cope with their anger and not place blame upon others. This shows a strong cultural emotional healing process because it rid the tribes of anger and blame on others. Indigenous people also believed in psychiatric healing beliefs by altering their state of mind. They were able to alter their state of mind through events such as drumming and chanting rituals, Salish spirit dancing, and visual stimuli. All processes were used in order to calm down an individual. The drumming or chanting of rituals acted as a concentration device to its listeners. A constant beat or pattern would reduce the tendency of the mind to wander. It would also enter the brain wave patterns and sometimes the subjects’ brainwaves would change to match the frequency of the drumming or beating. As for the altered states produced in the Salish Spirit Dance, the sensory stimulation would release neuro-endocrine opiod agents that would produce a peak experience during that dance performance. It is quite obvious that the healing processes of the indigenous people vary greatly from the healing processes of modern day Anglo Saxons. For example, in seeking a cure, Anglo Saxons search for a man made discovery to lead to a cure where as the indigenous people rely on nature for their cures. Although the Anglo Saxon solutions are very effective, the natural remedies also work and are less harmful. All Anglo Saxon cures provide quick solutions but at the risk of side effects which are not present in natural remedies. One belief of the indigenous people was that the illness was caused by nature, so nature can cure the illness. Another difference in Anglo Saxon healing processes is emotional or psychiatric healing. Anglo Saxon traditions in emotional healing include the use of a therapist or other person to talk to in order to solve the problem. The indigenous people use a similar cure, except they seek a higher cure such as the sweat lodge in order to be in contact with the spirit world. Anglo Saxons also place blame and problems on others in an attempt to relieve themselves of the pressure or danger of events. The indigenous people however, do not like to place blame on others, but on themselves. The indigenous people begin looking for a cure inside oneself in order to fix the problem. Although many rituals and healing processes of the indigenous people are much different than the processes of the modern day Anglo Saxons, the processes of the indigenous people have proven to work effectively in curing the illness. Their belief in having a pure soul contributes to the rituals they perform in order to heal. Both Anglo Saxon and Native American healing processes have been proven effective, with the difference being the focus of the solution. Native American medical and healing beliefs and processes are generally based on a more natural curing or purification process than the processes of modern day Anglo Saxons.

Sources Used http://muwww-new.marshall.edu/jrcp/VE13%20N1/jrcp%2013%201%20thomason.pdf http://www.native-americans-online.com/index.html
http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/mindbodyandspirit/native-american-healing

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