A Beginner’s Guide to Traditional Native American Medicine & Herbalism

Published on April 10, 2024

By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

Native American medicine is the traditional wellness practice of North American indigenous peoples, which includes over 500 tribes.

Yet, few non-native people know much about the traditional medicine of our adopted continent.

Due to the nuances of how traditional Native American Medicine is practiced throughout different tribes, we cannot give a detailed overview of each system.

However, this article will share a broad overview of Traditional Native American Medicine history, philosophy, principles, and practices and highlight a sampling of traditional herbs used by the country’s many tribes.

What is Native American Medicine and Herbalism?

Native American Medicine and herbalism are the traditional wellness practices of the indigenous people of what is now known as The United States of America, including Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians.

These practices have existed for thousands of years and vary between tribes and spiritual belief systems.

Native American medicine is primarily spiritual in nature. A person’s health relates directly to their sense of purpose, gratitude, generosity, and how they treat Mother Earth and follow the guidance of the Great Spirit. 

Although the name suggests there is one standard system of medicine, practices, rituals, diagnostics, and medicine vary from tribe to tribe.

Examples of principles and healing therapies used within different Native American tribes include:

  • A healer or shaman facilitates the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being and healing of tribal members
  • Use of The Medicine Wheel or Healing Wheel
  • Medicine bundles, a collection of items such as stones, herbs, and ritual objects held by the healer that may be used in sessions or kept as a symbol of their status as healer/medicine man
  • Women practiced midwifery
  • Spirituality is the foundation of health
  • The belief that disease can be caused by physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual trauma or imbalance
  • Use of traditional herbs, animal, and mineral therapies in a variety of forms
  • Dancing, movement, and singing as healing tools
  • Nature harmonizing therapy
  • Massage
  • Energetic therapies
  • Shamanic journeys
  • Walkabouts for mental/emotional well-being
  • Imagery
  • Using hallucinogens, such as peyote
  • Healing ceremonies, including various forms of sweat lodges
  • Dietary therapies, such as eating a traditional diet or fasting

We’ll cover some of these in more detail in subsequent sections. 

Note: We encourage you to do more of your own research and talk to indigenous organizations and communities directly to learn more about these practices.

A Note About the Challenges Facing Traditional Indigenous Healing Practices

It must be noted that whether we are aware of it or not, our lives have all benefited from the wisdom of traditional Native American Medicine in some way.

For example, many medications and drugs, such as aspirin and modern supplements, were born from traditional indigenous herbal wisdom.

Unfortunately, research has shown that native people have received very little credit or compensation for sharing their traditional medicines with us. 

Which, like the land that housed their medicines and traditions, was taken, not given, as colonization took hold.

Not long ago, Traditional Native American medicine was considered taboo, evil, unscientific, inferior, and even made illegal to access. 

Shamans and medicine men were viewed as evil and often violently persecuted for their practices and beliefs.

This caused untold hardships for native people who relied on their traditional medicines to support their physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and community well-being.

Ironically, many colonizers were forced to rely on Native American healers due to access and supply issues with their own medicines during the early days of the settlers and wars. 

This created some acceptance and appreciation for Native American Medicine in certain places. However, it was still perceived mainly by white people as superstitious, unproven, and inferior to European medicine for centuries.

Fortunately, The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) put a stop to the outright suppression of indigenous medicine.

Article 24 of the Declaration states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals, and minerals” (UN document A/RES/61/295).REF#3867

This was a big step in the right direction.

However, even as the world powers allocate billions to invest in studying various indigenous medicine practices today, the indigenous have only received a small fraction of these funds.

For example, in the early 1990s, it was estimated that “less than 0.001 percent of profits from drugs developed from natural products and traditional knowledge accrue to the traditional people who provided technical leads for research”.REF#3868

In some cases, there has also been direct cultural appropriation of traditional medicine and practices by complementary alternative medicine and other pharmaceutical/biomedical groups in North America.REF#3869

As we learn about these fascinating practices, let us be mindful of what has been given and blatantly taken at significant cost to the Native American people.

The Role of the Healer, Shaman, or Medicine Man/Woman in Traditional Native American Medicine

Typically, a Native American tribe has an ordained Healer, Shaman, or practitioner who is spiritually called and skilled in attending to the tribe’s whole health.

A man typically fulfilled this role, though medicine women did exist in some tribes. Women, particularly the wives of Shamans or Medicine Men, often played significant roles in traditional medicine, such as gathering herbs. 

