Native Medicines and Herbal Cures
Written and researched by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewska, B.F.A.

"Some pharmacologists believe that the Indian's knowledge of herbal curatives and paliatives equaled, and perhaps even surpassed, in some respects, modern man's expertize with natural drugs" (Maxwell, James A. Editor, America's Fscinating Indian Heritage,Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1996).

The Iroquois had names and uses for a large number of plants:

Seneca/Senega/Snakeroot ... (polygala senega) was used as a snakebite remedy. Whites used it as a stimulent or expectorant in pulmonary (lung) ailments, such as asthma.

Ginseng (panax quinquefolium)... Ginseng is known to help the body to adjust to emotional and physical stress, and as a toxic. Back in the eighteenth (18th) century some "Yankee" in China trade noticed that panax quinquefolium resembled Chinese ginseng (panax schinseng). On his next trip to the Orient, he took several hundred pounds of American ginseng to the Orient and sold it to the Chinese. Ginseng had always been a "cure-all" to them.(Gibbons, Euell, Stalking the Heathful Herbs. Putney, VT: Aland C. Hood and Company, Inc. 1966). American Ginseng, which grews originally only in North America is prized in Asia,and may be prescribed there is cases where high quality is crucial (Khalsa, Karta Purkh Singh. "Age-Old Tonic," Great Life, February 1999, 22)

The roots are generally used in both plants, and the Chinese version is said to resemble the body of man. In Maxwell's book (cited above), it is written that a Chinese ginseng plant was found growing in Iroquois territory in 1716 by William F. Fenton. So it seems that Ginseng traveled both ways.

Blue Lobelia ... (lobelia syphilitica) was a remedy for syphilis. Sir William Johnson, Indian Agent to the Iroquois, purchased this herb from the Iroquois to take back to the British Isles. It was also used as an expectorant, emetic (induces vomiting), and diuretic (increases the volume of urine).

Indian tobacco ... (lobelia inflata) contains the alkaloid lobeline, an effective expectorant used for asthma. It promotes the release of adrenal hormones and thus relaxes the bronchial muscles.

Indian pokeroot ... (phytolacca decandra) the root was chewed for the relief of faintness, also said to cure some types of cancer.

Witch-Hazel ... (Hamamelis virginiana) Use bark and leaves. An Astringent, tonic, or sedantive used in poultices, ointments, etc.

The Iroquois made a tea-like beverage of dried witch-hazel leaves, which they sweetened with maple syrup. Its tannin content also makes this tea (when cool) an excellent gargle for sore throats. Hot water poured over fresh witch-hazel leaves made a poultice for sprains, bruising, and swelling. Leaves were applied as hot as the patient could tolerate them.

Elderberries ... (sambucus canadensis) the fruit and inner bark were given to cause sweating and diuresis.

Adder's tongue ... (erythronium americanum) Use the bulbs and leaves. These bulbs were washed and eaten. Used for an emetic and for gout. It is said to cleanse the body. Emollient, antiscorbutic when fresh, nutritive when dried).

Alder ... (alnus) Common alder was an Onondaga remedy for ague and inflamation.

Black alder ... (primos verticillats) was used as an astringent and tonic.

Anemone ... (trintulus americana) was used for consumption.

Chili peppers (capsisum frutescena) were brought from Mexico. They densensitize the airway mucous for breaking asthma attacks.

Indian sage ... (Eupatorium perfoliatum) said to relive fevers, colds, and influenza.

Bearberry ... (arctostaphlos Uva-ursi) remedy for kidney, bladder, and other urinary troubles (infections). Dried leaves are used as astringent and diuretic.
Put one ounce of dried, crumbled leaves into a jar and pour enough gin (another diuretic) just to cover them. Soak overnight, then the next morning pour on a pint of boiling water and leave until cool. Strain and take the entire amount in one day, in three equal doses (morning, noon, and night).

