Mahican Medicine

Anthropology and History

There are a number of ways to go about reviewing and discussing Native American medicine.  Methods engaged in by anthropologists are vastly different from methods employed by historians.  Anthropologists usually tend to rely upon their experiences in the cultural setting, and if they depend upon archaeology, they depend heavily upon the existence of artifacts to provide insights into their study.  Historians in the purest sense rely mostly upon the written word, usually in the form of documents but also in various art forms such as paintings, sculpture, and wood carvings.  Of course, in most modern studies of Native American traditions, the anthropologist tends to rely upon the historical materials, and the historian a little bit more upon anthropological writings.

Much of what we know about Indian medicine comes either from personal interactions with people practicing this medicine, those who seek out the skills of these Native practitioners, or those who have witnessed these practices but have not personally engaged in them.  The information provided about these practitioners, although traditional in the best possible sense, is always a product of the many discoveries that took place since the first discovery of a medicine.  When we are reviewing the anthropology of Native American medicine this is not really much of an issue, but when we are trying to learn about a medicine that was practiced in the past, we have to rely solely upon what was first documented in the writings about this medicine for the time in which we have decided to focus our studies.

It is important to realize that whenever we obtain information from historical writings, we are at the mercy of the writer (and sometimes the editor and the publisher).  A writer’s method of documenting Indian medical practice has its unending problems due to the possibility of misinterpretation of a particular  practice of regimen, the misidentification of an object in use such as a plant, an error that is made regarding the reasoning and philosophy for a particular activity.   This is because the observer and writer in fact knows very little of the underlying philosophy and tradition behind whatever lines of reasoning are being used order to produce a particular treatment method.  The best a writer can provide us with often are simply his or her highly accurate observations about what happens during each particular practice.  Once this writer begins to try to draw parallels between what they know or have learned about medicine, and the contemporary practices engaged in relation to this knowledge, biasness has been introduced into this line of reasoning.  The historian, although with good intent, has prejudiced whatever is documented by engaging in this process.

When reading interpretation of Indian medicine, we see numerous examples of this most vividly in the form of detailed writings, with comments, on the practice of shamanism.  Through the New France writings for example we find Jesuits making personal judgment about the practitioners, by defining their practice as the work of the devil or a way to manifest demons and others forms of bad spirits.

This misunderstanding of the shaman’s practice is a consequence of simple visual observation and then drawing conclusions, without any knowledge or understanding of the philosophy or tradition underlying such an activities.  This jump to conclusions comes about due to an inherent prejudice that existed throughout this period of missionary history.  In the best sense, we learn more from missionary work when these prejudices are somewhat suppressed at the level of the missions.  The only way this can happen is for the philosophy of the missions and the missionary themselves, tend to match the philosophy of the native culture they are trying to understand and assimilate.  Such a matching of cultures rarely takes place in missionary history.  In the case of the Moravians versus the Mahicans, this event may have taken place.

The final piece to solving the puzzle about Native American medical tradition related to the work of the archaeologist.  At a fairly moderate pace at best, archaeologists sometimes find objects that may have something to do with the practice of medicine.  Some medical tools like the carved bone or stone object remain intact when they are uncovered in an archaeological site, and are used to provide insights into the medical practices of the community under investigation, as well as its philosophy.  Such fortunate findings are less the case for plant medicines.  Some of the remains of certain plant medicines may be found at old sites, but for the most part, as biological specimens, plant products often become the first victims of aging and biological degradation.  It would be unusual for example to find a fully intact medicine bag with all of its herbal ingredients recognizable at a site more than several hundred years old (some alkaline swamp settings are the best example of exceptions to this rule).  Some archaeological sites are fortunate enough to maintain an inventory of plant products due to the exceptionally dry and warm temperatures.  Locally, the findings of an alkaline environment are more often the case than the findings of an arid dry campsite.  For this reason, the  identification of local plant medicines at a New York, and especially Hudson Valley site, requires that researchers have exceptional  forensic skills that can be applied to such things as pollen studies, microscopic plant remains, the chemical make up of these remains, and even the genetic make up of these remains.

On occasion, several larger concepts related to biology, ecology and the environment can help us deduce a particular medicine at a given Native American site.  For example if we know that the local environment is most supportive of a particular species of plant medicine,  one that is part of the local human ecology and natural ecosystems, we can deduce that were this Native American making use of some plant or its close relative for a particular reason, we could apply this understanding to interpreting the exact species being use.  If we understand the philosophy of such a practice even more, then we could probably improve our odds of making the right identification of a plant purportedly used.

