American Indian Medicine

American Indian Medicine

by Virgil J. Vogel

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The purpose of this book, says the author, is to show the effect of Indian medicinal practices on white civilization. Actually it achieves far more. It discusses Indian theories of disease and methods of combating disease and even goes into the question of which diseases were indigenous and which were brought to the Indian by the white man. It also

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The purpose of this book, says the author, is to show the effect of Indian medicinal practices on white civilization. Actually it achieves far more. It discusses Indian theories of disease and methods of combating disease and even goes into the question of which diseases were indigenous and which were brought to the Indian by the white man. It also lists Indian drugs that have won acceptance in the Pharmacopeia of the United States and the National Formulary.

The influence of American Indian healing arts on the medicine and healing and pharmacology of the white man was considerable. For example, such drugs as insulin and penicillin were anticipated in rudimentary form by the aborigines. Coca leaves were used as narcotics by Peruvian Indians hundreds of years before Carl Koller first used cocaine as a local anesthetic in 1884. All together, about 170 medicines, mostly botanical, were contributed to the official compendia by Indians north of the Rio Grande, about 50 more coming from natives of the Latin-American and Caribbean regions.

Impressions and attitudes of early explorers, settlers, physicians, botanists, and others regarding Indian curative practices are reported by geographical regions, with British, French, and Spanish colonies and the young United States separately treated.

Indian theories of disease—sorcery, taboo violation, spirit intrusion, soul loss, unfulfilled dreams and desires, and so on -and shamanistic practices used to combat them are described. Methods of treating all kinds of injuries-from fractures to snakebite-and even surgery are included. The influence of Indian healing lore upon folk or domestic medicine, as well as on the "Indian doctors" and patent medicines, are discussed. For the convenience of the reader, an index of botanical names is provided, together with a wide variety of illustrations. The disproportionate attention that has been given to the superstitious and unscientific features of aboriginal medicine has tended to obscure its real contributions to American civilization.

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University of Oklahoma Press
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Civilization of the American Indian Series , #95
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Barnes & Noble
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American Indian Medicine

By Virgil J. Vogel


Copyright © 1970 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8977-2


What the Red Men Gave Us

During the bitter cold winter of 1535–36, the three ships of Jacques Cartier were frozen fast in the fathom-deep ice of the St. Lawrence River near the site of Montreal. Isolated by four feet of snow, the company of 110 men subsisted on the fare stored in the holds of their ships. Soon scurvy was so rampant among them that by mid-March, 25 men had died and the others, "only three or foure excepted," were so ill that hope for their recovery was abandoned. As the crisis deepened, Cartier had the good fortune to encounter once again the local Indian chief, Domagaia, who had cured himself of the same disease with "the juice and sappe of a certain Tree." The Indian women gathered branches of the magical tree, "boiling the bark and leaves for a decoction, and placing the dregs upon the legs." All those so treated rapidly recovered their health, and the Frenchmen marveled at the curative skill of the natives.

These Indians had never heard of vitamin C, and there was no value in the external application of their remedy. Through trial and error since prehistoric times, however, they had stumbled upon an effective internal remedy for the deficiency disease known as scurvy, which most Europeans believed to be caused by bad air. More than two hundred years after Cartier's experience, James Lind, a British naval surgeon, having read of this incident, launched the experiments which proved the dietary basis of scurvy.

