Medicine, Indian

views updated May 21 2018


MEDICINE, INDIAN, an ancient, intact, complex holistic healthcare system practiced and used by indigenous peoples worldwide, is more profound and more deeply rooted and complex than is commonly understood. Based upon a spiritual rather than a materialistic or Cartesian worldview, Indian medicine emphasizes the spirit world; supernatural forces; and religion, which is considered virtually identical to medicine. To some degree Indian medicine depends upon phenomena that can best be described as mystical, even magical. Indian medicine was not a primitive medicine that is embryonic modern medicine or a predecessor to Western medicine, but an entirely different entity. In the last third of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Indian medicine has become increasing popular with holistic and alternative medicine practitioners.

The healing traditions (passed down orally) of Indian medicine have been practiced on the North American continent for at least 12,000 years and possibly for more than 40,000 years. Indigenous peoples describe their medicine as an art practiced since time immemorial; some indigenous peoples use only Western medicine or only traditional medicine, some take advantage of both simultaneously or serially. Some decide which health system to use based upon the ailment.

An indigenous individual strives to restore and maintain excellent health and live in accordance with prescribed life ways or religion. While these various life ways differ among tribes, all suggest how to maintain well-being and a balanced life. Disease is associated with imbalance, while health suggests a state of balance, harmony, synchronicity, and wholeness in spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical realms; in life energy in the body; in ethical, reasonable, and just behavior; in relations within the family and community; and in relationships with nature and the universe. When illness occurs, the imbalance or disruption must be corrected to restore health.

Indigenous traditional healers, both men and women (gender depends on the tribe), have practiced the art of healing within their communities for centuries. Modern Indian medicine practitioners are little different from earlier native practitioners and may practice across tribes and provide healing to non-natives. Healing ability and knowledge can be acquired several ways, however, healers usually serve many years of apprenticeship.

Although the same beliefs related to healing are held by the more than 500 indigenous tribes scattered across the United States, methods of diagnosis, methodology, and treatment vary greatly from tribe to tribe and from healer to healer; methods used to correct imbalance include divination; use of elements such as water, fire, smoke, stones, or crystals as a projective field to help see the reason and/or cause of the imbalance; prayer; chanting; use of music, singing, drums, rattles; smudging with medicinal plants such as sage cedar or sweetgrass; laying on of hands, talking, counseling; making medicinal plants or botanical medicines into teas, salves, ointments, or purgatives; ceremony; sweat lodge; and shake tent. The Navajo also use star gazing, crystal gazing, and hand-tremblers. Traditional healers also use techniques such as sucking to remove a disease and blowing away a disease.

Traditional medicine was anything sacred, mysterious, or of wonderful power or efficacy in Indian life or belief. Thus, medicine has come to mean "supernatural power." From this usage came the terms: medicine man (which omits medicine women), medicine bag, good versus bad medicine, and so on. The origin of the word medicine can be traced to at least the seventeenth century when French Jesuit missionaries among the Huron, Montagnais, Ottawa, and other inhabitants of New France, documented and described indigenous healers using homes-médecins (médecin is French for doctor). The medicine man was long recognized by settlers as a principal barrier to the eradication of Indian culture. Traditional healing and use of Indian medicine was made illegal during early European contact and the art of Indian medicine was driven underground. In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Religious Freedom Act; this act gave American Indians the right to practice their spiritual and healing traditions. Today, some indigenous medicinal plants are becoming endangered because of excessive harvesting, global warming, private land ownership, and pesticide use.


Avery, C. "Native American Medicine: Traditional Healing." Journal of the American Medical Association 265, no. 17 (1991): 2271, 2273.

Cohen, K. "B. H." "Native American Medicine." Alternative Therapies 4, no. 6 (1998): 45–57.

Lyon, W. S. Encyclopedia of Native American Healing. New York: Norton, 1996.

Rhoades, E. R., and D. A. Rhoades. "Traditional Indian and Modern Western Medicine." In American Indian Health: Innovations in Health Care, Promotions, and Policy. Edited by E. R. Rhoades. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Struthers, R. "The Lived Experience of Ojibwa and Cree Women Healers." Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1999.


See alsoIndian Religious Life .

Indian Medicine

views updated May 29 2018


INDIAN MEDICINE. SeeMedicine, Indian .