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Native American Herbal Medicine
There is little doubt that early North American medicine has had a direct impact on contemporary medical science. Since its inception in 1820, the Pharmacopoeia of the United States of America has listed more than 200 domestic varieties of plants effectively used by various indigenous tribes. For more than three centuries, researchers of every culture have closely examined these plants, some of which have even demonstrated the building blocks of modern antibiotics.
When reports of successful curative Native American remedies first reached other continents, 17th-century Europeans were slow to accept them and dismissed them as unscientific "voodoo" employed by a lower culture. Europeans thought their own approach to disease and healing much more corporeal than that of the Indian. European physicians, limited by their own doctrine of signatures and Galen's system of humors, which still prevailed at the time, were slow to realize that they could ill afford such pharmaceutical snobbery. Virgil J. Vogel, author of American Indian Medicine, underscores the point: "While the Aztecs used such substances as decomposed corpses, excrement and menstrual blood, along with their useful simples, the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis of 1618 included mummy dust, human and pigeon excrement and stag's penis." Nor did the Enlightenment necessarily improve matters; Vogel further notes, "As late as the 18th century, Herman Boerhaave's Materia Medica included dragon's blood, oil of scorpions, troches [a form of pill or medicinal tablet] of vipers, crab's eyes and chalk."
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, Indian herbals provided the only medical relief for the white man, who often became indebted to the local chief for the tribe's services.
Many tribes took a spiritual view of disease and its treatment. Only their medicine man, or shaman, who had to prove being worthy of the sacred calling, could administer the empowered herbs to cure the sick. Often, especially in the case of internal disorders, the shaman prayed, danced, or chanted to the beating of drums as part of the ceremonial treatment. Disease was often attributed to demonic possession, or a deliberate disrespect of the forces of nature, including the inappropriate hunting of animals or making use of land, fire or water without first offering a prayer or gift of thanks. The Iroquois believed that disease sprang from unrealized dreams or desires.
Interestingly, the very term "medicine" is not limited to the diagnosis of disease in most aboriginal cultures. The word was applied to nearly anything that seemed beyond control, or that which must be guided by spirit or magic. "Medicine water," for example, was actually a term for whiskey because the "water" behaved in a way the Indian could not comprehend. Similarly, the wild steed was the "medicine horse" and the European's firearm "medicine iron."
In practical application, Native American medicine not only cured illness, but also brought about transformation, as in participating in a fortunate hunt, turning the weather, or divining a future event. Many researchers on the trail of medicinal plants today credit Native Americans with laying the groundwork.
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 plant is quite toxic, however, and large doses can induce severe vomiting and possible respiratory failure. 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.
One of the most significant contributions American natives made to "white medicine" is their experience with white willow (Salix alba) to treat a variety of maladies. The inner white bark of the slender stems of this tree contains the glucoside salicin. Although effective in its raw form, when ingested it is converted to salicylic acid, the forerunner of today's miracle drug, aspirin. The Comanche used the ashes of burned willow branches to treat sore or failing eyes. Recent studies show that aspirin may in fact deter the formation of cataracts, in some cases for several years. Native Americans also used willow to ease the discomforts of fever, colds and painful joints resulting from rheumatism and arthritis. Aspirin, it is well known, is the preferred over-the-counter medicine to treat these conditions. We also know today that many salicylates have antiseptic properties as well. Yet, unarmed with such technical knowledge, the Ojibwa and Potawatomi freely used the bark and leaves of willow to treat cuts, sores and skin lesions.
The mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), also known as mandrake or wild lemon, was also well known to native Americans. They used the highly toxic roots as an emetic, purgative and vermifuge (to expel worms). While all of these applications have found merit, of most importance to contemporary science is a resin called "podophyllin," which was used by natives to cure venereal warts. Podophyllum was "re-discovered" by the German physician, Dr. Schopf, in 1787. It was listed in the first edition of the Pharmacopoeia of the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1808, and gained entry into the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1820, where it remains as the standard treatment for venereal warts today. Several wart-removing agents are currently manufactured from podophyllotoxin obtained from the rhizomes of the mayapple. Studies show that this constituent actually suppresses lymph cells while boosting the immune system. Its anti-tumor activity has led to the production of etoposide, a milder, semi-synthetic derivative currently used in chemotherapy in Europe. In the United States, etoposide has cleared the FDA as a promising treatment for ovarian, testicular and small-cell lung cancers.
In the course of treatment, the shaman did more than merely apply medicinal compounds with a song, the shake of a rattle, or the drone of a singular drum. He empowered his tools with vital spiritual energy, and perhaps more importantly, instilled faith in the inflicted that they would again be made whole by the natural forces that shape the biographies of all living things.
"Would you like to have some Medicine Power?" Frog asked.
"Medicine Power? Me?" asked Little Mouse. "Yes, yes! If it is possible.
"Then crouch as low as you can, and then jump as high as you are able! You will have your medicine!" Frog said.
Little Mouse did as he was instructed. He crouched as low as he could and jumped. And when he did, his eyes saw the Sacred Mountains.
- Hyemeyohsts Storm
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