Medicinal herbs of the cherokee nation


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Medicinal herbs of the cherokee nation

  1. 1. Gabe McMahan Tillery 6 Medicinal Herbs of the Cherokee Nation Herbal medication played a key role in the Cherokee Indian Society. It has been said bymany Cherokee Indians that “for every ailment on earth mother earth has a cure.” (Takatoka)By using the herbs usefully the Indians truly believed this possible and in many ways came upwith remedies for most of their problems. Key factors in the study of their herbal medicationsand how they were successful are; how it was used, the qualities for which the herb waschosen, and what the herbs were known to treat. To truly understand the Cherokee Indians use and skill with medicinal herbs knowingthe origin of the practice is fairly important. The Cherokee Indians believe that at one timeanimals and people lived together peacefully but eventually mankind began to multiply togreater numbers. With this greater population mankind began to kill the animals not just forfood but for weapons, and furs all to be sold. The animals did not like this so they had a council.At this council the bears, deer, fish, and reptiles decided many things to combat the humans.The deer decided to inflict a disease on any human who killed an animal without proper needor approval. The fish and the reptiles decided to inflict hideous dreams of snakes entwining thehumans, (in other words anxiety). The bears then eventually decided to inflict pain upon anyhuman who killed an animal unjustly. When the friendly plants of the earth heard of theanimals plan they decided to help the humans. To do this every tree, shrub, herb, grass, andmoss agreed to cure one of the diseases appointed by the animals. (Mooney) This story gavethe basis for the belief in herbal medication and application to the Cherokee nation.
  2. 2. Gabe McMahan Tillery 6 But who were the “herbal doctors” of the Cherokee nation? These “doctors” were calledmedicine men and their job in the Cherokee society was to cure illness in their tribe. Medicinemen could be male or female and they were classified as good and evil. To become a medicineman you had to have a lot of education. The first thing to be learned was herbal medication.This included knowing between 400 and 600 plants and all of their uses. Cherokee physicalmedicine was also needed to be a medicine man. This included; massages, minor surgery, andmidwifery. Another important ability of a medicine man to be learned was dream work, theinterpretation of dreams. Also very important in the “transcripts” of a medicine man were themyths, laws, and language of the Cherokee people. This was a constant learning experience asmedicine men always wanted to learn about these. Ceremonies are another important aspectof being a medicine man. There are seven main ceremonies medicine men put on, six of whichwere for changes in the weather cycle such as the falling leaves festival. Important to Cherokeemedicine men for more of a religious explanation for illnesses and problems were knowledge ofthe laws of nature. The most hard and last increment to learn about being a medicine man wasmastering the ability to conjure. This meant using spirits as aids to change things. Conjuringincluded; healing, “brainwashing”, and protecting the sick or cursed. (Mazaska web design)Knowledge of all these priorities were very important to a medicine man but the application ofthe herbs and how they were used to treat the ill was a necessary skill involved with herbalmedication in the Cherokee nation. There were five main ways of applying the medicinal herbs. The first way was calleddecoction. Decoction is where herbs are boiled for a long amount of time in large amounts ofwater and strained of all the plant matter. The liquid is the only thing used. The next in the list
  3. 3. Gabe McMahan Tillery 6of five is infusion where the plant matter is boiled for a short amount of time and strained ofthe left over plant inside. Another way of using herbs is to macerate it. This is when the plant isbeat and chopped then soaked in cold water to bring out more of the effect. Unlike the firsttwo methods the plant is not stained it is applied directly to the skin. A poultice was the mostcomplicated way of applying herbal medicine for the Cherokee Indians. In making poultices theherb is either boiled or macerated and then wrapped in a cloth and applied to the area. Thesewere mainly used for skin abrasions, swelling, and bruising. (Mountain Garden Club) The lastbut not least way Cherokee’s used herbal medication was by smoking. Cherokee Indiansnormally smoked tobacco for spiritual offerings, healing, and ceremonies. (Cimino) TheCherokees primary reason for smoking tobacco was for head problems such as headaches and atroubled mind. The relaxation of tobacco worked wonders on the Indians. (Anderson) One of the most important uses of the Cherokees herbal medications was for lungdiseases such as lung cancer and asthma. The first plant they use for lung problems was skunkcabbage. It was effective with the relief of the pains of asthma and helped prevent an asthmaattack. They also used mullein which was introduced to them by the European people. Theysmoked it to relieve respiratory complaints and asthma alike. (Millspaugh) Another problem the Cherokee Indians solved with herbal medication was aches. Forheadaches tobacco was smoked and pennyroyal had tea made from it. The Cherokees woulddrink pennyroyal tea and it was said within 30 minutes the pain had subsided. Back Aches werea whole different story. Arnica had tea made from it and was drank to relieve back aches buthas been ruled poisonous by the Dispensary of the U.S. Gentian was used in a different way
