Indigenous American Medicinal Practices

Echinacea flowers

When you think of plant-based healing, what comes to mind?

...Images of far away places you've never been?
...Ancient traditions dating back thousands of years?
...Rituals from cultures you've experienced when traveling abroad?
 
Most people don't think about Western medicine or everyday American culture. And in many cases, they're not wrong. Many adaptogens and other medicinal plants are rooted in cultures far away and have just recently made a splash in the United States.
"...it’s been estimated that more than 200 drugs first used by Native Americans have been listed, at some point, in official U.S. medical directories." [Anderson]¹
But that's not entirely the case. The people native to the Americas have a long history of using the natural world to heal and enhance their bodies. These traditions have had an impact on food and culture in the U.S. culture for years, perhaps more than you'd expect.
 
For example, Native peoples first used willow bark as a common treatment for fever and chills prior to the 19th century, when its active ingredient was synthesized and sold as an aspirin. In tropical regions of the Americas, the cinchona tree (a natural source of quinine, common anti-malarial medicine³) was used to do the same. Clearly, Native groups have a history of being well ahead of the times, in part due to their comfort with creating natural medicines. And it tends to be a just matter of time before mainstream medicinal culture follows their suit.
"One important post-childbirth tonic is a tea brewed from pepper, cloves and ginger." [Bautista and Daniels]
Even today, Mayan traditions of midwifery continue to use sacred plants to heal throughout Mexico. Groups like the Organization of Indigenous Doctors of Chiapas and Maya Midwifery International work to support and maintain these ancient traditions, helping to bring their knowledge to the modern world. One example is a post-childbirth tonic tea, brewed from pepper, cloves and ginger⁴. This tea helps women regain their strength following birth and also sounds like a beautifully relaxing postpartum tradition.
 
Image: Walter Randolph Adams and John Palmer Hawkins
 
Not all groups use the same sacred plants. Yet, one common theme of indigenous healing cultures is a respect for all aspects of healing, not just medicine.
Some healers see their job as helping their patients to overcome sickness as well as to create positive change in their lives through that experience⁶.
 
They rely on a holistic understanding of personal, communal and natural health to achieve wellness. They believe that foundational aspects, like diet, exercise and respect for community, must be present in order to heal.⁵ At RDF, we feel like this is a lesson we can all take with us.
 
Given today's growing interest in natural remedies for modern problems, it makes sense to look at the history of the people who lived here long before us. Native traditions have held valuable lessons for hundreds of years and this knowledge can continue to play a role in how we engage with natural wellness. As we shift our perspectives on how we think about health, perhaps we can respectfully gain some knowledge from old traditions to inform our new ones.  

 

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Works Cited
  1. Anderson, M. Kat. “The Original Medicinal Plant Gatherers & Conservationists.” United Plant Savers, 23 Mar. 2017, unitedplantsavers.org/the-original-medicinal-plant-gatherers-conservationists/.
  2. Borchers, Andrea T, et al. “Inflammation and Native American Medicine: The Role of Botanicals.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 72, no. 2, 1 Aug. 2000, pp. 339–347, academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/72/2/339/4729391, 10.1093/ajcn/72.2.339. Accessed 3 Dec. 2019.
  3. Partnership for Environmental Education and Rural Health, Texas A&M University. Medicinal Plants of the American Indians. 2020.
  4. Bautista, Micaela Ico, and Susanah Daniels. “OMIECH: Traditional Maya Midwives Protecting Women’s Health.” Www.culturalsurvival.org, Mar. 2021, www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/omiech-traditional-maya-midwives-protecting-womens-health. Accessed 9 Apr. 2021.
  5. Koithan, Mary, and Cynthia Farrell. “Indigenous Native American Healing Traditions.” The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, vol. 6, no. 6, June 2010, pp. 477–478, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2913884/, 10.1016/j.nurpra.2010.03.016.
  6. Legends of America. “Native American Medicine – Legends of America.” Legendsofamerica.com, 2019, www.legendsofamerica.com/na-medicine/.
  7. Walter Randolph Adams, and John Palmer Hawkins. Health Care in Maya Guatemala : Confronting Medical Pluralism in a Developing Country. Norman, University Of Oklahoma Press, 2007.

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