Calls for our federal government to take a larger role in health care should cause astute folk to review what they can do to maintain their own health. That’s because government views people as populations of thousands or millions; so citizens who wish to have individual attention for their health concerns should probably prepare to provide some care for themselves.
The first Americans, the Indians, took care of their health needs using the materials nature provided. Here is a summary of health care as the Native Americans knew it. Perhaps the example of people who did a lot using very little will encourage us to approach our own health needs with creativity and optimism.
Native Americans had great regard for every aspect of the natural world. They realized that self–destructive behavior dishonored a part of nature—their own bodies. They were grateful for good health and put their trust in the treatments they found in nature.
For example, the Dakota tribe burned red cedar twigs to cure head colds. The smoke was inhaled while the patient sat under a blanket which was wrapped in a teepee shape. This unexciting, scientifically–unproven treatment was accepted by the Dakotas and other Plains tribes who knew that patience and time would make up for any deficiencies in the medicine.
Indians were quite matter-of-fact about treating any problem that was visible or where improvement was discernable, such as with cuts, broken bones, and colds. But problems with internal organs were a mystery, and often blamed on spirits. Native Americans believed that a lack of reverence for animals, plants, the land, or natural phenomena would anger the spirit world.
If a Seneca hunter killed a muskrat without offering a prayer to the spirit of the muskrat, it was believed that that spirit could injure the hunter. The Senecas had several schools of medicine men. One school dealt with otter spirits, another specialized in spirits of bears, and so on. Which medicine man to call depended on the symptoms a patient displayed.
Across North America, Native American tribes relied on their local plants and animals as sources of medicine. One universal treatment, which may have come to America with the first migrants across the Bering land bridge, was the sweat lodge. A sweat lodge was a hut, usually covered with bark peeled from trees. A small fire made the lodge work like a sauna. Water or herbal tea was drizzled on rocks near the fire to make steam. The sweat lodge was used for ceremonies, but anyone who had aching joints or a cold could use it as well. Some problems responded to dry heat, so sometimes the steam treatment was omitted. Today we know that raising the body temperature discourages the multiplication of pathogenic bacteria and viruses.
Illnesses were not treated aggressively unless the person lost their appetite. A seriously ill person was made to lie down on the ground by the fire and covered with a blanket, with a hole scooped out of the ground for a bedpan. The patient was served a thin broth made of corn. Foods containing meat were withheld until the person began to recover. Members of the tribe gathered by the side of the sick person to massage them and chant over them. The songs and chants were intended to drive off evil spirits and give courage to the patient.
Indian medicine men were quite adept at treatment of external injuries, including bullet and arrow wounds. Infected wounds were cleaned by suction, usually by the medicine man applying his mouth to the area and sucking the purulent material out. Snake bites and boils were treated in similar fashion. The Indians also made syringes from an animal bladder attached to a hollow bone. The syringes were used to draw pus from wounds and to irrigate wounds using herbal teas. The Choctaws used ground–up dried herbs to treat wounds. One herb promoted drainage, which cleared foreign matter. When the wound was clean, a second herb was put in the wound to cause it to dry and heal. John Brickell, writing in 1737, told of a planter in Virginia who was cured of a persistent weeping leg ulcer by a local medicine man. The Indian healer dusted the ulcer with powdered kernels of corn that had been infected with a fungus called corn smut. Though some treatments used by the Indians are now considered ineffective, suboptimal, or toxic, many remedies agreed with European or Asian folk medicine. Historian Virgil Vogel counted 170 drugs used by North American Indians which became official remedies in the United States Pharmacopeia or the National Formulary.
Plants common to the west used in Native American medicine include cottonwood, tamarack, dogwood, willow, elderberry, and sagebrush. The sticky, strong–smelling buds of the cottonwood were applied externally as ointments or poultices for cuts, sores, eczema, and baldness. The Indians treated coughs, colds, headaches, and colic with a tea brewed from buds or inner bark.
Cottonwood, like its smaller relative the streamside willow, contains an aspirin–like medicine that treats pain and fever. During pioneer days in the Boise Valley, summers brought a relapsing fever that settlers thought was a form of malaria. They drank tea made from willow or dogwood twigs to break the fever.
For the Nez Perce and other Northwestern tribes, the tamarack was a tree of many uses. They believed that babies who were bathed in water in which tamarack leaves had been soaked would grow up healthy and good natured. The bark and pitch served as first aid for cuts and bruises. Coughs and sore throats were eased by drinking a tea made from the bark. The tea was used externally on aching arthritic joints.
Indians drank tea made from black or blue elderberries as a cure for colds. The elderberry fruit has been shown to protect against flu viruses. Elder leaves, bark, and roots have also been used by Native Americans and in European folk medicine, but they contain poisonous chemicals. Only tea made from elder flowers or fruit is considered safe—if used in moderation. Red elderberries are more toxic than blue or black berries and should not be consumed.
Sagebrush, an icon of the inland West, was burned in lodges and wigwams to sweeten the atmosphere. Smoke from sagebrush was inhaled to treat head colds. Drinking sagebrush tea made from leaves was an excellent way to induce vomiting, but sometimes small sips were taken for headaches or respiratory infections. Tea from branches was used for gargling when someone had a sore throat. Dried leaves were ground into powder and used like talcum on babies’ bottoms.
Vigorous exercise, simple foods, and a serene approach to life probably contributed to the Native Americans’ reputation for good health. Though they lacked such mainstays of medicine as opium–based pain killers, and did not understand internal ailments, they tried to make life tolerable in the midst of a wilderness. Although we might never use a single treatment from Indian lore, the Native American approach to health care holds lessons worth keeping in mind.

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