Posted by Goody Sandy on February 13, 2000 at 16:27:45:
Early New England Indian healers had a comprehensive knowledge of curatives. Using plant extracts and other of nature's remedies, they were especially successful with fractures and wounds.
The Indian pharmacists were not all "medicine men," more likely there were knowledgeable elderly women. The Maine Indians had no male doctors until the whites came. Medical lore was passed down in the family from grandmother to mother to daughter and kept private. Not all of the remedies would be known or available to any single tribe or family.
The women who were adept at medicine would collect the essential herbs, roots, and barks at odd times - never in the dog days but always just ahead; they would dry them carefully in the sun. With bark, only the inner part was used; it was pounded with stones and ground in a wood or stone mortar, and perhaps boiled or otherwise prepared. They even made syringes with a hallow bladder for a bulb.
To counteract their ills, the native pharmacopoeia contained a wealth of specifics. They were acquainted with cough and cold remedies, emetics, cathartics, diaphoretics, vermifuges, astringents, alteratives, stimulants, narcotics and antiseptics - all from plant sources. So complete was the aboriginal knowledge of their native flora that some tribe or other used all but a half dozen indigenous drugs now known.
How these herbs and roots produced the desired effect they may not have understood. They simply worked. When captive John Glyes froze his feet, the Indians told him to smear them with a fir balsam salve; in a few days they were well again. The natives had poultices, and they were familiar with massage and adept at reducing swellings.
Particular reliance was placed on the sweat bath, the most common prescription to cleanse the skin and overcome the illnesses of winter. At Stafford Springs, Connecticut, sulphured waters had supposedly curative properties; Maine Indians had a curative mud spring. They anointed their bodies with fish oil, eagle fat, coon grease, and similar emollients against sun, weather, and insects; the hair was dressed carefully with walnut oil.
With the rough conditions met in long, often bone-chilling days of hunting, there needed to be cold remedies. Two sources were ground juniper and jack-in-the-pulpit; another, dogwood bark. A gargle made from the root of the wild blackberry was thought to help a sore throat. If a cold affected the lungs, a pitch pine preparation was applied to the chest. Another chest application, good for other soreness as well, came from the inner bark of the wild black cherry, and a third from the bruised root of Solomon's seal.
A powder made from Solomon's seal was held to be an antiseptic; milkweed was another source. Spider's web and prince's pine were used as styptics to stop bleeding. Also for bleeding, the wool of rattlesnake weed was used. Snake bite was not unusual, and for this the root of that plant was the specific, while to draw out venom from a wound made by a poisoned arrow a decoction from unripe cranberries is reported to have been used.
For other sorts of wounds, a boiled moss might be used. Cranberry poultices were considered helpful for various types of sores, as were boiled water-lily roots. Birch bark and pine bark were used for burns and a balsam salve for bruises. As a pleasant means of relieving a headache, the scent of red cedar leaves that were heated on fireplace stones were breathed in. Cedar leaves and twigs, both boiled, were thought helpful for fever.
New England Indians also had remedies for digestive troubles. Goose or skunk oil, or a purgative of butternut bark, could clear the bowels; columbine root or cattail flowers to end diarrhea; a cedar leaf concoction relieved dropsy and urinary difficulties. A Penobscot Indian prescription for diarrhea was tea from boiled white oak bark. For suppressed menstruation pennyroyal or blueberry tea were said to he helpful, as was a decoction from the partridgeberry plant taken at childbirth.
For fevers the Delawares replied on dogwood bark. One reason for the custom of using oil or grease as a skin emollient may have been to counteract exposure to poison ivy. Arthritis and rheumatism as a result of an often-rough Indian life took their toll. Wintergreen was the source of one remedy; another was that blossom of the pyrola weed. The Penobscot made a tea from sarsaparilla and sweet flag roots.
To early English observers one matter of continual wonder was "the extraordinary ease of childbirth" of Indian women. Usually they required little if any assistance. If on a journey the mother-to-be felt labor approaching, she was likely to leave the company and enter the woods. A few hours later, with a babe in her hands, she would rejoin the group. It was unusual for the woman to run into difficulty. Indian women were "ordinarily quickly and easily delivered, and many times so strong that a few hours after they will go about their ordinary vocations."
The Indian baby was usually very small by European standards, and born white with black hair. The newborn would be laid in a soft bed of cattail or milkweed fluff, duck feathers, or sphagnum moss. This would prevent chafing and the vegetable substances would perform the absorbent function of the English child's diapers.
The child was not babied. Upon the mother's recovery, after two or three days, the little papoose "travels about with his mother." Indians had been known to bury their children in the snow to harden them against the cold. Yet mortality for both mothers and infants was low. If the mother's milk failed and no wet nurse was available, she would crush hickory nuts into a thin paste, and this baby food would sustain the child. Teething is said not have been a serious matter; the child got a bone to chew. Moreover, the whole series of contagious diseases to which European children were subject was missing.
Source: "Indian New England Before the Mayflower" by Howard S. Russell
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