Women also acted as midwives by supporting pregnant women, attending births, and providing postpartum care, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual nourishment through preparing food and herbal formulas and providing general nourishment and support.

The traditional medicine practitioner’s role in the healing process has been described as being an instrument, a helper, the worker, the preparer, and the doer. The " medicines " work is slow, careful, respectful, and embodies a sense of humility.REF#3870

For example, According to Alvord and Van Pelt, traditional medicine is described in the Navajo culture as a medicine that is performed by a hataalii, which is someone who sees a person not simply as a body but as a whole being with body, mind, and spirit seen to be connected to other people, to families, to communities, and even to the planet and universe.REF#3871

These traditional practitioners are skilled in diagnostics, rituals, spiritual practices, herbs, and other traditional medicines.

They also develop a deep connection with the Earth and the Great Spirit and rely on intuition during diagnostics and treatments and when selecting, harvesting, and preparing plants for healing.

Traditional Healers consider not only the patient’s symptoms but also how their health and treatment will affect their immediate family and community and future generations.REF#3872

Although there is no “standard of care” within Native American Medicine, Healers are revered, their methods are typically unquestioned, and they spend much time with the person seeking help.

Healing this way takes time, and the patient is required to spend much time in meditation, reflection, and practicing the prescribed therapies.

The Shaman or Medicine Man’s knowledge was traditionally passed down orally to apprentices and family members. This included precise instructions on gathering and preparing various medicines and performing ceremonies properly per universal law to avoid upsetting or attracting negative spirits.

Traditional practitioners also acted as mental/emotional health practitioners and spiritual guides and were considered very important within their tribes and communities.

The Medicine Wheel or Sacred Hoop

Many people may be familiar with The Medicine Wheel, which has been documented in historical writings, documentaries, fictional works, national parks, and films. 

Hundreds or even thousands of Medicine Wheels can be found on Native lands throughout North America and vary from tribe to tribe.

However, their purpose, symbolism, and significance remain mysterious to non-native people.

We do know Medicine Wheels symbolize the connection between man, the Great Spirit, and Earth and how harmony with these things creates wholeness and health.REF#3873

Every Wheel is different and interpreted differently depending on the tribe. The following is a general example of their symbolism:

  • The circular shape represents the sacred circle of life
  • The four quarters represent different things, including: 
    • The four aspects of man: Mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual
    • The four paths: North, South, East, and West
    • The four elements: Air, water, fire, earth
    • The four colors represent different things for different tribes, such as the four directions (yellow may represent the East for the sunrise), four elements, or the various human races
    • Different animals within the four quarters represent various spirit guides and guardians, such as the bear, eagle, mouse, and buffalo. Their placement within the four quarters further symbolizes their significance.

    Traditional Native American Healers may also guide people in creating personal Medicine Wheels as a tool to create and maintain optimal spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional health, alignment, and growth.

    There is much non-natives don’t understand about Medicine Wheels. However, they are of great significance in Traditional Native American Medicine.

    Spirituality in Native American Medicine

    The connection between indigenous healing practices and spirituality is the common thread consistent across tribes.

    Traditional Native American Medicine is believed to operate in the context of relationship to four constructs:

    1. Spirituality (Creator, Mother Earth, Great Father)
    2. Community (family, clan, tribe/nation)
    3. Environment (daily life, nature, balance
    4. Self (inner passions and peace, thoughts, and values)

    The following tenets from Garrett (1998), as noted in “Native American Healing Traditions” published in the International Journal of Disability Development and Education, provide an overview of fundamental Native American spiritual and traditional beliefs and their relationship with health and healing:REF#3874

    1. There is a single higher power known as Creator, Great Creator, Great Spirit, or Great One, among other names. There are also lesser beings known as spirit beings or spirit helpers.
    2. Plants and animals, like humans, are part of the spirit world. The spirit world exists side by side with and intermingles with the physical world. Moreover, the spirit existed in the spirit world before it came into a physical body and will exist after the body dies.
    3. Human beings are made up of a mind, body, and spirit. The mind, body, and spirit are all interconnected; therefore, illness affects the mind and spirit as well as the body.
    4. Wellness is harmony in mind, body, and spirit; unwellness is disharmony in mind, body, and spirit.
    5. Natural unwellness is caused by the violation of a sacred social or natural law of Creation (e.g., participating in a sacred ceremony while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or having had sex within four days of some ceremony).
    6. Unnatural unwellness is caused by conjuring (witchcraft) from those with harmful or destructive intentions. This may be referred to as “bad medicine.”
    7. Each of us is responsible for our own wellness by keeping ourselves attuned to self, relations, environment, and universe.”

