by Nate & Meg Richardson
The way the Cherokee obtained and maintained their knowledge about health has become most fascinating to me. Our processes today are limited to empirical process, but the Cherokee remind us that there is more than one way to skin a cat.
The People of the Cherokee Share Wisdom of Health
The Cherokee people traditionally are very skeptical of what we call traditional or mainstream medicine. They feel like it is too governed by the government who has wronged them. The Cherokee nation wasn’t quite obliterated, but during the Trail of Tears it took a large blow when the government promised them things that it never gave them. While we want the Cherokee to be blessed by modern advances in medicine, we cannot neglect what they bring to the table of healthcare. The teenagers who are more integrated into western society don’t hold the belief of the medicine man. The medicine man replaces the modern physician. There are usually no medicine women. The medicine man carries a bag of a few specific herbs which he uses time and again on his patients.
Cherokee Health and The Family
Cherokee are very family oriented; they stay together with their families, and do ceremonies together, like tobacco ceremonies as a healing process. When the medicine man is sick, a close family member performs the ceremony. They give tobacco to the four winds and are return rewarded with power in the herb to heal. This offering is their giving to the earth because the earth gives to you. This offering also helps strengthen the plant, so that the plant can be strong to give more in the future. Cherokee tobacco is from various herbs, unlike the way we see it commonly today. Mullein or Lobelia was often included in their tobacco mix, these are strong anti-asthmatic, but Lobelia is in part like nicotine.
In a “spirit circle”, there can be about 40 people, and rocks to contribute to their circles of ceremony. These rocks are called medicine wheels; they have holes for north south east and west, wherein certain herbs fall.
The Shaman is a character among the Cherokee who represents man reaching back and forth between life and death, or what lies beyond. Death is not to be feared among the Cherokee. You make peace with death when death comes into you. They seek healing, but when it is time to die, they die well. They believe the Shaman can intercede by special balancing acts. Standing on knives or atop a roof dancing or some other extreme level of balance to not be injured shows that they intercede in the world of the secular and the world of Gaia, or the world of the living and the world of the dead. The Shaman show themselves to have access to a modern culture and a healing culture at the same time by these displays.
The plants which Gaia shared were companions, not servants. Garrett instructs, “Early use of plants evolved into listening to the stories told by many of the elders. They emphasized the values of plants as helpers, not as medicinal remedies for specific conditions of illness.” (Garrett, 2003, p. 26). To be a healer, you need to have had a vision, which can be from one of the plant spirits. These usually come in the form of Bear or Coyote or the plants appearing to you in the form of a person. These visions can happen in dreams. Angelica root would appear to you in the form of a beautiful young lady, and Burdock would appear in the form of a bear. The spirit plant guides taught the Cherokee of how to make use of their gifts, “Medicine was learned from the plant helpers for treating cuts, the stings and bites of insects, and for treating the upset stomachs of children and full bellies of the adults.” (Garrett, 2003, p. 21)
The ties Cherokee have with family and near community assist them in obtaining healthy lifestyles and healing independent of professionals in western medicine. This can be a weakness, but it can also be a strength in leu of the shortage in healthcare professionals today.
Cherokee Find Their Diet and Other Help from Gaia
The worship of Gaia (mother earth) brings with it a great respect for earth. Pagans were traditionally an earth centered religion also, referring to the mother earth and father sky, wherein one pays homage to the ground for producing the things to sustain you. They like the Cherokee held that when one treats the earth with respect, it treats you with respect back. This idea is being forgotten in modern society. The Cherokee diet is from the earth and isn’t processed like our food is today, and adherence to their diet would doubtless make many cancers and diabetic terrors a thing of the past.
The Cherokee speak to the plants, meditating with the plant, rather than assuming a license to pick any plant they wish, they would make a sort of arrangement with the plant to create a mutual relationship. Various songs and chants were sung to the plants to win their favor and further the negotiation process. Some plants may feel that they don’t want to be used at that time because they are currently unhealthy or have been recently abused by humans. They believe the earth can literally cry, and that when wasted, an area of earth can’t produce the desired beneficial life. Now we know from modern scientific measurements that, just as the Cherokee have long taught, when nutrients are taken out of soil, it is very hard to get that land to reproduce. That nature was the core of Cherokee medicine we see from Garrett’s work on Cherokee health, “The story of Cherokee Medicine begins with nature, ends with man, and begins again with nature.” (Garrett, 2003, p. 21)
The doctrine is signatures is practiced by the Cherokee. This means the plants will represent themselves similar to the animals. This is how humans first learned to associate plants with helpful uses for the human body (Bennett, 2007). The bear medicines are brown and fuzzy, like the bear. The bear medicines are considered most helpful to human conditions since the bear seems to be the animal most like the human, in that they use the hands to dig up roots, etc. The walnut is good for the heart because it looks like a heart. Angelica root looks like a uterus and is good for the uterus. It’s surprising how often these similarities pan out. Bennett suggests that though little scientific proof is available to support the doctrine of signatures, it is still at least a very effective teaching method (Bennett, 2007).
Cherokee have found ways to sustain life from the land without resorting to processed foods. I’m sure they had to work for this sustenance, and perhaps even that work is part of their key to health. Health didn’t come cheap for the Cherokee, but when it came, it was abundant.
