“Didanawisgi is the Cherokee word for medicine man. A common thread woven through all Native American remedies is the idea of “wellness” a term recently picked up by some in the modern medical professions. A state of “wellness” is described as “harmony between the mind, body and spirit.” The Cherokee word “tohi” - health - is the same as the word for peace. You’re in good health when your body is at peace. The “medicine circle” has no beginning and no end and therefore represents a concept of “harmonious unity.”
Cherokee medicine is a prevention-based system that incorporates the whole person, rather than the cure-based system that is used by most modern doctors of medicine today, which focuses on the disease. It is the belief among American Indian “doctors” that to achieve wellness we must have a strong connection to all things natural and both create and receive harmony not only within ourselves, but also in all our relationships. Once harmony is restored, illness and other health distortions simply disappear. To some, this would be a “cure.” In the Cherokee tradition, this is just good health - the way it should be.
Here the goal is to first help the patient recover - to cure the sickness rather than treat the symptoms- to help the patient find his or her balance - the harmony of our living. The ceremony performed is as important as the potion or salve made from the plants or herbs. This is what is now known as holistic healing - a healing of the complete person.
The United States Pharmacopoeia, which is the modern doctor’s drug Bible, (companion to the Physician’s Desk Reference or PDR -the one that lists all the known side effects of every drug used by modern doctors), first appeared in 1820, and listed over two hundred drugs used by american Indians and aquired from natural plants. Those 200 cures represented 90% of what was listed in that first Pharmacopoeia. Since then, 1000s of new drugs have been chemically created in labs which try to replicate and alter the active ingredients in plants already perfected by nature.
There is a legend among the Cherokee that tells of the origin of medicine. It tells how the animals and birds met in council to decide what to do about the encroachment of man upon their world and how carelessly he was treating them. One by one they listed ailments and maladies that would afflict the humans. Had they succeeded, humans would surely have disappeared by now. But nearby, listening to the council were the plants and herbs and, not being troubled by the humans, they agreed to supply a remedy for each and every one of the diseases the animals wanted to thrust upon humankind.
Cherokee Medicine Men
Cherokee medicine people can be male or female. They believe there are evil medicine people and good ones. In fact, there are many kinds of medicine people in the Cherokee culture. Just as many modern doctors specialize in one area of expertise, so do most natural healers. Most medicine people are really good at curing some things, and don’t even try to cure others. And like modern medicine practitioners, there are still a few general practitioners who will try to treat most things, but will refer you to someone else if it’s something beyond their personal knowledge.
When something happens outside their realm of understanding, that cannot be explained by the rules of their culture, Cherokee people will say someone has been practicing bad medicine.
The Cherokee believe in witchcraft, but not in the context witches are thought of in anglo cultures. There are two kinds of witches in cherokee culture: ordinary witches and killer witches. Ordinary witches are considered more dangerous since a person can never be sure he is dealing with one, and they are more difficult to detect and counteract. They may deceive a medicine person, and cause them to prescribe the wrong cure if not guarded against. One killer witch who is still spoken of often today, and is mentioned in many Cherokee legends of the Cherokee Nation is the Raven Mocker.
Cherokee medicine men and women study for many years, and learn specific treatments from a written Cherokee syllabary given to them by their mentors. It is forbidden for anyone to look at this book if it isn’t theirs, and it is often written in code, or parts are passed on verbally to keep the whole from falling into the wrong hands. Medicine ceremonies which are incomplete or performed out of context can do more harm than good and in the hands of the untrained can be downright dangerous.
Some Cherokee people see only Cherokee medicine people for mental or physical illnesses. Others prefer a combination of treatment from a medicine man and conventional modern medicine. Some Cherokees no longer believe in the powers of traditional medicine people.