Taking the local Lobelia as examples, we may be able to identify the fact that in some way a lobelia was used for ceremonial or medical purposes, but not be sure what species was in use.  This line of reasoning may start with the knowledge that lobelia is an effective emetic, and that somehow the use of an emetic is determined to be the most important part of a particular therapeutic regimen to be practiced.  If this conclusions were drawn based upon the discovery of some seeds that could not be easily differentiated between species, we are left uncertain about which of the local lobelias is being used.  Two of the more common local bear blue flowers that are very small.  The more noticeable species is three to four times larger, and bears a brilliant red spike.   Which of the local lobelia as chosen?  Was color the important feature? or the ability of the species to more abruptly cause emesis to ensue?  Or did these differences in the Lobelia not even matter due to the underlying local philosophy that existed with this group of people?  These are the exact types of questions that need to be addressed whenever we look at Native traditions with plants from a historical anthropologist’s ethnopharmacological point of view.

All of this leads to the most important concepts one needs to understand before reviewing Mahican medicine as it was practiced locally in the Hudson Valley.  The kinds of Mahican medicine that were practiced locally, in particular for plants, were very much dependent upon the species that existed for the most part within the immediate environmental setting for the time.  Of course there was some barter or trade going on for some medicines perhaps, and at times long trip may have been taken on foot to find a particular medicine, in particular by a medicine man professed in the local herbology.  But for the most part, to best understand Mahikan medicine, we need to understand what plants were in their immediate vicinity.

Everything we witness today about the Shekomeko region was for the most part not at all present during the 17th and 18th centuries.  There were no large daisies, dandelions, chicory or burdock to be picked, except for those that escaped from the colonial gardens.  The legumes that resided locally were not the very common red, white and hybrid clovers, or the two varieties of sweet clover.  They were not the majority of vetches that we see growing in the fields and along their edges, and there was no black medic growing wild in the region except where farmers’ fields were established.  There was no Queen Anne’s Lace, there were very few asters, very few wild rose and raspberry varieties, very few thistles, and absolutely no Ailanthus (large trees which everyone seems to call sumac, in error) and wild apple or cherry trees.  Catalpa was probably not here,being a species introduced from the south.  There were just a few types of hawthorn, and no red-fruited European barberry covering the floors of the open woods.  Instead, there were much more plants typical of what is now the lower mountain setting of the Catskills.  Wild flowers that mo longer exist in large supplies in these settings due to their overharvesting, as medicines by European settlers, and the effects of the invasion of European garden plants, weeds that were considered weeds even in Europe, and European farmed crops.

Today’s ecology cannot be used to reconstruct the past for most areas.  Therefore, we have to reconstruct this ecology by reviewing the past writings of botanists and writers.  The European writings to some extent are helpful, but in the end we can still be left with numerous questions about true plant identities, true plant uses, and true lines of reasoning regarding these uses.  The best we can do is review what has been documented, try to understand the traditional reasoning underlying these uses, spend time determining how much of this information is retold based upon a new philosophy and lines of reasoning, and try to take an educated guess about the traditions underlying the reasons for each particular plant use, that is assuming we correctly identified the related plant.

Identifying Plants

One of the hardest parts of evaluating the Native Americans herbal medicines is determining the correct identification for plants noted in the historical writings.  Elsewhere in my work I noted the single most useful book to own for identifying these plants– Plant Names Scientific and Popular . . . A.B. Lyons, 2ed.  (Detroit 1907).   Published around the turn of the 20th century, this book contains an impressive list of plants by genera, and reviews an incredible number of original plant name sources.  These sources, abbreviated throughout the text, are cited by the author as every known common name and latin name known for the plant at that time is detailed and published.  This book is fairly complete in  its coverage of the colonial Americana publications, and bear plant names that might otherwise never be known.  The use of this book by researchers is important because it includes plant names that were forgotten, and allows for synonyms (the same common name applied to different plants) to be reviewed, in order to identify the most likely species related to that plant citation.

The indigenous names for plants are typically not found in this book. There are a few exceptions, but most of these pertain to Indian names that have been somewhat modified to resemble typical European writing.  The Indian names for many plants are best found in the diaries, journals, reports and recounts of explorers and travelers of the past.  If we rely upon any published anthropological writings on this, unless the author has cited traditional documents validating the name being used, we have to assume these names are fairly recent and contemporary.  This point is important to keep in mind because often a plant name can lead us astray when we are trying to identify the plants being used in historical writings.  Lyon’s book provides us with a starting point in some instances regarding Indian nomenclature.  It is the best reference guide for identifying plans when their names are provided by European or Euroamerican writers.

The other type of name not likely to be found in Lyon’s book (although I have been surprised at times) are the exceptionally local names, a feature unusually common to the Hudson Valley during the colonial years. Due to this feature of the Valley, there are a few local plant names issues that have surfaced during my work that could potentially lead to misidentifications as a result of the use of a very local (in this case Orange County) name.  According to Jane Colden, ca. 1750, for example, several fairly local names were used for some of the local herbs that reminded the settlers of their more traditional herbal medicines often acquired through commerce with Europe.