For a long time our ethnic arrogance foreclosed any serious attention to the medical knowledge which the "savages" might have. Our ancestors were repelled by the "superstitious rites" which often accompanied the native curing procedures, and shrank from the notion that an "uncivilized" race might have something to teach them. Consequently, "Indian medicine" long remained the last resort of the explorer and frontiersman, and was later the adopted child of "folk medicine." Only after it had gone through these stages, in the course of centuries, did some of the Indian discoveries attract the attention of scientific medicine. Much was found to be worthless, but an astonishing number of Indian drugs and treatments were found to be of enormous value. Even in comparatively recent times, Indian discoveries have helped to open new frontiers in medical history. Peruvian Indians knew the narcotic effects of coca leaves for hundreds of years, but not until 1884 did Carl Koller ascertain the value of cocaine as a local anesthetic. In this century, practical applications have been found for curare, the arrow poison of the Amazon tribes. Dr. Frederick Banting, discoverer of insulin, credited Indian healers with the "pharmaceutical spadework" which led to it. Prior to his untimely death, he had planned to write a book on Indian and Eskimo medical practice. Indian drugs which were used to suppress ovulation and control the menstrual cycle started researchers on the road which led to "the pill." Some Indians even stumbled upon the working principle of modern antibiotics, although of course they were unaware of how and why certain molds and fungi produced desired results.

Clearly there is a vast untold story here. When Frederick Jackson Turner set forth his thesis on the frontier influence in American history, near the end of the last century, he pointed out that the pioneer, at first, was compelled by the environment to live like an Indian. "The wilderness masters the colonist," he wrote, and "the frontier environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish." We know he dressed like an Indian, hunted like an Indian, and planted Indian corn. He also accepted native remedies and treatments for his illnesses. "In the days of our sickness," wrote Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in the eighteenth century, "we shall have recourse to their [the Indians'] medical knowledge, which is well calculated for the simple diseases to which they are subject." Such words were inspired by necessity rather than by any Rousseauvian concept of the noble savage. Circumstances compelled the adoption of Indian medicine on the frontier, but its influence did not stop there, or even at the seacoast; nor did it end with the passing of the frontier.

Acculturation, as the anthropologists indicate, proceeds in more than one direction, although the drama of the conquest and settlement of America has tended to obscure this reality. We have seen so much of the visible aspects of American Indian culture diminish or disappear and have lost sight of the origin of so much that we have borrowed that there is little wonder that awareness is lacking in some circles concerning the extent of "counter-acculturation" upon the numerically and politically dominant race. It is here sought to bring to light something that has been ignored or forgotten, and to provide some small basis for a new appraisal of the acculturation process in America.

The most important evidence of Indian influence on American medicine is seen in the fact that more than two hundred indigenous drugs which were used by one or more Indian tribes have been official in The Pharmacopeia of the United States of America for varying periods since the first edition appeared in 1820, or in the National Formulary since it began in 1888. So complete, in fact, was the aboriginal knowledge of their native flora that Indian usage can be demonstrated for all but a bare half dozen, at most, of our indigenous vegetable drugs. In a surprising number of instances, moreover, the aboriginal uses of these drugs corresponded with those approved in the Dispensatory of the United States. There is in addition a list of several hundred aboriginal remedies which have been used in domestic medicine as well as by physicians, although they have not won official acceptance.

Dr. Erwin Ackerknecht has declared that "there are no good modern monographs on Indian medicine." What is especially lacking is a study of the extent to which American Indian remedies and therapeutic practices have been adopted by white society. A few comments which have been made by some medical historians will serve to illustrate this need. Colonel P. M. Ashburn, of the United States Army Medical Corps, has declared that "the savage Indians and the Negroes contributed little or nothing of value to any branch of medicine, and from them we received a mass of superstition and ignorance that reinforced and strengthened what we had brought from Europe, a heritage that still plagues us." Not even the Aztecs or the Incas, in Ashburn's view, contributed anything valuable to the sum of European medicine. Yet the Aztecs, whose herbal knowledge is revealed in the Badianus Manuscript, knew and used cochineal, liquidambar, cotton, tobacco, passion flowers, datura, and other drugs which have been adopted into European and American pharmacopeias. South American Indians contributed such well-known drugs as coca, cinchona, curare, and ipecac to world medicine. The Mayas used capsicum, chenopodium, guaiacum, and vanilla, along with many other drugs which were later adopted by Europeans.

