Medicine is an agent or influence employed to prevent, alleviate, or
cure some pathological condition or its symptoms. The scope of such
agents among the Indians was extensive, ranging, as among other
primitive peoples, from magic, prayer, force of suggestion, and a
multitude of symbolic and empirical means, to actual and more rationally
used remedies. Where the Indians are in contact with whites the old
methods of combating physical ills are slowly giving way to the curative
agencies of civilization. The white man in turn has adopted from the
Indians a number of valuable medicinal plants, such as cinchona, jalapa,
In general the tribes show many similarities in regard
to medicine, but the actual agents employed differ with the tribes and
localities, as well as with individual healers. Magic, prayers, songs,
exhortation, suggestion, ceremonies, fetishes, and certain specifics and
mechanical processes are employed only by the medicine-men or
medicine-women; other specific remedies or procedures are proprietary,
generally among a few old women in the tribe; while many vegetal
remedies and simple manipulations are of common knowledge in a given
The employment of magic consists in opposing a supposed
malign influence, such as that of a sorcerer, spirits of the dead,
mythic animals, etc., by the supernatural power of the healer's fetishes
and other means. Prayers are addressed to benevolent deities and
spirits, invoking their aid. Healing songs, consisting of prayers or
exhortations, are sung. Harangues are directed to evil spirits supposed
to cause the sickness, and often are accentuated by noises to frighten
such spirits away. Suggestion is exercised in many ways directly and
indirectly. Curative ceremonies usually combine all or most of the
agencies mentioned. Some of them, such as Matthews describes among the
Navaho, are very elaborate, prolonged, and costly. The fetishes used are
peculiarly shaped stones or wooden objects, lightning-riven wood,
feathers, claws, hair, figurines of mythic animals, representations of
the sun, of lightning, etc, and are supposed to embody a mysterious
power capable of preventing disease or of counteracting its effects.
Mechanical means of curing consist of rubbing, Pressure with the hands
or feet, or with a sash or cord (as in labor or in painful affections of
the chest) bonesetting, cut sucking, cauterizing, scarifying, cupping
(by sucking), blood-letting, poulticing, clysmata, sweat bath, sucking
of snake poison or abscesses, counter irritation, tooth pulling,
bandaging, etc. Dieting and total abstinence from food were forms of
treatment in vogue in various localities. Vegetal medicines were, and in
some tribes still are, numerous. Some of these are employed by reason of
a real or fancied resemblance to the part affected, or as fetishes,
because of a supposed mythical antagonism to the cause of the sickness.
Thus, a plant with a worm-like stem may be given as a vermifuge; one
that has many hair-like processes is used among the Hopi to cure
baldness. Among the Apache the sacred tule pollen known as ha-dn-tin is
given or applied because of its supposed supernatural beneficial effect.
Other plants are employed as remedies simply for traditional reasons,
without any formulated opinion as to their modes of action.
the tribes are familiar with and employ cathartics and emetics; in some
cases also diaphoretics, diuretics, cough medicines, etc. Every tribe
has also knowledge of some of the poisonous plants in its neighborhood
and their antidotes.
The parts of plants used as medicines are most often
roots, occasionally twigs, leaves, or bark, but rarely flowers or seeds.
They are used either fresh or dry, and most commonly in the form of a
decoction. Of this a considerable quantity, as much as a cupful, is
administered at a time, usually in the morning. Only exceptionally is
the dose repeated.
Generally only a single plant is used, but among some
Indians as many as four plants are combined in a single medicine; some
of the Opata mix indiscriminately a large number of substances. The
proprietary medicines are sold at a high price. Some of these plants, so
far as they are known, possess real medicinal value, but many are quite
useless for the purpose for which they are prescribed. There is a
prevalent belief that the Indians are acquainted with valuable specifics
for venereal diseases, snake bites, etc., but how far this belief may be
true has not yet been shown.
Animal and mineral substances are also occasionally
used as remedies. Among Southwestern tribes the bite of a snake is often
treated by applying to the wound a portion of the ventral surface of the
body of the same snake. The Papago use crickets as medicine; the
Tarahumare, lizards; the Apache, spiders' eggs. Among the Navaho and
others red ocher combined with fat is used externally to prevent
sunburn. The red, barren clay from beneath a campfire is used by White
Mountain Apache women to induce sterility; the Hopi blow charcoal,
ashes, or other products of fire on an inflamed surface to counteract
the supposed fire which causes the ailment. Antiseptics are unknown, but
some of the cleansing agents or healing powders employed probably serve
as such, though undesignedly on the part of the Indians.
The exact manner of therapeutic action is as absolutely
unknown to the Indian as it is to the ignorant white man. Among some
tribes the term for medicine signifies "mystery," but among others a
distinction is made between thaumaturgic practices and actual medicines.
Occasionally the term "medicine" is extended to a higher class of
greatly prized fetishes that are supposed to be imbued with mysterious
protective power over an individual or even over a tribe (see Orenda).
Such objects form the principal contents of the so-called medicine-bags.
In many localities there was prepared on special
occasions a tribal "medicine." The Iroquois used such a remedy for
healing wounds, and the Hopi still prepare one on the occasion of their
Snake dance. Among the tribes who prepare tiswin, or tesvino,
particularly the Apache, parts of a number of bitter, aromatic, and even
poisonous plants, especially a species of datura, are added to the
liquid to make it "stronger"; these are termed medicines.