The Cherokee Medicine Apprentice (tsila)
Cherokee medicine (nvwoti) is an ancient system of medical/spiritual knowledge and practices that developed over the last 3,000-4,000 years.Training in Cherokee medicine takes 15-20 years and the apprentice (tsila) needs to master seven interconnected areas of knowledge:
1. Herbal Medicine - an in-depth knowledge of 400-600 plants, their medicinal and ceremonial uses as well as the plants “personality”. Many apprentices/medicine people today only know 100-200 of these plants and their uses.
2. Physical Medicine - including the unique Cherokee massage (hiskoliya) using persimmon woodstampers, moxabustion, minor surgery, and midwifery.
3. Dreamwork - not only how to interpret dreams, but how to use them for personal growth, healing, and to gain knowledge.
4. Language/Myths/Laws - Cherokee is a language of amazing subtlety and power. The tsila learns not only the subtleties of every day spoken Cherokee, but a separate “medicine” language. Stories, myths, and laws give meaning to the world and help us to understand our place in the Great Life.
5. Ceremonies - the Cherokee traditionally had 7 major ceremonies, 6 of which marked the important yearly cycles, such as the first new moon of Spring, green corn harvest, mature corn harvest, falling leaves festival, and the beginning of winter/exulting ceremony. Many of these ceremonies are still done today and are as meaningful now, if not more so, than in times past.
Ceremonial practice also includes various types of personal, family, community, and national ceremonies that help maintain balance within the individual, the family, the community, and the nation.
6. The laws of nature - keen observers, the Cherokee have for thousands of years paid attention to the world around them. This collected body of knowledge is extensive and it explains why things act as they do and the cause and effect of their interrelationship - why animals behave certain ways,how the sun and moon interrelate, how men and women interact, the nature of water, the fire, the earth (ela), and so on.
7. Conjuring - although there is no really good word in English to describe this, various words -conjuring, magic, manipulation, partially explain this practice. This is the ability to enlist the aid of spirits and elemental powers to change things, to heal or doctor, to “change one’s mind”, to bring luck and to protect the sick or weak from negative influences. In some Christian churches, this is called faith healing.
When the world was still young, the Cherokee (ani yvwiya) received much of their traditional medicine and ceremony from two sources. Stone Clad (nvyunuwi), an ancient wizard (ada'wehi), showed the people the dual nature of life. First he preyed on the Cherokee, then later when they killed him he gave them many of their songs, ceremonies and formulas.
To the Cherokee, the use of herbs is only one tool of many necessary for regaining one’s health. Traditionally it was (and still is) believed that it is crucial to not only heal one’s body, mind and spirit, but to re-integrate the ill person with the family, the community and the Earth. This is a holistic perspective beyond our culture’s limited understanding. None of us can truly be well unless we recognize our connection to the rest of the Great Life.
Cherokee medicinal plant chart
Black Cohosh (Cimcifuga racemosa_ - rheumatism, andodyne, emmenagogue,backache.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) - coughs, fungal infections, antiseptic.
Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) - nervine, parturient, andodyne, rheumatism.
Butternut bark (Juglans cineria) - laxative, liver tonic.
Collinsonia (Collinsonia canadensis) - swollen breasts, sore throat.
Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) - adaptogen, bitter tonic, nervous problems.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) - stomachic, bitter tonic, antiseptic.
Lobelia (Lobelia) - inflataemetic, antispasmodic-palsy, expectorant.
Mayapple (Podophyllin peltatum) - laxative, cathartic.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) - liver pain, earache, nervine.
Pink Root (Spigelia marilandica) - vermifuge.
Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberosa) -expectorant, heart trouble, bronchitis, pleurisy.
Poke Root (Phytolacca americana) - rheumatism, skin conditions, as poultice for swollen breasts.
Prickly Ash (Xanthoxyllum spp.) - arthritis, joint pain.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) - skin problems, rheumatism, eyewash,carminative, gout.
Slippery Elm (Ulmus fulva) - bulk laxative, diarrhea, sore throat, heartburn.
Tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) - antiseptic, expectorant, emetic, antispasmodic,tetanus, snake bite.
Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctora) -emetic, purgative, as poultice for inflammation and gangrene.
Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) - heart pain, intestinal pain, menstrual pain.
Witch Hazel (Hammamelis virginiana) - sore throat, bath sores, bruises, rheumatism,tuberculosis.
Cherokee pharmacopoeia of medicinal plants and herbal remedies
The botanical diversity in Western North Carolina is extensive; it is estimated that in times past the average ani yvwiya would have been familiar with 100-200 plants and a medicine priest (didahnewisgi) might know as many as 600 useful plants. From this tremendous quantity of available plants, many commonly used Cherokee medicines made their way into American medical practice.
We can thank the Cherokee and othe rEastern native peoples for introducing many of our most popular botanical remedies. While many useful plants became widely used by herbalists and physicians, others were underutilized or totally neglected. Today, many herbalists limit their materia medica to a small variety of herbs. This over-reliance on a few plants has contributed to the decimation of many wild plant populations. (i.e. Ginseng,Ladies Slipper, Goldenseal, Bethroot, and more recently Echinacea angustifolia, Lomatium, and Helonias).
Are we using these plants with respect? The Cherokee use a great variety of medicines not only to prevent overutilization of species, but also because they believe that every plant has its specific use in relationship to human ailments.
Contributions Towards a Cherokee Pharmacopoeia
Each plant in this obviously partial listing is an effective medicine and, equally important, is abundant throughout large areas of the U. S. or is easy to cultivate.
BALMONY (Chelone glabra)
Energy: cool, dry
Part Used: herb
Dosage: Herb tea: 1 tsp. dried herb to 8 oz. of water, steep 1 hour. Drink 4 oz. before meals.
Dosage: Extract: 30-40 drops, 3 times per day.
Western classification: aperient, anthelmintic, bitter tonic, cholagogue.
Balmony or Turtlehead is a beautiful herb with either white or pink flowers (C. lyoni). It grows in damp deciduous woods and is frequently found along side of small branches (creeks). Balmony is an effective digestive bitter: stimulating saliva, gastric, liver and gall bladder secretions. It is especially useful for people with poor fat metabolism, usually accompanied by gas, nausea, belching and a chronically sluggish bowel.
Associated skin problems ( psoriasis, eczema or acne) and non-hepatitis jaundice respond to its effects as well. Mixed with other anthelmintics (Elecampane, Garlic, Wormseed, Quassia) it is useful in treating pinworms andgiardia.
DOGWOOD (Cornus florida)
Energy: cool, dry
Part Used: bark, flower, berries
Cherokee Name: kanvsita
Western Classification: anodyne, antiperiodic, antispasmodic, astringent, bittertonic.
Dosage: Bark tea: ½ tsp. dried bark to 8 oz. of water. Decoct 15 minutes, steep ½ hour.Drink 4 oz. 3 - 4 times per day.
The Dogwood is a small shrubby tree, with lovely early spring flowers. The white flowers (they areactually sepals) have been used as a substitute for Chamomile for colds, colic and flu. The bark was once used similarly to quinine for malaria and other periodic fevers. It is still useful for many chronic fevers, especially if accompanied by diarrhea or muscle aches (Dengue fever). Lower back pain, prolapsed uterus and musclespasms (legs and feet) all respond to regular use of the tea. Mixed with Butternut Bark, Dogwood is effective for pinworms in children. Externally the bark poultice can be used as a wash for bed sores and ulcers.
DWARF GINSENG (Panax trifolium)
Taste: sweet, bitter
Energy: cool, moist
Part Used: root, leaf
Cherokee Name: yunwi usdi
Western Classification: adaptogen, carminative, nutritive.
Dosage: Leaf tea: 1 tsp. dried leaf to 8 oz. of water, steep 1 hour. Drink 2-3 cups per day.