While there is no doubt that Indian medicine, from Bering Strait to the Strait of Magellan, was nowhere a science, there are perhaps grounds for comparing it in that respect with European medicine of the same period, which was still under the sway of the doctrine of signatures and the Galenic humors. While the Aztecs used such substances as decomposed corpse, 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. As late as the eighteenth century, the materia medica of Herman Boerhaave included dragon's blood, oil of scorpions, troches of vipers, crab's eyes, and chalk.

In retrospect, one who is cognizant of all the miracles of modern scientific medicine may find little to admire in American primitive medicine, but physicians contemporary with the early exploratory period sometimes took a more favorable view. Nicholas Monardes, "a physician of Seville" (1493–1588), extolled the virtues of such products of the American native materia medica as tobacco, sassafras, guaiacum, sarsaparilla, and balsams,

wherewith thei doe cure and make whole many infirmities, which if wee did lacke them, thei were incurable, and without any remedie ...for which cause I did pretend to treate, and to write, of all thynges that thei bryng from out Indias, whiche serveth for the arte and use of Medicine.

The American Indian contribution to medicine is minimized by John Duffy, who takes issue with the claim of Charles Gayarré that the Natchez Indians discovered over three hundred medicinal plants, of which a collection was sent to France by the King's commissary, La Chaise, together with a memoir on the subject by Le Page du Pratz. In reply, Duffy cites Dr. Eric Stone's report that the Indians added fifty-nine drugs to the "modern pharmacopeia," and charges that Gayarré was led astray by his enthusiasm, stemming from the fact that he "belonged to the generation of James Fenimore Cooper and the noble savage." Stone, however, merely totaled the number of Indian medicinals which were official at the time he wrote. Moreover, many Indian drugs which have been used in medicine have never been included in the pharmacopeia.

Dr. Johann David Schöpf, a German physician, published in 1787 a list of 335 vegetable remedies indigenous to the eastern United States, many of which were reputedly learned from the Indians. The Reverend Manasseh Cutler in 1785 gave credit to the Indians for many of the 379 indigenous medical plants which he described. The first United States Pharmacopeia, in 1820, listed only 225 vegetable remedies, foreign and domestic. Heber W. Youngken, a pharmaceutical historian, in 1924–25 culled from the work of various investigators a list of 450 plant remedies used by the Indians. In the present work, confined to remedies used by both Indians and whites, more than 500 botanical drugs have been listed. Huron H. Smith listed more than 200 botanical remedies used by the Meskwaki tribe alone, of which very few are adventive plants.

Some ethnologists have understated the extent of Indian medical discoveries. Ruth Underhill listed only two medicinal plants, cinchona and ipecac, as native to nuclear America. Walter James Hoffman, who was initiated into the Midewiwin or Grand Medicine Society in both the Ojibwa and Menominee tribes, was convinced that the efficacious Indian remedies had been learned from whites:

When there is an administration of a remedy for a given complaint, based upon true scientific principles, it is only in consequence of such practice having been acquired from the whites, as it has usually been the custom of the Catholic Fathers to utilize all ordinary and available remedies for the treatment of the common disorders of life.

After listing fifty-six drugs used by the Ojibwas, many of which he found to be, from a scientific and medical standpoint, specific remedies for the complaints for which they were recommended, he remarked that "It is probable that long continued intercourse between the Ojibwa and the Catholic Fathers, who were tolerably well versed in the ruder forms of medication, had much to do with improving an older and purely aboriginal form of practicing medical magic." Even a cursory examination of the Jesuit Relations, however, indicates that the French priests were more disposed to rely on prayer and European drugs in sickness, and that occasionally the Indian tried to teach them something of indigenous remedies. Among the Hurons in 1637, Father Francois Joseph Le Mercier wrote that a sorcerer proposed sweat, prayers, and certain roots to cure fevers among the French, and that the Indian "named to us two roots,—very efficacious, he said against fevers,—and instructed us in the method of using them." The priest replied that sweating and prayers to the devil were of no use, but "as far as natural remedies were concerned, we would willingly employ them, and that he would oblige us by teaching us some of them."