Our Persistence Intolerance of Naturopathic Medicine
We have a recent case in the US of the DCFS taking kids from parents who didn’t think chemotherapy and radiation was the best option. At first glance we might say “yes the state protected the children from death.” But this is upsetting as it ignores alternate treatments which the very knowledgeable naturopathic parents were going to perform. Medical schools used to allow herbal and naturopathic studies. The Flexner report in the 20th century claimed that homeopathic schools were promoting dangerous graduates who did not understand medicine. This led to 25 large schools of natural medicine being shut down and lawsuits against many natural health practitioners. The Fitzgerald report in the appendix to the congressional record written by the chief investigator to interstate commerce showed that money from pharmaceutical companies was being put into shutting down natural clinics, hospitals, and laboratories which didn’t conform to standard pharmacology practices of the time. Pharmaceutical companies are known for trying to silence herbal remedy inventors like Harry Hoxsey. The American Medical Association lost a case called Wilk VS AMA in 1990 for having been identified as financing propaganda to shut down competitors in the naturopathic field.
The Cherokee could go for a walk and tell you what each plant is and what it does. I think most modern physicians could not do this. The Cherokee treated plants as a teammate, an ally, whereas today we treat plants as something that gets in the way of more serious matters.
The white people came to the Cherokee and the Cherokee told them of their medicinal ways, and the white’s called it kooky and threw it all away. If only we had at least tried to understand why they had the long-standing traditions which they had and had a more open mind to trying foreign things which had been helpful to other nations.
We would do well to not repeat the mistakes of our fathers and treat Cherokee patients with respect and reverence for their long-standing traditions in medicine even though many of them are not familiar to the modern civilized world. We must seek to accommodate their Cherokee patients in their desires to practice medicine in the way that their fathers have taught them to be correct. We can listen to the Cherokee and take their clues and put them to the test in our labs, and I think that we will happily find that the correlations they have given us will prove to be a great advancement in modern medicine.
I echo the sentiment of Cherokee researcher JT Garrett, “My vision is that we will learn to respect Mother Earth more each day and come to know how we can be a protector for the resources that our ancestors have called “the Medicine Way.”” (Garrett, 2003, p. 17)
Garrett, J. (2003). Cherokee Herbal. Bear & Company.
Bennett, B. C. (2007). Doctrine of Signatures: An Explanation of Medicinal Plant Discovery or
Dissemination of Knowledge? [Abstract]. Economic Botany,61(3), 246-255. D
Appendix: Additional Information on the history of naturopathic schools in the US:
Medical schools used to allow herbal and naturopathic studies.
Wilk VS AMA (American Medical Association) in 1990 is a case where propaganda was used to try and eliminate chiropractic’s etc. and the court ruled against AMA (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilk_v._American_Medical_Ass%27n) .
Harry Hoxsey found a natural cure for cancer, the AMA wanted to buy it from him but they didn’t plan to sell it to the public, so he wouldn’t sell, shortly thereafter he was jailed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoxsey_Therapy
The Flexner report which was funded by Carnegie and Rockefeller claimed that homeopathic schools were promoting dangerous graduates who did not understand medicine. This lead to 25 large schools of natural medicine being shut down and lawsuits against many natural health practitioners.
“Homeopathy and natural medicines were derided; some doctors were jailed.”
“to adhere strictly to the protocols of mainstream science”
“published in 1910 under the aegis of the Carnegie Foundation. Many aspects of the present-day American medical profession stem from the Flexner Report and its aftermath.”
“Many American medical schools fell short of the standard advocated in the Flexner Report and, subsequent to its publication, nearly half of such schools merged or were closed outright. Colleges in electrotherapy were closed.”
“The Report also concluded that there were too many medical schools in the United States, and that too many doctors were being trained.”
“To help with the transition and change the minds of other doctors and scientists, Rockefeller gave more than $100 million to colleges, hospitals and founded a philanthropic front group called “General Education Board” (GEB)”
“In a very short time, medical colleges were all streamlined and homogenized (all the students were learning the same thing)”
“No medical school can be created without the permission of the state government. Likewise, the size of existing medical schools is subject to state regulation”
“When Flexner researched his report, “modern” medicine faced vigorous competition from several quarters, including osteopathic medicine, chiropractic medicine, electrotherapy, eclectic medicine, naturopathy and homeopathy. Flexner clearly doubted the scientific validity of all forms of medicine other than that based on scientific research, deeming any approach to medicine that did not advocate the use of treatments such as vaccines to prevent and cure illness as tantamount to quackery and charlatanism. Medical schools that offered training in various disciplines including electromagnetic field therapy, phototherapy, eclectic medicine, physiomedicalism, naturopathy, and homeopathy, were told either to drop these courses from their curriculum or lose their accreditation and underwriting support. A few schools resisted for a time, but eventually all either complied with the Report or shut their doors.”
The Fitzgerald report in the appendix to the congressional record written by the chief investigator to interstate commerce showed that money from pharmaceutical companies was being put into shutting down natural clinics, hospitals, and laboratories which didn’t conform to standard pharmacology practices of the time.