Traditional health care as practiced by America’s indigenous peoples has a long history. For thousands of years, herbal remedies and healing rituals have been the basis of medical treatment for native peoples from Alaska to South America. However, in the 20th century, some practices were banned—until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. Health systems serving indigenous populations now employ time-honored treatments and ceremonies in restoring their patients to health.
Traditional American aboriginal healing, unlike traditional “white man’s medicine,” does not differentiate between spiritual, mental, and physical health. In fact, the more than 500 nations that make up American indigenous peoples have a common belief: that there is a spiritual cause of almost all illnesses. In order to enjoy good health, an individual must abide by religious precepts, observe community laws, and value all life (human, animal, plant, and even entities such as rocks and rivers). Failure to do so negatively affects the mind-body-spirit balance, with illness as the result.
To restore this equilibrium, patients turn to medicine people. These individuals may receive their healing power from a vision or by being a member of a family of healers. Both men and women may fill this role, and many are shamans (holy people) as well. Their relationship with the people in need of their services goes beyond curing the illness; they instill confidence and hope and often play the role of counselor. Whatever their titles, healers treat the patient, not the disease.
For these reasons, traditional medicine is a combination of ritual and remedy. Sweat lodges are a well-known example of spiritual healing. Not only do sweat baths restore spiritual, mental, and physical harmony, sweating improves endocrine gland function, removes toxins and germs, and stimulates the heart to pump more blood. Ceremonies such as Lakota and Navajo sings, which can last from two to nine days and are led by an adept singer, are reported to cure disorders as varied as diabetes, asthma, and skin rashes.
Herbal remedies play this dual role, as well. Sage, for example, is deemed to have the power to remove bad spirits from body and soul. This attractive flowering plant is used to treat a number of ailments, including digestive disorders, kidney, lung, bone, and skin conditions, allergies, and anxiety. Cedar fruit and leaves, when boiled and drunk, are an affective cough remedy.
Indigenous peoples of the Americas are to thank for many medicines that are used worldwide to treat and cure a variety of diseases. Quinine was initially used by the Incas to remedy heart-rhythm abnormalities, cramps, and more. The drug gained recognition in Europe in the 17th century for its malaria-treating capabilities and eventually began to be employed as an effective fever reducer, pain reliever, and anti-inflammatory. And modern medical care has been revolutionized by a medicine derived from willow bark, better known as aspirin. Even more noteworthy is a traditional method of infection treatment utilizing mold. From this centuries-old remedy was born the life-saving drug known as penicillin.
With a long and successful history of treating the whole patient, traditional medicine plays a central role in restoring individuals and communities to physical, emotional, and spiritual health. It’s a tradition of which native peoples can be proud.