Dr. Robert Carlisle Major has declared that the medicine of the Indians was "as good as could be expected, and, freed of its grosser superstitions, would not have been so far inferior, in its practical results, to that of their conquerors," but concluded that "we look in vain for any outstanding contribution and that is natural in the very order of things." In contrast, Melvin R. Gilmore, in his study of the medicine of the Plains tribes, held that the Indians, because of their dependence upon nature, were especially observant of their natural environment and reported that his informants "generally showed keen powers of perception of the structure, habits, and local distribution of plants throughout a wide range of observation, thus manifesting the incipiency of phytogeography, plant ecology, and morphology." Among the pharmaceutical contributions of Indians north of the Río Grande, Dr. Stone has singled out cascara sagrada, lobelia, puccoon, and cohosh as worthy of note. Dr. Harlow Brooks praised the Indians for their knowledge of laxative, diuretic, emetic, and febrifuge drugs, and added that the American variety of foxglove was correctly used by them for its cardiac stimulant properties for hundreds of years before Withering discovered digitalis in England. Captain John G. Bourke, an army officer with experience on the Indian frontier late in the last century, was convinced that "the world owes a large debt to the medicine-men of America, who first discovered the virtues of coca, sarsaparilla, jalap, cinchona, and guiacum." Bourke called attention to their knowledge of enemata, for which they used a syringe made of an animal bladder and a hollow leg bone. Several writers have credited the Indians with the independent invention of this useful device. According to Clark Wissler, South American Indians used a rubber syringe in pre-Columbian times, and Gilmore claims that the animal bladder and bone syringe was in use by Indians of the United States prior to contact with Europeans. Charlevoix noted the use of such an instrument by Canadian Indians in 1721,28 and later writers reported its use in widely scattered places. Syringes were also used to medicate wounds.

In a plea for abandonment of the prevalent bias against folk science, the anthropologist Weston La Barre has called attention to the extraordinary contributions of South American Indians to medicine, and declared:

As scientists we cannot afford the luxury of an ethnocentric snobbery which assumes a priori that primitive cultures have nothing whatsoever to contribute to civilization. Our civilization is in fact a compendium of such borrowings, and it is a demonstrable error to believe that contacts of "higher" and "lower" cultures show benefits flowing exclusively in one direction. Indeed, a good case could probably be made that in the long run it is the "higher" culture which benefits the more through being enriched, while the "lower" culture not uncommonly disappears entirely as a result of the contact.


Indian Theories of Disease, and Shamanistic Practices

It is not here contended that American Indians used scientific methods of experiment and reasoning in adopting remedies and methods of treatment. Indian medicine was not more rational than that of Europe at the time of the discovery, with the possible exception of obstetric practices; whether it was less so is a debatable question. The number of worthless simples used by Indians is perhaps not greater than that found in early European works on materia medica. Although sixteenth-century European medicine was on the threshold of a tremendous forward movement, it was still filled with superstition and untested theories.

Indian treatment of externally caused injuries, in which the origin of the ailment was perfectly obvious, was usually rational and often effective. In such a category were fractures, dislocations, wounds of all kinds, including snake and insect bites, skin irritations, bruises, and the like. In cases of persistent internal disease, where the cause was not apparent, the usual Indian custom was to attribute the disease to supernatural agency. If ordinary medicines did not soon bring relief, they resorted to shamanistic methods, such as incantations, charms, prayers, dances, the shaking of rattles, and the beating of drums.

Much has been written on these irrational features of Indian medicine; the literature on them is so extensive and readily available that there is no need here to do more than give a brief description. The disproportionate attention that they have received has tended to obscure much that is potentially useful in aboriginal medicine.


Excerpted from American Indian Medicine by Virgil J. Vogel. Copyright © 1970 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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