How does this relate to Mahican history?  The same issues can surface with missionary writings and even Loskiel’s book about Native American culture.  In the case of a review of the plants Loskiel covers in his book (this review follows) , assuming any or all of these plants to be Mahican plant could be a problem.  For example, Loskiel refers to a plan known as Jalap, a Central American plant not native to the New York setting.  More than likely he is referring to a relative of Jalap, one which resembles in quite closely.  The next problem in solving this riddle about what the true identification of Jalap was in Loskiel’s work is to look at the options,which we first conceive to be another species in the same family with a similar rootstock.  This could be referring to any of the local Ipomoea or Convolvulus species.  Either match the appearance of the flower for this plant, but not necessarily its most famous feature — the resinous rootstock which serves as an effective purgative or laxative.  That which does resemble the Jalap in structure and form is the Convolvulus panduranta L. (currently known as Ipomoea pandurata (L.) Meyer) also known as Man-root or Man-of-the-Earth due to its giant rootstock.    Because he covered very few plants in his book, and none of them are specifically related to just Mahican society (which would be somewhat difficult for a plant to have as its feature, but not so difficult for a particular use), we can assume Loskiel’s work includes some understanding of Mahican medicine, but is more representative of the general knowledge of plants found in the Americas for the time.. For this writing project, if any of the possible local name issues arise at a later time, they will be so noted.

Finally, since this first review of Loskiel’s plant medicines that follows is really not a review of medicines know to be used just by Mahicans,we have several other issues we have to contend with.    The first issue is that the author Loskiel isn’t just talking about Mahican herbal medicine use in his section on Diseases and the Indians, and if he is talking about or including Iroquois  in his line of thinking when he was producing this work, the results are pretty much like combining one culture of medicine with another, when to two are distinctly different.  Secondly, we have to remember there is a lack of other indigenous sources for this information for this period of time.  This makes it harder to associate what we do know about Native American use of herbs in general and the Mahican Indian practice.   The much later Mahican-like Native American herbal medicine references are by no means fully applicable to 17th and 18th century Mahican medicine, a sad but true fact about this aspect of Shekomeko history.  The Mohegans of Connecticut for example, even though they are somehow linked to the Shekomeko Mahicans, have different plants residing in their area in some cases, and different uses.  In some cases, their philosophy may have even been modified significantly from that of the Hudson  Valley Mahican practices, and that which we do know about Connecticut Mohegan culture may be so different due to the tribe’s sublimation of other tribal practices and techniques promoted in Native American history writings over the years,  that some of this folklore promoted as Mohegan may not even be Mohegan in origin or in nature in some sort of  philosophical sense.  Not that this author is claiming that he knows Mahican philosophy and tradition with herbs better than some of the past writers trying to document the same, it is just that I feel somewhat uncertain of the reliability of some of these writings of th past, especially those documented in more recent decades, during a period long after the Indians resided in total seclusion within their natural setting, or even within the earliest government sponsored settlements.

Putting the focus on combining Indian culture and traditions aside, we can now add to this cultural and lifestyle problem the issues related to Moravian missionary living styles versus the Mahicans.  This provides us with a very different scenario and set of writings and notes to have to deal with when trying to accurately document the ways in Mahicans practiced their herbal medicine.  For this reason, the notes that are about to follow are merely recapitulations of what is told in other published writings, staying away from any writings considered adulterated with western European traditions and teachings, and native belief systems apparently modified due to the types of herbs they refer to or make use of.  In other cases, a few examples may be included that contain the obvious evidence for questionable philosophical change.  These are included in order to make my point on this particular issue.  A Mahican could use the same herb as the Missionary, to treat the exact same condition, but for different philosophical and metaphysical lines of reasoning.

Loskiel’s Plants

The following are reviewed by Loskiel in the order in which they appear. Latin names added by this author appear in brackets.  Otherwise, the wording of these entries remains unchanged:

[Begin Long Quote]

The Indians are remarkably skilled in curing the bite of venomous serpents, and have found a medicine peculiarly adapted for the bite of each species. For example: The Leaf of the rattlesnake-root (polygala senega) is the most efficacious remedy against the bite of this dreadful animal. God has mercifully granted it to grow in the greatest plenty in all parts most infested by the rattlesnake. It is very remarkable, that this herb acquires its greatest perfection just at the time when the bite of these serpents is the most dangerous. The Indians are so well convinced of the certainty of this antidote, that many will suffer themselves to be bitten for a glass of brandy. The leaves are chewed, and immediately applied to the wound, and either some of the juice or a little fat or butter is swallowed at the same time. This, occasions a parching thirst, but the patient must not be suffered to drink.

Virginian Snake-root [Aristolochia serpentaria] chewed, makes also an excellent poultice for wounds of this kind.  [Reviewed at the end of this section as well.]

