Native American Folk Lore … Herbs & Botanicals
Because of Native Americans’ intimate relationship with nature, many therapies emphasize plants’ mind-body-spirit healing potential. Native-American herbalism is much more complex than herbs merely serving as a plant matrix to deliver physiologically active chemicals.
Native American healers believe that:
- Plant components affect bodily functions and bioavailability, the entire remedy is considered the active agent.
- Plants possess spirit and intelligence, they are consulted to determine their best healing relationship with patients, and permission is obtained before and gratitude expressed after harvesting them.
- Harvesting herbs is an intricate procedure and factors such as plant part (e.g., flower, stem, root, etc), time or season of harvesting, sun exposure, and much more obscure factors need to be considered.
- Native herbalists use plants that appear in dreams, a form of communication by which the plant’s spirit can guide the healer.
- The plant’s healing potential is empowered by ritual ceremony, prayer, song, or chants. This is because herbs can treat symptoms, but to reach the deeper causes of the illness a combination of methods must be used.
Benefits and uses of Native Herbs and Botanicals:
Aloe vera is indigenous to the Southwest, and Native Americans who lived there used the plant in the same ways it’s used today–as first aid for the skin. Aloe is antiseptic, so it heals as it soothes, and it’s very hydrating. Southwestern Native Americans called aloe “the wand of heaven” and used it to heal desert sunburns and to treat bug and scorpion bites.
A sacred element in Native American culture, cedar is used to both cleanse and heal. Cedar is sprinkled on hot rocks to allow its power to be released with the steam. Cedar is considered an herb of the sun; its element is fire and is often burned during winter rituals. Cedar purifies an area and banishes nightmares. Native Americans sometimes burn cedar in sweat lodges to help release heavy emotional energy. It is also used in child blessings and naming ceremonies.
For the Native Indians who roamed the North American plains, the chokecherry provided vitamins and a sweet-tart flavor. These luscious purple berries were harvested, along with other fruit, in midsummer to fall and stored in a partly dried or frozen state. Chokecherries mixed with fat and suet and pounded into the meat of buffalo became pemmican, a staple food eaten by Native Indians during journeys and long winters. Today the chokecherry fruit is used to make jam and syrup prized as a gourmet treat. Chokecherry bushes still grow wild in prairie ravines and remain one of the most important plants for
wildlife food and shelter.
Native Americans used corn for a myriad of purposes, including exfoliation. They rubbed ground corn on their skin before ceremonies, to rid the body of impurities. But their skin benefited in other ways. Not only does it remove dead skin cells, but it also leaves behind minerals and vitamins that help the skin.
Juniper creates an environment that is safe and sacred. The burning juniper berries purify the air in sick rooms and prevent the spread of infection.
Sweet smelling Lavender is sometimes called ‘Breath of the Spirit world’. Lavender soothes and calms the nerves and stimulates the healing process. The fragrance of lavender imparts a feeling of inner freedom that allows one to let go of compulsions, anger and other bad habits of the mind. Sometimes the lavender buds are burned to induce sleep and rest and can be scattered around the home to maintain a feeling of peacefulness.
Mint is used to stimulate joy, virtue and endurance.
Mugwort is a symbol of health and hope. Native Americans use the leaves of the mugwort medicinally to treat colds, colic, bronchitis, rheumatism and fever.
Osha the most widely used herbal medicine in the southwest. Elders have always like to receive osha as a gift. Associated with good luck and protection. Used to treat coughs and colds. One of the most important herbs of the Rocky Mountain region. Caution: Do not use during pregnancy or if breastfeeding.
Pinon gathered in large quantity by the Navajo and Zuni. Pinon salve is used to treat sores and cuts. Many ceremonies include the use of the pinon, especially the War Dance ceremony.
Used as an herb of purification. Purity, health; used for consecration in Native American tradition. Sage is a necessary part of every Native American sacred ceremony. Take a spring of Sage to your new home, to chase out old, out-used energies, and purify the Sacred Space in which you will be starting married life! Sage is particualrly important in the Sun Dance because the dancers chew it to alleviate their thirst. Sage is included in medicine pouches and bundles and is burned in smudging ceremonies to drive out bad spirits, feelings or influences.
Grows in the plains areas of the US. It smells sweet when dried, and is traditionally braided together in long strands for storage or use. Sweetgrass can be burnt as a purifier similar to sage. It encourages positive vibrations to enter an area or room. It is also used in sweat lodges. Clippings are placed on hot rocks during the sweat. The smoke of sweetgrass is pleasant to the good spirits. They come to the smoke. They are pleased with one who makes this smoke. But the bad spirits also enjoy the smoke, so sage must be burned to make them sick, then sweetgrass to bring good spirits.
The legends and lore surrounding Thyme are manifold. It was one of the first herbs to be used as incense, and was often sprinkled on church floors, along with lavender, in the middle ages, to eliminate unwanted odors. Some believe the word Thyme, is derived from the Greek word for Courage, and some think it is connected to the idea of cleansing or fumigating. It has been associated, in ancient lore, with both death and death ceremonies, and yet was also thought to have an ability to attract fairies. Like Sage, it has been burned in many places throughout time to cleanse the air, protect from plague, and ward off evil spirits. Avoid if pregnant.
Ceremonially, tobacco is smoked as a means of communication with the spirits. It is said that the ancestors remember the pleasure of smoking the leaves and the dried blossoms, so they return to partake in the essence of the tobacco.