  4. 4. Gabe McMahan Tillery 6than the rest. It was put in hot water to sit for long periods of time. While being kept hot whendone the water was poured onto the aching back, and is said to remove all tension andsoreness in the back. If neither of the first two worked horsemint was crushes and allowed tosit in cold water for a variable amount of time. After it was judged “done”, it was drunk tocombat the back aches. (Millspaugh) Fevers, the flu, colds, and bronchitis, were huge diseases back in the times when theCherokee Indians thrived. To combat this Cherokees used a tea of creosote bush to push awaybronchitis. Pleurisy root was also made into a tea to help ward off bronchitis for its success inthe expulsion of phlegm. Wormwood was also known for curing bronchitis just not as wellknown as the other two. Boneset tea was the Cherokees own “home remedies” for curing thecommon cold and is the only widespread cure for the common cold known to man. For coughswild cherry and white pine were used in the form of tea stop the dry throat usually applied witha cough. The Cherokees also used infusion with aspen to create a cure for coughing. Sarsaparillaroots were used with sweet flag roots under hot water to form a dark liquid. This liquid is drunkand is said to be the greatest cure for a cough of any degree in the olden days. Fevers were oneof the most dangerous situations Cherokee Indians faced when it came to illness. They used theinner bark of a dogwood tree to make a tea that was rumored to bring the end of a fever. Theinner bark of a Willow tree was formed into a strong tea to create heavy perspiration in thecase of chills and fever. Feverwort was drunk in a different form than tea. It was a decoction ofthe leafy, perennial herb that was used to stop fevers. The only cure the Cherokees had for theflu was a tea made of the native hemlock rumored to battle influenza. (Millspaugh)
  5. 5. Gabe McMahan Tillery 6 Medicines for insect bites and stings, as well as repellants for bugs were widespreadover the Cherokee nation. Tobacco was a favorite for insect bites; it was wetted and putdirectly onto the bite or sting to get rid of it. Purple coneflower was used as the greatesttreatment for bites and stings of every bug. It was applied directly to the affected area in apoultice. Trumpet honeysuckle was chewed up to be applied to any sting or bite for a bugincluding spiders. There were many other remedies for bites and stings but the majority ofthem involved chewing the plant to take the “fire” out of the bite or sting. Goldenseal wascovered in bear fat and wiped all over the Indians body; it was a well known insect repellent,tonic, and stimulant. (Millspaugh) Childbirth was a huge deal in the Cherokee nation because it brought a new member ofthe tribe and it was a huge deal in the village marked by many ceremonies and rituals. Alderwas used for childbirth pains and menstrual bleeding. Bittersweet bark tree was used to easethe pains of childbirth as well. It was a strong tea that was very potent. Buckeye tea was drunkto help facilitate for child birth. It helped bring down the swelling and pain levels associatedwith pregnancy. (Bergeron) The Cherokee Indians had a rich culture associated with their beliefs and skills at livingoff the land, but like it is for every population of humans they had an enemy throughout theirwhole history’ illness. To help them fight off illnesses of all sorts the medicine men and womenof the Cherokee nation used plants and herbs to help their peers subjected to sickness. AndrewChevallier said, “it is good to know the ancient ways and the gifts that are freely given upon
  6. 6. Gabe McMahan Tillery 6mother earth. Keeping this information alive is vital for human survival. It honors our ancestorsand gives our children practical knowledge to help them along life’s pathways.”
  7. 7. Gabe McMahan Tillery 6 Works CitedAnderson, Kat. “Indian Tobacco.” Plant Guide. US Department of Agriculture, 21 May 2003. Web. 17 Nov. 2011. <>. about indian tobaccoBergeron, Karen. “Cherokee Herbology.” Alternative Nature Online. N.p., Fall 2004. Web. 17 Nov. 2011. <>. childbirth siteCherokee Nation. “Cherokee Medicinal Herbs.” Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Nation, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2011. < Information.aspx>. good site for the history of all the Cherokee’s herbal medicationsCherokee North Carolina. “Medicinal Herbs.” Cherokee Outdoors. Cherokee N.C., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2011. <>. good site on the history of medicinal herbsChevallier, Andrew. Herbal Remedies. New York: Metro Books, 2010. Print. great visual reference guide for the application of herbal medicationCimino, Elaine, Ann Marie Sayers, and Richards Roods. “The Sacred Use of Tobacco.” The Sacred Use of Tobacco. Costanoan Ohlone Indian Canyon Resource, 31 Aug. 2011. Web. 17 Nov. 2011. <>. smokingManataka American Indian Council, Takatoka, and James Mooney. “India Medicine.” Indian Herbal Medicine. Manatak American Indian Council, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2011. < Origin of Medicine>. history of herbs, uses, remedies, poisons, and plant lore
  8. 8. Gabe McMahan Tillery 6Mazaska Web Design. “Cherokee Medicine, Medicine Men, and Medicine Ways.” Mazaska Web Design, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2011. < cherokee-medicine.htm>. good site for learning about requirements to be a medicine man.Millspaugh, Charles F. “Native Herbal Remedies.” Cherokee Messenger. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2011. <>. useful for learning about what the plants curedMountain Garden Club Of Highlands N.C. “Indian Facts.” Highlands Biological Station, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2011. <>. ways to apply herbal medication