Traditional Native American Medicine: A Basic History

The key to surviving in a new environment is listening to the people who know it best.

This was a difficult lesson for pioneers arriving in the Americas. Those who survived were often the ones that swallowed their pride and embraced the abundant medicinal knowledge of the Native Americans.

Natives had long been treating illnesses through meditation, ritual, and medicinal herbs. Historians speculate that American Indians learned the medicinal properties of herbs by studying animals that ingested them.

Native Americans developed their knowledge of medicinal herbs and began experimenting with harvest times. They honed their ability to gather medicinal plants and herbs at a time of the year when they were most potent.

Bark was gathered in the spring when it had the most medicinal herbal properties. Roots of perennial plants were gathered in the autumn and stored for various purposes in the winter. Leaves were often picked around the same time, as this season was right before plants went into bloom. Many plants were dried for later use.

Once they collected the herbs, they were able to transform the indigenous flowers, leaves, barks, and berries into an array of tinctures, salves, and teas.

Two popular preparation methods were decoction and infusing the herbs. Native Americans, like modern pharmacists, understood the distinction between a decoction and an infusion. A decoction is a liquid prepared by extracting the drug from the healing herb with boiling water. In some cases, the mixture is boiled for a longer time to concentrate the solution. Your coffee maker utilizes this method every morning to produce your daily cup of joe. An infusion differs by extracting the drug using water that has already boiled and has cooled.

Plants and herbs vary wildly from region to region. This meant that different tribes had different localized healing methods. Here are some examples of the variety of herbs used from tribe to tribe:

The Winnebago and Dakota tribes used Skunk Cabbage as one of their medicinal plants to stimulate the removal of phlegm in asthma.

The Catawba Indians used a tea of arnica roots to treat back pains. They also used the medicinal properties of the healing herb to treat sprains and bruises. This tribe also crushed and steeped horsemint leaves in cold water and drank the infusion for back pains.

The Natchez drank a tea of boiled Pleurisy Root for pneumonia.

The Yokia Indians of Northern California boiled wormwood leaves to cure bronchitis.

The Kiowa Indians boiled yellow-spined thistle blossoms and applied the resulting liquid to burns and sores.

As you can see, the diverse healing methods used by different tribes took advantage of indigenous plants. To list all of the medicinal herbs used by Native Americans would take a long time. Here are some of the most commonly used herbs, and their medicinal uses.

Note that some of these herbal remedies are still used today. In addition, many natural and pharmaceutical drugs are adopted from Indian medicine.


Cherry bark was widely used as a sedative. It contains hydrocyanic (prussic) acid and is still used as a cough suppressant.


Some American Indian tribes harnessed the medicinal properties of conifers (including juniper and yew which actually have berries rather than cones). These plants were used to treat colds, wounds, inflammations, burns, sore eyes, rheumatism, headaches and insect bites.

Coniferous trees such as balsam fir, pine and cedar contain volatile oils that can be used to reduce nasal and pulmonary congestion. Tablets and ointments of pine and mineral oils are used for similar purposes today.

The resin from coniferous trees was also used as an antiseptic application on wounds, and the inner bark was mashed as a poultice.


Horsemint was used for fever, inflammation, and chills.


According to studies, sage has anti-hypertensive, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties, which are similar to the medicinal uses of rosemary.

 Smoking Tobacco:

This sacred plant that wasn’t mixed with many of the chemicals used today. In addition to ceremonial uses, the healing herb was made into tea by the Flathead and Blackfoot for coughs and sore throats, as well as a way to treat chapping and windburn.


The herbal properties of willow bark was extensively used for fever and pain. Willow, poplar, and wintergreen contain salicylate. This substance is chemically related to acetylsalicylic acid and is known to us today as aspirin.

Pipsissewa, spiraea, and several birch types also contained salicylate, though these plants were used less frequently.

 Witch Hazel:

Witch hazel is still used today for sore muscles.


Oak, raspberry, sumac, dogwood, alum root and many other plants contain astringent ingredients such as a tannin which serve to reduce the flow of blood and other fluids.

Yarrow, milkweed, calamus, sagebrush, and several members of the mint family were each used for a variety of ailments throughout North America.

Pennyroyal was used as an insect repellant, and raspberry was a treatment for diarrhea.

To purchase these plants and many more, visit:

Have you experienced the healing properties of Native American medicine? Tell us your experience in the comments.

These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

 Additional image: Spirit Walk Ministry