A decoction of the buds or bark of the white ash (fraxinus canadense) taken inwardly, is said to be a certain remedy against the effects of this poison.

A decoction of the bark and root of the thorny ash (aralia spinosa) is used as a purifier of the blood. The Indian physicians make up their medicines in very large draughts, for if their apparatus does not make a formidable show, it is thought of little or no effect, and the medicines being much diluted, maybe taken in large potions without injury.

The Toothach-tree (zanthoxylum clava Herculis) resembles the ash, and is thus called, because the Indians use its wood as a remedy against tooth-ach.

The Tulip-tree (liriodendron tulipifera) grows in Pennsylvania, and all the southern provinces, and is one of the tallest and stoutest trees. The stem is frequently seven yards in circumference, and is used for boards, boats, dishes, spoons, and cabinet-work. Its flower has a magnificent appearance but the fruit gives it that particular name, which resembles a tulip closed. Some Indians consider the fruit, and the bark of the roots, as a powerful specific against agues.

Dogwood (cornus florida) is neither tall nor bulky. Many believe its virtues to be the same as those of the Peruvian bark.

Wild Laurel (laurus æstivalis) [Lindera benzoin] grows in abundance in low rich grounds: The berries are smaller than those of the common laurel, but have nearly the same taste. The wood has a strong aromatic smell and taste, and the Indians prepare a medicinal draught from it.

Sassafras (laurus sassafras) [Sassafras albidum] rises sometimes to more than thirty feet in height; but in general, and particularly in northern latitudes, seldom exceeds that of a common shrub. The bark and root are preferable to the wood itself. The flowers serve for tea, and the Indians also use the berries as a medicine.

The Canada shrubby elder (sambucus canadensis) resembles the elder, and bears a small berry of a reddish hue and aromatic smell. A decoction of the wood or buds is an excellent remedy in agues, and the Indians use it likewise for inflammations.

The Poison-ash (rhus vernix) is remarkable for poisoning some persons at a distance, when the wind carries its exhalations towards them; although others may touch, or even chew its bark and leaves without the least prejudice. Its poison is not deadly, but produces a swelling of the whole body, with an eruption, which, when ripe, resembles the small-pox. The Indians cure it by drinking saffron-tea, and using a salve made of cream and marshmallow.

Wintergreen (pyrola canadensis) has a white flower. The berries are red, as large as sloes, smooth and round, and ripen in winter under the snow. The Indians eat these berries as a stomachic.

A species of Liverwort [Hepatica triloba] is considered as an efficacious remedy in consumptive disorders.

Virginian Poke (phytolacca decandra) is a large herb, with leaves about fix inches long, and two broad, bearing a red berry, called by some pigeon-berry, the pigeons being extremely fond of them. Applications of the roots to the hands and feet are used as stimulants in fevers.

Jalap (convolvulus jalappa) [Ipomoea batatas?] grows in abundance in the Indian country, and is prescribed as a purgative. In the rheumatism of the legs they roast the roots, then flit and apply them to the soles of the feet as hot as the patient can bear.

Ipecacuanha [Euphorbia sp?, versus. The South American species Cephaelis ipecacuanha] is used not only as an emetic, but also as an antidote against the bite of serpents.

Sarsaparilla (smilax sarsaparilla) grows in great abundance in the country of the Iroquois. The root is used in medicine, and its virtues are well-known.

Canadian Sanicle (sanicula canadensis), a tincture of its root prepared with brandy is applied to wounds.

A species of Scabious (scabiosa succisa) commonly called Devil’s-bit, on account of the singularity of its root, is also used as a medicine.

Bloodwort (sanguinaria canadensis). The root of this plant when broken, emits some drops of the color of blood, which is a strong and dangerous emetic.

Cuckoo-pint (arum maculatum) [Arisaema triphyllum?] has a root like a small nut; when tasted it inflames the tongue by its pungency, leaving a tingling sensation, without affecting any other part of the mouth. When dried it loses this power, and is made use of in complaints of the bowels. ,

Virginian Snakeroot (aristolochia serpentaria) is excessively bitter, and much in use among the Indians as a sudorific and stomachic.  [see initial plant entry above]

Ginseng (panax quinquefolium), a plant brought first from Corea (sic) to Europe by way of Japan, grows wild in North America. In China and other countries in Asia, this root is deemed a universal remedy, in every kind of disorder. When chewed, it is an excellent stomachic. Formerly it was very dear, and fold in Holland for twenty-five florins a pound. But about thirty years ago a merchant in North America received a commission to send a large quantity of this root to London. He employed some Indians to collect as much as they could get, for which he rewarded them handsomely. Its price of course was greatly lowered, when found in such plenty.

[End long quote]





Moravian-Indian Medicine