The small, delicate Dwarf Ginseng is a common spring ground cover in Eastern deciduous woods. The small bulbs are edible (rather bland and starchy) and can be cooked in winter stews to strengthen the lungs and resistance to colds. The leaves (which contain Ginsenosides) are added to almost any traditional herb formula to increase its effectiveness and activity. The Dwarf Ginseng, like its larger relative, is used for fatigue, nervous exhaustion, allergies, anorexia and depleted conditions such as chronic fatigue, TB and mononucleosis.
RABBIT TOBACCO (Gnaphalium obtusifolium)
Taste: sweet, bitter
Energy: cool, dry
Part Used: herb
Cherokee Name: katsuta equa
Western Classification: astringent, carminative, diaphoretic, expectorant,nervine.
Dosage: Herb tea: 1-2 tsp. dried herb to 8 oz. of water, steep 40 minutes. Drink 2-3 cups per day.
Common in fields and clearings, Rabbit Tobacco is frequently found in Cherokee homes as a remedy. The tea is used for colds, flu, coughs, diarrhea, strep throat and children’s fevers. Mixed with other medicines it is also used for colitis (with Wild Yam and Catnip), asthma (with Lobelia, Wild Cherry Bark and Sweet Cicily) and vaginal candidiasis (with Yellow Root). Externally the tea is applied to cuts, sore muscles and bruises.The leaves are chewed by some people in preference to Tobacco, others mix the two to moderate Tobacco'semetic qualities.
SOURWOOD (Oxydendron arborum)
Energy: cool, dry
Part Used: leaf
Cherokee Name: udoqueya
Western Classification: antiseptic, astringent, diuretic, nervine.
Dosage: Leaf tea: 2 tsp. dried leaf to 8 oz. of water, steep 40 minutes. Drink 2-3 cups per day.
Sourwood with its racemes of white bell-like flowers is a favorite pollen source for mountain bees. The honey from this source is famous for its unique taste and fragrance. In contrast to the honey’s sweetness, the leaves are tart and drying. The leaf tea is an effective urinary tract antiseptic primarily due to its arbutin content. Chronic UTIs with burning urine respond well to its soothing action; it is also beneficial for BPH. The tea is also frequently used for apthous stomatata, thrush, edema, chronic prostatitis, diarrhea, nervous stomach and frazzled nerves (a nice hot cup of the tea with a generous dollop of sourwood honey works wonders!).
SPICEBUSH (Lindera benzoin)
Taste: pungent, sweet
Energy: warm, dry
Part Used: bark, leaf, fruit
Cherokee Name: nodatsi
Western Classification: antiseptic, carminative, diaphoretic, emmenagogue,expectorant.
Dosage: Bark/Herb tea: 1 tsp. dried herb to 8 oz. of water, steep 1 hour (covered).Drink 2 -3 cups per day.
Spicebush is one of the most common understory shrubs throughout second or third growth Eastern forests. Early in the spring it is covered with small yellow flowers which perfume the air. Every part of Spicebush (aka Spicewood) is medicinal; the tea of this herb is used extensively for colds, flu, coughs, nausea,indigestion, croup, flatulence and amenorrhea. The inhaled steam is used to clear clogged sinuses and the decoction of the twigs makes a soothing bath for arthritic pain (some of the tea is also taken internally). Spicebush is also commonly used as a beverage tea and the fruits can be used as a spice in baking.
SUMACH (Rhus glabra, R. copallina, R. typhina)
Energy: cool, dry
Part Used: berry, bark
Cherokee Name: qualagu
Western Classification: alterative (bark), antiseptic, astringent, diuretic.
Dosage: Berry tea: 1 tsp. dried fruit to 8 oz. of water, steep 30 minutes. Drink 2 - 4 cups per day.Bark tea: ½ tsp. dried bark to 8 oz. of water. Decoct 15 minutes, steep 1 hour. Drink 4 oz., 3 times per day.
