The Native American herbal medicine tradition is often overlooked these days in favor of Chinese or Ayurvedic traditions. This is a great pity when all of the herbs used by the native healers grow wild in the USA. Instead of growing them in our gardens, we pay hundreds of dollars to have the equivalent shipped to us in bottles from China or India. At the same time, we ignore many of the other lessons that Native American healing has for us.
Traditionally it was believed that the power of herbal medicine to heal rests partly in the plants, partly in the healer and partly in the person being healed. Today, conventional western medicine encourages us to believe that all power lies with the doctors and the medication. We do not take any share of the responsibility for our own sickness or healing, and that is a great mistake.
While some plants certainly have medically observable effects, it is also true that our attitude when we use a remedy has a great deal of power. Belief that the treatment will help you is important, and so is having a genuine wish to get well that is not undermined by a desire for the attention that being sick can get us.
The power of herbal treatments used by Native American people was reinforced by the trust that they had in the spiritual, almost magical, power of the healers. The medicine man or shaman was chosen according to his birth position in society and his natural talent. Often there would be a family connection with medicine and tribal religion. It might be considered that blind faith in modern doctors would have the same effect, but it does not because the spiritual aspect is missing.
Medicine was seen as a question of dealing with the spirit as much as the body, and many ceremonies were practiced both by healers and also by the person being treated or his or her family. A major effect of the ceremonies that the healer performed was to increase his awareness and concentration so that even without any of the laboratory tests that are done these days, he could correctly diagnose the problem and see the best remedy – not just for the disease, but for the person. Ceremonies undertaken by the afflicted person would cleanse the body and mind to prepare them to make the best possible use of the remedy when it was taken.
This spiritual aspect of herbal medicine is completely ignored today. We take herbal remedies in much the same way that we take chemical medications, assuming that the substance has all of the power and we have none.
In fact, many doctors as well as alternative medical practitioners today would agree that it is the sick person who does the healing, and not the remedy. The body’s ability to heal itself, known as homeostasis, is at the root of all recovery. It works by expelling toxins, fighting back against disease with antibodies. All that medication does is to help the process along and remove obstacles to recovery.
If we can get away from the mainstream western view that the body and mind or spirit are two separate things, the importance of a spiritual aspect to healing becomes very clear. The state of the sick person’s mind is as important in the recovery process as the state of his body.
This does not mean that we have to perform tribal dances or complicated rituals. We can replace them with other spiritual practices including meditation and prayer. But studying the spiritual aspect of Native American herbal medicine can help us shift our focus and understand that in a sense, we always have to heal ourselves.