I have taken herbal supplements, without much thought, I will admit, as to the how or why we’ve come to use them, or how we know they work. But, plants and herbs have been used for centuries for their healing properties and continue to be used today. I’m going to tell you a little about the history of the use of medicinal plants and herbs by the American Indians, as well as some of the different plants that are native to Nebraska and the different ways they have been or are being used in medicine.
American Indians used their knowledge of plants and herbs to make not only food or clothing, but medicine to cure people of a lot of the same illnesses we have today. Ginseng, aloe, echinacea, ginkgo, these are products you will find on the shelves of your local supermarket or drug store, but they are medicinal products that have been used to treat a variety of illness for centuries. Kinscher in his 1992 book entitled, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie, stated his study “documents the use of 203 native prairie plant species, used as medicine by Indians, settlers, and doctors.” The Indians of the region made the greatest use of these plants, by using 172 of these species (Kindscher, 1992).
Kindscher (1992) goes on to say, “Many of these plants were also used by doctors from the time of first settlement (the 1830s in the earliest areas) until the 1930s, Medicinal plants have played a major role in the health and healing system of the Indians” and continue to play a role in medicine today. “Although no exact figures are available, it is estimated that 40 percent of the prescription drugs now sold in the United States contain at least one ingredient derived from nature.”
Above is a little bit of background into how important the prairie resources of plants and herbs were to the Indians, settlers, and to us today. Now let’s examine the different ways the plants and herbs were used to deliver medicine.
According to Keoke and Porterfield in their 2005 book, American Indian Contributions to the World, “In order to develop plant-based drugs that worked, they (Indians) needed to understand the different effects that plants had on humans.” Giving a patient too little medicine would not cure the illness, and too much might result in death (Keoke & Porterfield, 2005).
Have you ever stopped to think how many different medicines they’ve [Indians] used in trial and error situations, to cure a certain ailment or illness you might have, before they came to the prescription your doctor has just prescribed for you?
There were many different ways in which plants and herbs were used in order to deliver the medicine. Medicine men or women would dry, grind, or crush roots, leaves, or barks, into oils or powder and would make them into salves/creams, suppositories, pills or medicine they could inject under the skin. They would also boil certain plant leaves, or roots and make tonics or teas to drink (Keoke, Porterfield, 2005).
According to Gilmore in his publication, Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, some plants were broken into short pieces, and attached to the skin by moistening one end, and then lit on fire and allowed to burn down to the skin. Smoke treatments were also performed by lighting certain plants or herbs on fire and using the aroma or smoke to heal certain injuries or illnesses.
Now that we have looked at some of the different ways plants and herbs were used to make medicines let’s learn about some of the plants native to Nebraska and their medicinal uses.
The plant, purple coneflower, or better known today as, Echinacea, “was universally used as an antidote for snake bite and other venomous bites, stings and poisonous conditions” (Gilmore, 1918). When you have a cold, you might use a vapor rub that contains mint to clear your nose. But you could also take Echinacea, as it helps with infections caused by viruses like the common cold or flu, and is said to also help boast your immune system. This plant, native only to North America, was also the medicinal plant most widely used by the Indians of the prairie. (Kindscher, 1992)
Purple coneflower was also used to treat intestinal worms, by being brewed into a tea. Or the roots were rubbed downward on swollen arms or legs to reduce the swelling (Kindscher, 1992). Another popular medicine comes from tree bark. The bark from an American black willow was used as a pain reliever, because of the salicin (Keoke & Porterfield, 2005). Salicin is the main ingredient in aspirin, which is used for pain relief, as well as an anti-inflammatory.
Today we have learned how American Indians used their knowledge of plants and herbs to make medicines to cure people of a lot of the same illnesses we have today. And I’ve also told you about some of the different ways in which plants and herbs were used to deliver medicine. Long before our time, American Indian healers, or also known as medicine men were planting and harvesting plants and herbs on the prairies for medicinal purposes. So, next time you are picking up a prescription or a dietary supplement, imagine that this medicine could have been used centuries ago for the same reason you are using it today.
Cowen, R. (1990). Medicinal plants of the prairie. Science News, 137(14), 221. Retrieved from Health Source – Consumer Edition database.
Dandelion much more than a pest [Sunrise Edition]. (1995, June 18). Omaha World - Herald, p. 3F. Retrieved from Nebraska Newsstand.
Gilmore, M. (1919). Uses of plants by the Indians of the Missouri river region. Bureau of American Ethnology, Thirty-Third Annual Report 1911-1912, Washington Government Printing Office.
Kindscher, K. (1987, May). Edible wild plants of the prairie: An ethnobotanical guide. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.
Kindscher, K. (1992, October). Medicinal wild plants of the prairie: An ethnobotanical guide. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.
Keoke, E.D., & Porterfield K. (2005). American Indian contributions to the world. Medicine and health. NY: Facts On File, Inc. Retrieved from NetLibrary.