Sumachs are small shrubby trees that have highly visible clusters of bright red berries each autumn. Its toxic relative Poison Sumach (R. vernix) has white fruit and prefers swampy areas instead of the dry open environment where other sumachs are found. Sumach berry tea is highly effective for urinary tract infections (itacidifies the urine), thrush, apthous stomatata, ulcerated mucous membranes, gingivitis and some cases of bedwetting (irritated bladder). The fruit tea can be taken hot or chilled as a refreshing beverage similar in taste to Hibiscus or Rose Hips. The bark is a strong astringent (used for diarrhea, menorrhagia) and it has an effect onthe female hormonal system. Traditional the bark is used for alleviating menopausal discomfort (hot flashes,sweating) and as a galactogogue. Externally the berry or bark tea has been used as a wash for blisters, burns and oozing sores. In middle eastern countries, the dried fruit is ground into a powder and used much as Americans use paprika in daily cooking.
SWEET CICILY (Osmorhiza claytoni)
Energy: warm, moist
Part Used: root
Western Classification: carminative, demulcent, expectorant, immune tonic, nutritive.
Dosage: Root tea: 1 tsp. dried root to 8 oz. of water. Steep 2 hours (cooking 3-4 hours is evenbetter). Drink 2-3 cups per day.
Sweet Cicily is a small herbaceous member of the Apiaceae family. Growing in moist woodlands, it is easy to overlook until you sample its sweet anise-tasting root. Cherokee have long considered this root to bean important medicine for increasing strength, weight and resistance to disease. The tea can be used for colds, sore throats, dry coughs, flu and digestive disturbances (gastritis, nausea, gas). Sweet Cicily strengthens what the Chinese call the “wei qi”, making it useful for preventing colds and other external pernicious influences.The root can be used as a substitute for licorice or astragalus with many similar applications.
TULIP TREE (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Energy: cool, dry
Part Used: bark
Cherokee Name: tsiyu
Western Classification: anodyne, astringent, bitter tonic, febrifuge.
Dosage: Bark tea: 1-2 tsp. dried bark to 8 oz. of water. Decoct 20 minutes, steep 1 hour.Drink 4 oz. 3 times per day.
Tulip Tree or Tulip Poplar is a large, straight growing member of the Magnolia family. Its yellow, green and orange flowers are large and showy and they mature into a densely packed cone of winged seeds. The smooth young bark harvested in the spring makes a wonderful basket perfect for gathering herbs or berries. This same bark is used as a medicine for periodic fevers, diarrhea, pinworms, as a digestive aid and for rheumatic pain. The decoction is used as a bath for fractures, sprains, hemorrhoids and is applied to snakebites received in dreams (if left untreated, traumatic arthritis will often develop in the area bitten).
YELLOW ROOT (Xanthorhiza simplicissima)
Energy: cool, dry
Part Used: root
Cherokee Name: dalanei
Western Classification: antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic, bitter tonic,cholagogue.
Dosage: Root tea: 1-2 tsp. dried root to 8 oz. of water. Decoct 10 minutes, steep 1 hour.Drink 2 cups per day. Extract: 20-40 drops, 2-3 times per day.
Yellow root is a shrubby berberine containing plant that is found growing along branches and springs.It is abundant throughout the southeast and is regularly substituted for the increasingly scarce Golden Seal. Xanthorhiza is milder than Hydrastis but is more appropriate for long term use. It is especially effective as a digestion/liver bitter for people with sluggish bowels, a tendency towards hemorrhoids and faulty fat digestion. Mixed with fresh Black Walnut hull extract and Spilanthes, Yellow Root is an effective treatment for local thrush,(vaginal candidiasis) and systemic candidiasis. The tea makes a soothing gargle for strep throat,apthous stomatata, ulcerated mucus membranes, herpes and pyorrhea. Externally it is useful for conjunctivitis, bedsores, bleeding hemorrhoids, ringworm and athletes foot.”