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Native American Medicine – An Introduction


Native American medicine is a collective of the old healing practices, herbal cures and other remedies of the North American tribes. These were gathered and passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Over time, the various treatment methods of the different tribes were integrated, making it difficult to trace the origin of a specific healing technique.

Interconnectedness among the different creatures is a core concept in Native American medicine. The North American Indian tribes also believe that the purpose of the elements is to provide strength to people and cure their disease and man must therefore listen to what nature has to say. These medical practices have been in existence for more than 4,000 years. They include traditional cures, ceremonial dances, rituals, and remedies that were inherited from their ancestors.

A keen student of alternative medicine would find it interesting that the system of Native American medicine was in place at the same time that traditional Chinese medicine was being used in another continent across the globe and while Ayurvedic medicine was being practiced in India. Other than the congruent time lines, it is remarkable that these indigenous medical systems bear similarities in philosophy — that of the need for balance in man and harmony with nature.

All three systems follow the same basic principle in healing. They all focus on the patient's way of life and relationship with their environment prior to treatment. They all have the same goal: to help the patient attain balance and achieve perfect health in all three levels: physical, mental and emotional, and spiritual.

However, they do differ when it comes to cures because they have to use herbs and plants native to their region. It is believed that all living creatures have spirits, plants included. The practice in Native American medicine includes paying respects to the plants and asking for their guidance on the best way to cure the patient. Harvest of bark, roots, leaves, flowers or fruits is done only after asking for permission from the plants themselves while expression of gratitude is obligatory.

The same practice was observed in ancient Celtic cultures as evidenced by the pieces of copper and other metals found buried near plants and trees. Native American medicine healers and patients usually offered tobacco to thank the plants. Rituals like chants, prayers and ceremonial dances often accompany the applications of the medicinal plants to amplify their power and to implore the spirits' help with healing.

Native American medicine healers perform smudging before and prior to the healing session. Smudging, or space clearing, is a ritual for cleansing a person, place or an object. It is done by burning an herb (just like incense) and letting the smoke engulf the place. The objective is to purify the place and clear it of negative energies that may have been released by the sick patient during the treatment.

Commonly used for smudging are cedar and sage. They quickly remove the negative energy and replace it with positive energy. Negative energy is released when the patient is relieved of his pain, as in pain equals negative energy. This same malevolent energy can also be picked up by the healer during the treatment and hence must be cleansed.

Wild sage is abundant in the dry parts of North America, particularly in the Southwest although it also grows in the north like in the Eastern Washington State. Cedars possess great healing powers and can soothe most pains. However, do not inhale its smoke as it is toxic. Another sacred plant is sweet grass which is believed to invite positive and happy spirits to participate in the healing process.

The Native American medicine healers like to snack on something sweet during the session and make sure that a dessert is always placed in the corner of the treatment room. These healers also favor singing to the accompaniment of drums and rattles.

Other than the use of herbs, Native American medicine includes stimulation of body points similar to acupressure, massage and therapeutic touch. The Native American medicine healer lays his hands on the patient to calm him and soothe his pains. The technique is also used to locate the source of the pain. Pain emits heat, and the Native American medicine healer can easily detect this on the patient, just like the way mothers feel their children's foreheads to check for fever.

Also see An Introduction to Chinese Medicine and Tracing the Roots of Alternative Medicine.

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