The causation and the nature of disease being to the
Indian in large part mysteries, he assigned them to supernatural
agencies. In general, every illness that could not plainly be connected
with a visible influence was regarded as the effect of an introduction
into the body, by malevolent or offended supernatural beings or through
sorcery practiced by an enemy, of noxious objects capable of producing
and continuing pain or other symptoms, or of absorbing the patient's
vitality. These beliefs, and the more rational ones concerning many
minor indispositions and injuries, led to the development of separate
forms of treatment, and varieties of healers.
In every Indian tribe there were, and in some tribes
still are, a number of men, and perhaps also a number of women, who were
regarded as the possessors of supernatural powers that enabled them to
recognize, antagonize, or cure disease; and there were others who were
better acquainted with actual remedies than the average.
classes were the "physicians." They were oftentimes distinguished in
designation and differed in influence over the people as well as in
responsibilities. Among the Dakota one was called wakan witshasha,
'mystery man'. the other pejihuta witshasha. 'grass-root man'; among the
Navaho one is khathali, 'singer', 'chanter', the other izéëlini, 'maker
of medicines'; among the Apache one is taiyin, 'wonderful,' the other
simply izé, `medicine.'
The mystery man, or thaumaturgist, was believed to have
obtained from the deities, usually through dreams, but sometimes before
birth, powers of recognizing and removing the mysterious causes of
disease. He was "given" appropriate songs or prayers, and became
possessed of one or more powerful fetishes. He announced or exhibited
these attributes, and after convincing his tribesmen that he possessed
the proper requirements, was accepted as a healer.
In some tribes he was
called to treat all diseases, in others his functions were specialized,
and his treatment was regarded as efficacious in only a certain line of
affections. He was feared as well as respected. In numerous instances
the medicine-man combined the functions of a shaman or priest with those
of a healer, and thus exercised a great influence among his people. All
priests were believed to possess some healing powers. Among most of the
populous tribes the medicine-man of this class were associated in guilds
or societies, and on special occasions performed great healing or "life
(vitality) giving" ceremonies, which abounded in songs, prayers, ritual,
and drama, and extended over a period of a few hours to nine days.
The ordinary procedure of the medicine-man was about as
follows: He inquired into the symptoms, dreams, and transgressions of
tabus of the patient, whom be examined, and then pronounced his opinion
as to the nature (generally mythical) of the ailment. He then prayed,
exhorted, or sang, the last, perhaps, to the accompaniment of a rattle;
made passes with his hand, sometimes moistened with saliva, over the
part affected; and finally placed his mouth over the most painful spot
and sucked hard to extract their immediate principle of the illness.
This result he apparently accomplished, often by means of
sleight-of-hand, producing the offending cause in the shape of a thorn,
pebble, hair, or other object, which was then thrown away or destroyed;
finally he administered a mysterious powder or other tangible
"medicine," and perhaps left also a protective fetish. There were many
variations of this method, according to the requirements of the case,
and the medicine-man never failed to exercise as much mental influence
as possible over his patient. For these services the healer was usually
well compensated. If the case would not yield to the simpler treatment a
healing ceremony might be resorted to.
If all means failed, particularly
in the case of internal diseases or of adolescents or younger adults,
the medicine-man often suggested a witch or wizard as the cause, and the
designation of some one as the culprit frequently placed his life in
jeopardy. If the medicine-man lost several patients in succession, he
himself might be suspected either of having been deprived of his
supernatural power or of having become a sorcerer, the penalty for which
was usually death.
These shaman healers as a rule were shrewd and
experienced men; some were sincere, noble characters, worthy of respect;
others were charlatans to a greater or less degree. They are still to,
be found among the less civilized tribes, but are diminishing in number
and losing their influence. Medicine-women of this class were found
among the Apache and some other tribes.
The most accomplished of the medicine-men practiced
also a primitive surgery, and aided, by external manipulation and
otherwise, in difficult labor. The highest surgical achievement,
undoubtedly practiced in part at least as a curative method, was
trephining. This operation was of common occurrence and is still
practiced in Peru, where it reached its highest development among
American tribes. Trephining was also known in quite recent times among
the Tarahumare of Chihuahua, but has never been found north of Mexico.
The other class of medicine men and women corresponds
closely to the Herbalists and the old-fashioned rural midwives among
white people. The women predominated. They formed no societies, were not
so highly respected or so much feared as those of the other class, were
not so well compensated, anal had less responsibility. In general they
used much more common sense in their practice, were acquainted with the
beneficial effects of sweating, poulticing, moxa, scarification, various
manipulations and numerous vegetal remedies, such purgatives, emetics,
etc. Some of these medicine-women were frequently summoned in cases of
childbirth, and sometimes were of material assistance.
Besides these two chief classes healers there existed
among some tribes large medicine societies, composed principally, of
patients cured of serious ailments. This was particularly the case among
the Pueblos. At Zuñi there still exist several such societies, whose
members include the greater part of the tribe and whose organization and
function are complex. The ordinary members are not actual healers, but
are believed to be more competent to assist in the particular line of
diseases which are the specialty of their society and therefore may be
called by the actual medicine-men for assistance. They participate also
in the ceremonies of their own society. See Anatomy, Health and Disease,
For writings on the subject consult Hrdlicka,
Physiological and Medical Observations, Bull. 33, B. A. E., 1907
Handbook of American Indians, Frederick W. Hodge,1906
BACK TO ARTICLE/CHAPTER LIST