Wintergreen ... (Gaultheria procumbens) Used for wintergreen tea. Essential oil of wintergreen is 99% methyl salicylate (relieves aches and pains).
American Indians used it for headaches, rheumatism, and other aches and pains.

Squaw Mint ... (hedeoma pulegiodes) makes a flavorful tea. Got it's name from the mountain men, who many times co-habitated with Indian women. Although this is usually not thought of as a pleasant reference to Native woman, the name has stayed.
Native American women used it to help suppress menstruation. Many believed it could prevent pregnancy by drinking the hot tea daily.

Pennyroyal ... is a natural insect repellent and can guard against mosquitoes and fleas. Putting pennyroyal sachets in your sweater drawer can repel moths and smells much better than mothballs, which are known to be toxic.

Slippery elm ... (ulmus fulva) ... was used by Native Americans as poultices.
Stir one (1) heaping teaspoon of the fine-powdered bark into enough cold water to make a thin paste, then quickly stir into a pint of boiling water. Flavor with cinnamon or nutmeg. This is good for coughs and phlegm.
Poultices of slippery elm helps burns, bruises, wounds, and ulcers.

Marsh-Marigold ... (Caltha palustris) ... was used to treat warts, to stop "fits," dropsy, and anemia.

Squaw Vine ... (Mitchella repens) ... Use the whole plant. Used as a diuretic, astringent, and tonic.

Squaw weed ... Senecio aureus (of the aster family) ... was used as a femal tonic (roots and herb)

Corn ... corn ... corn silk was used as a duiretic and demulcent.

Wild Ginger ... Asarum canadense ... was used for indigestion and an extract of the plant is still used today as a substitute for true ginger (singiber officinale) in the treatment of dyspepsia.

Bloodroot ... Sanguinaria candensis ... its juice was used for jaundice. Astringent properties of this herb were used on open sores, for ringworm, and ulcers.

Indian medicine was closely allied to religious beliefs and mythology, and most internal diseases were attributed to supernatural causes. Psychological factors played a big part in cures. Dreams were very import. Many times shaman or their patient's dreams would help formulate a cure.

Indian drugs Were Obtained by White Man by:

(1) accounts of early explorers, missionaries, traders, captives, etc.

(2) reports of herbalists and botanists.

(3) physicians who practiced Indian herbalogy.

The Iroquois had advanced knowledge of wounds, fractures, fevers, and childbirth problems. Iroquois splints were said to be superior to those used by the whites.

One cure that I remember (via family tradition) from my great-grandmother involved the use of earthworms. She collected them, washed them, and put them in a closed jar in a window with a southern or western exposure. The jelly-like sweat that the worms emitted was said to be an ointment for cuts and stiff joints (used externally). I remember my father telling me that when my grandfather Dickerson had an accident on the railway and lost two fingers, she used this cure. He healed up very fast. However, I do not know if this was used in conjunction with an herb or not ... unfortunately many of these cures were not written down, and those that were are since lost.

My great-grandmother also made a syrup of spikenard, sweet fern, yellow dock, elecampane, and bloodroot.

Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776) was a physician, botanist, and statesman. He was the Lt. Governor of colonial New York. He wrote History of the Five Nations, and recorded many of the herbal remedies of the Iroquois, which he used in his own practice.

Of the 170 drugs that are still used today, about 50 were used by Native Americans first.

Caution: Do not attempt to grow and use these herbs yourself! There are too many unknown factors, such as pesticides, pollution, tainted soil compostition, improper identification of plants, etc. which can alter results and even poison you!!! Many times climatic conditions can also be a factor.Also do not take chances with your life, please consult a doctor!

Health Links:

The Mayo Clinic ... Personal Guide to Health Information
Health Finder, consumers health and services information ... Dr. Stephen Barrett's guide to Health Fraud, Quackery, and How to Know the Difference
Dr. Russell Razzaque's Cyber Analysis Clinic


Other Herbal sites:

Traditional Herbal and Plant Knowledge and Identification


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