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Healing Practices of Native Americans

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For over a thousand years natural medicine has been used by Native Americans to promote health and well-being for the millions who inhabited this continent. The diets and ceremonies that Native Americans use to greet the seasons and harvests were their way to cleanse the mind and soul. The use of native plants for healing has been used to promote health by living in harmony with the earth. History would indicate that each tribe would have one or more elders who were instructed from an early age in the healing arts to be able to take over whenever the elder would pass on. These healers would serve as what we would see as modern-day therapists and doctors. The healers would serve the tribe as not only healers but herbalists and spirit communicators as well. The responsibilities and types of healing arts and spiritual ceremonies performed would vary from tribe to tribe. “Native American healing arts and practices are earth-based, honoring and being respectful of the Father Sky, Mother Earth, Grandfather Sun, and Grandfather Moon”.

Rituals and ceremonies play an important role in the health and well-being of traditional Native Americans but the healing potential of these practices is usually unappreciated by mainstream health providers. These rituals involve all family members and sometimes even entire communities in this healing process. Native American healing ceremonies may last for days and even weeks, it’s believed that the longer it lasts and the more people involved the greater the healing power and energy. Through everyone’s participation in song, prayer, music, and dance the family and community contribute healing energy to the patient.

One of the more popular practices of Native American healing is the practice of using plants and herbs to cure common illnesses that were afflicting these Natives thousands of years ago. Native Americans are well known for their medicinal plant knowledge. Some of their knowledge of how plants could be used to help with illnesses came from their observation of the wildlife around them. They observed that deer, elk, and bears sought out plants to eat when they were sick. They saw the animals recover and knew to experiment with these herbs and plants to heal themselves. It is believed through this experimentation they developed an extensive library of plants and herbs that cured their illnesses. In order to protect these plants from being over-harvesting, the elders who were in charge of medicine used to pick every third plant they found. Native Americans’ extensive knowledge of the healing properties of herbs and plants was handed down from one generation to another orally to specially chosen healers within the tribe. Many modern remedies and medicines are based on the Native American knowledge of the different plants and herbs they used for thousands of years. Sagebrush was believed to be a very powerful pain reliever. Spanish Bayonet plant had leaves and roots that gave out a type of soap that was used to clean wounds. A plant called Chamise was used to treat skin rashes and irritations. The California Bay leaf was believed to have anesthetic qualities so it was used to treat toothaches. Crushed and soaked horsemint leaves in cold water were drank to assist in getting rid of back pain. Creosote Bush leaves were made into a tea and used for bronchial and other respiratory issues. The root bark of Devil’s Club was made into a tea to help compensate for the effects of diabetes. Blackcherry root was made into a tea and was extremely useful in the treatment of diarrhea. Pennyroyal leaves were soaked in water to make tea to treat headaches.

Smudging is another part of Native American traditions, both for healing and non-healing ceremonies. Smudging is the practice of burning herbs for purification. This purification could be, emotional, psychic, and/or spiritual. Some of the common herbs used for smudging are Sage, Cedar, Pine, Lavender, Mugwort, and Copal. The idea behind smudging was looked at as a house cleaning or cleansing, not unlike the cleansing of chakras in Eastern Medicine. The smoke acts as the cleansing agent and attaches itself to the bad energy and once it clears it brings in the good energy.

Probably the most well-known Native American healing practice is the idea of the Sweat Lodge. A sweat lodge is the tradition of Native Americans entering a structure, usually a domed structure similar to a hut built with wood and branches. Hot rocks are then put into the pit in the center of the hut, and water is poured over them to essentially create a hot, steam-filled room, not unlike a sauna. The sweat lodge is used for three main types of healing in the Native American Culture, Mental, Spiritual and Physical. For Mental healing, it works to free the mind of distractions and people often feel a sense of clarity. For spiritual healing, it allows the practitioner to connect to both the planet and the spiritual world and can offer a chance for introspection to ponder a person’s existence within the rest of the world. Lastly, as far as Physical Healing is concerned, it is said (though not necessarily proven) to provide antibacterial and wound-healing benefits. Although beneficial, care must be taken when participating in a sweat lodge. As Native American culture has been co-opted by Modern Western Culture, it has not been uncommon for people to suffer adverse reactions participating in sweat lodges in the Western States at resorts, because the staff is not properly trained in the techniques. These adverse reactions have ranged from over-heating, to in rare cases, death.

Traditional Native American Healing practices have been around for thousands of years, but as has been mentioned previously, as Native Americans become more integrated with other cultures of non-indigenous people, some of those traditions have become limited in use or in some cases abandoned altogether with detrimental effects. One such example of negative effects is that the abandoning of traditions amongst Native Americans has led to an increase in Diabetes over the past 100 years. Diabetes was something that was almost non-existent amongst Native American people in the past, but as they have become more assimilated and increased their utilization of non-traditional foods and practices, the diabetes rate has increased exponentially. Based on this evidence, it would appear that the modernization of the Native American culture and the abandonment of healing have had an overall negative effect on their culture.

Reference: 

  1. Desy, Phylameana lila. ‘Native American Healing Traditions.’ Learn Religions, Apr. 17, 2019, learnreligions.com/traditional-native-american-healing-tools-and-practices-1732264.
  2. Koithan, M., & Farrell, C. (2010). Indigenous Native American Healing Traditions. The journal for nurse practitioners : JNP, 6(6), 477–478. doi:10.1016/j.nurpra.2010.03.016

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Healing Practices of Native Americans. (2022, August 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/healing-practices-of-native-americans/
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Healing Practices of Native Americans [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Aug 01 [cited 2022 Aug 15]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/healing-practices-of-native-americans/
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