Plant Medicines of Native Americans
When European settlers came to America and settled on the vast frontier, few doctors were available to them. And even in places were doctors were available, their method of treatment was based on the European standards of those days. This included extensive bleeding, mercury, antimony, and plant purges to treat all illnesses.
However, Native Americans soon demonstrated that their diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, or their habit of drinking spruce and other herbal teas, which saved them from the devastating effects of vitamin C deficiency, was a better way to go. So settlers, by watching and listening to the Indians, began to learn and employ this better way.
Indians also had their own surgical techniques, their own ways of healing wounds, and even in making birth safer. But they knew much less about treating the new diseases like chickenpox, malaria, diphtheria, typhoid, etc., that was suddenly introduced to them by the white man.
Although Indian medicine men and women, known as shamans insisted that the secrets of healing came from dreams, most Native Americans knew about plants through personal experience and believed that every plant, bush, and a tree had a special medicinal value. To them, the ultimate test of a medicine’s value was decided by trial and error. Sometimes, a potential cure turned out to be a poison. But when it worked, it was added to their effective list. Their doctors, shamans, after receiving a broad education in the various plant medicines, they were taught to specialize, learning all about specific diseases and their treatment.
Some of the drugs added to our modern pharmacopeia by Native Americans include cascara sangria, Indian tobacco, American ginseng, joe-pye weed, mayapple, goldenseal, sassafras, and witch hazel. There were many others as well, and traveling medicine shows of earlier days would often include Indians demonstrating herbal treatments.
Native Americans greatly benefited the Europeans with their medicinal knowledge!