Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Indian Medicine:

The Indian term for medicine, in many tribes was synonymous with mystery. Through trial and error, certain herbs and remedies were found to be effective, however, how the cure was effected was not understood and hence “medicine”. Although not true for all, many tribes had two levels of physicians, the herbalist or apothecary who could treat every day injuries and illness, and the “Medicine Man” or Shaman, part doctor, part religious leader who treated serious or life threatening illness.  The Medicine Man might or might use the same remedies as used by the herbalist, but through the use of chants, charms, dances and ceremonies was able to impart greater power to the remedy.  

Indian treatments for externally caused injuries such as fractures, dislocations, insect and snake bites, arrow and bullet wounds were rational and often very effective.  Although practices were not consistent, or known to all tribes, some Indians did know that certain herbs would aid in the healing of wounds (antiseptics), knew how to remove embedded arrows or bullets, practiced contraception through use of ingested herbs, and develop use of syringes for irrigating wounds and for placement of herbal treatments.  Indians were also familiar with the use of herbal laxatives and emetics for treating gastro-intestinal illnesses.

In the case of persistent internal diseases which did not respond readily to medicine, the illness might be attributed to supernatural causes such as malevolent spirits.  If the spirit could be induced to leave the body, the illness would be cured.   Indian disease theory was in many ways was similar to disease theory of white medical professionals of the early 1800s.  Substitute poison or “vapours” for  malevolent spirit and compare to 1800’s white disease theory described above, although the shamanistic cures were less injurious to the body then the white medical practioner’s cures.

Indian remedies were often rejected out of hand by white medical professionals and the clergy of the time.  However, at the frontier and into the wilderness, where physicians were absent, or rare, many whites embraced these remedies. French voyageurs and coureurs du bois preferred the Indian treatments for wounds and chronic sores with poultices and herbs to the treatments of white doctors.  Indian hygiene was generally superior to that practiced by whites at the time.  Indians bathed frequently, often daily, even the northern tribes, and throughout the year. The average life expectancy of Indians (prior to the introduction of tuberculosis, small pox, typhoid, measles, venereal diseases, and other European diseases) based on skeletal evidence was 37 years, plus or minus three years, as compared to 35 years for white Americans in the late 1700’s.

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