Native American Medicine – A Disappearing Science
Before the arrival of the European colonists, hundreds of Native American tribes that lived in the Western Hemisphere flourished. Of course, some suffered death through warfare, injuries from hunting wild animals, as well as various illnesses, but generally speaking, many American Indians lived long and healthy lives (during the time periods when global life expectancy was low). The people were not immune to disease, and possessed the natural immunity that comes from centuries of existence within their specific environments. Besides their active lifestyles and healthy diets, they had an effective form of medicine and spiritual practices that helped cure them when they became sick.
Good Health –A Holistic Approach
The hundreds of Native American Tribes that thrived before the arrival of the Europeans each had their own systems of belief, religion and medicine. Their general beliefs centered around the understanding that as long as people maintained a balance in the universe through various rules and ceremonies, that included living in harmony with the natural world and respected it, they would be protected by entities of the spirit world from illness, starvation and danger. However, when injury occurred or illness struck, there were various doctors that deployed curing ceremonies as well as herbal remedies that were readily available and effective. Knowledge about selected herbs and other natural curing products were acquired from the immediate surroundings. However, the Tribes are known to have exchanged herbal knowledge and curing techniques over the centuries.
When the Europeans first arrived in the Americas, they were surprised to find that the “Natives” were in some cases able to recover from sickness and injuries that would have been fatal in Europe. The bias that existed against the Native Americans meant that the traditional medical practices were never properly studied, employed, or understood. Since a concept of spiritual and physical health was a way of life for Native Americans, however, their medical systems and practices were never formally recorded, but simply dismissed by colonialists, as in the cases of the California missionaries. Instead, these traditions went underground, and were orally passed from one generation to the next.
The lack of a formally recorded pharmacopeia, coupled with the decimation of Native American populations by the diseases such as measles, syphilis, small pox, typhoid, cholera, typhus, tuberculosis, and others, that were imported from Europe meant that those who survived these imported ailments had no choice but to accept the European forms of medical care and as a result, traditional Native medicinal practices were greatly reduced. Today, knowledge of these practices still exists, but their use, even among various American Indian populations, is limited to certain practitioners. Sadly, a form of medicine that is natural and effective and which could potentially increase the efficacy of modern medical systems we use today has been, for all practical purposes, almost completely lost.
Modern medicine is the basis of the longevity we enjoy today. However, that does not mean that it is the only route to good health and well-being. What American Indians had, and used for millennia, had to be effective or they would have died out long before the White men came. Some remnants of Native American medicine can still be found amongst various tribal communities that maintained some semblance of continuity. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to interact with knowledgeable traditional curers and herbalists. Similar to the suppression of Native American tribal communities traditional medicine too was suppressed by the European immigrants who occupied all of Indian County with the thought that nothing that the American Indians had to offer was of any value.
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