Winnebago Sweat Lodge.                          Red Horn Panel, Missouri.



Pathogenesis and Treatment

In his 14th chapter, Carver reviews the Native American (mostly Winnebago) theories of disease and how they treat them. 

Based on the history of this writing, and some underlying political scandals possibly associated with a land grant he illegally claimed, he lost some important political and legal support from Royalty.  The hasty publication of his experiences that followed makes the authenticity of some of these writings somewhat questionable. 

Immediate causes for any malady given by Carter include

  • Luxury or sloth
  • “hardships and fatigues which they endure in hunting and war,”
  • “the inclemency of the seasons to which they are exposed,”
  • “all the extremes of hunger,”
  • “that voraciousness their long excursions consequently subject them to,”
  • “Pains and weakness in the stomach and breast are sometimes the result of long fasting,”
  • “consumption of the excessive fatigue and violent exercises they expose themselves to from their infancy,”

Theories regarding the cause for disease tended to focus on human behavior and activities carried out within the environment.  The rheumatic disease of the joints for example Carver states was believed by Natives to be due to “excessive exercise, or the extremes of heat and cold.”  This malady is treated by scarifying the parts afflicted with a piece of sharp flint, likened to the lancet.

The person is not considered seriously ill if he still has an appetite, the loss of which causes great concern and leads to suspicion that the disease is “dangerous.”

Their beliefs in the physical and spiritual cause for disease are mentioned by Carver: 

“Their doctors are not only supposed to be skilled in the physical treatment of diseases, but the common people believe that by ceremony of the chichicoue usually made use of, as before described, they are able to gain intelligence from the spirits of the cause of the complaints with which they are afflicted, and are thereby the better enabled to find remedies for them.  They discover something supernatural in all their diseases, and the physic administered must invariably be aided by these superstitions.”

Examples of other illnesses and beliefs:

  • When the illness is due to “witchcraft,” the juggler is consulted, who then goes about a curing ceremony to add to the use of herbal simples.
  • The Pleurisy is treated by sweat lodge.
  • Dropsy and paralytic complaints are infrequent, and treated with herbs.
  • An account of an Indian woman in Penobscot was given.  She treated a woman whose birthing process had been hampered greatly while in child-bed.  A handkerchief was tied about her mouth by the Native, and she began suffering suffocation, which then led her to cease her struggles.  The birthing process then followed and the handkerchief taken off.  Carver recounts the reason given by the Native for this type of success as: “desparate disorders require desparate remedies (sic); that as she observed the exertions of nature were not sufficiently forcible to effect the desired consequence, she thought it necessary to augment their force, which could only be done by some mode that was violent in the extreme.” 
  • Fevers are treated using herbal remedies, in the form of lotions and decoctions, “which the physicians know perfectly well how to compound and apply. But they never trust medicines alone; they always have recourse likewise to some superstitious ceremonies, without which their patients would not think the physical preparations sufficiently powerful.”
  • Wounds, fractures, and bruises are treated with herbal simples. 
  • Herbal simples are also used to extract splinters and iron without need for making an incision. 
  • The skin of a snake, found as a spring shedding, may be applied to the site of splinters.
  • Carver wrote a long section on the venereal disease, which was “supposed to have originated in America.”   A prickly ash remedy in use by the Winnebagoes is then described. 

The Sweat Lodge

“The manner in which they construct their stoves for this purpose is as follows: They fix several small poles in the ground, the tops of which they twist together to for a rotunda: this frame they cover with skins or blankets; and they lay them on with so much nicety, that the air is kept from entering through any crevice; a small space being only left just sufficient to creep in at, which is immediately after closed.  In the middle of this confined building they place red hot stones, on which they pour water till a steam arises that produces a great degree of heat.

“This causes an instantaneous perspiration, which they increase as they please.  having continued it for some time, they immediately hasten to the nearest stream, and plunge into the water; and after bathing therein for about half a minute, they put on their cloaths, sit down and smoak with great composure, thoroughly persuaded that the remedy will prove efficacious.  They often make use of this sudoriferous method to refresh themselves, or to prepare their minds for the management of any business that requires uncommon deliberation and fagacity.”

[J. Carver, 1766-8, p. 390-1]

Small Pox

LIke others affiliated with this part of Canada, Carver has been associated with the Small Pox epidemic that travelled northward into Canada from as far south as Mexico, as explorers, travellers, and even early fur traders and possibly trappers made their way around the continent prior to 1800.   The traditional method of blame (the infected blankets theory) has been associated with early trapper and affiliate of North West and Hudson’s Bay Companies, Peter Pond, ca. 1778, soon after Carver’s writings were published.  There is no direct evidence for any associations between Carver and Pond and the Small Pox epidemic that made it through parts of the Athabascan and Cree territories during this time.  Still this story prevails, especially in the Native American world. (see ).  Other individuals associated with this story include Alexander Mackenzie.

For more of the Small Pox Epidemic seem my page on the Cree and Small Pox.