    Spirituality filters into every aspect of Traditional Native American Medicine, from the calling of the medicine man or healer to the diagnostics used, the healing ceremonies, the prayers, songs, and dances, and the gathering and preparation of herbs and medicines. 

    Everything is viewed within the context of a person’s relationship to the spiritual world, which is either balanced or imbalanced.

    Traditional Herbs and Plants Used in Traditional Native American Medicine

    North America’s vast and diverse climate is home to thousands of plant species, many of which are used as medicinals and food in Native American Medicine and herbal folklore.

    Traditionally, knowledge about herbs was passed down orally, and primarily, women collected the herbs as medicine women or the wives of medicine men.

    Harvesting herbs was done with great intention, ceremony, and gratitude to Mother Earth, nature, ancestral spirits, and the Great Spirit. 

    Medicine Men and herb gatherers were bound to obey specific rules to preserve the plants for future generations while harvesting with deep respect and appreciation.

    A few examples include:REF#3875 REF#3876 REF#3877 REF#3878 REF#3879 REF#3880

    • Agave
    • Aloe
    • Banana, leaves, and fruit
    • Bitterroot
    • Black Cohosh
    • Blood Root
    • Coconut
    • Chamomile
    • Dandelion
    • Devil’s Club, also known as Alaskan Ginseng
    • Echinacea angustifolia (Purple Coneflower)
    • Fennel
    • Ginger
    • Goldenseal
    • Goldenrod
    • Hops
    • Lavender
    • Mesquite
    • Mullein
    • Nettles
    • Oats
    • Pine
    • Plantain
    • Sage
    • Tobacco
    • Willow leaves and bark
    • Yarrow
    • Yucca

    Different herbs are prepared in various ways, including teas, powders, tinctures, poultices, for smoking, smudging, sweat lodges, etc., depending on the practitioner, the patient, and the purpose. 

    This is not an extensive list of all traditional plants and herbs used in Native American Medicine.

    However, it gives a glimpse into the diversity of plants used and how they are still used today.

    Dietary Influences in Traditional Native American Medicine

    Traditional Native Americans didn’t view food as only a form of sustenance or medicine.

    Food, be it plant or animal, was seen as a sacred gift from Mother Earth, and its gathering, preparation, and consumption included many ceremonial rituals.

    Native Americans’ traditional diet consisted of only whole foods, including wild game, fish and seafood, fruits and berries, root vegetables, foraged plants, and maze. 

    They also took herbs in various forms for ceremonies and to promote well-being.

    Specific diets and food staples were also recommended for the sick, elderly, and pregnant women with special nutritional requirements.

    One of the many tragedies of colonization was the interruption and destruction of the traditional Native American diet. As lands were seized, tribes were murdered and forced off their native lands, buffalo slaughtered, and children shipped off to white schools, the people lost their connection and access to their native foods.

    This continues to cause great harm to the Native people, who are more susceptible to diet-induced lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes and other metabolic disorders, brought on by refined sugar, processed foods, and the Standard American Diet.

    For this reason, modern Traditional Native American healers often prescribe a traditional diet to patients suffering from metabolic disorders, which are prevalent in modern Native Americans. 

    Research has shown the Traditional Native American diet has been shown to help reverse these conditions, restore health, and/or make managing chronic disease much easier.REF#3881

    How Traditional Native American Medicine is Practiced Today

    Traditional Native American Medicine is still practiced throughout the United States within tribes, healing centers, and clinics.

    These services, which include consultations, diagnostics, healing ceremonies, sweat lodges, bodywork, prayers, herbalism, nutritional counseling, spiritual counseling, vision quests, and others, may be offered exclusively to native people or non-natives depending on the healer, tribe, and/or facility.

    Traditional Native American Healers and people typically recognize that there is a place for allopathic or “the white man’s medicine” in modern times. Therefore, the two modalities are often used side-by-side for specific conditions.

    For example, The Indian Health Service (IHS) is a group that provides health assistance to over 573 federally recognized national tribes. The IHS also funds urban Indian health centers that provide “medical services, dental services, community services, alcohol and drug use prevention, education and treatment, HIV and sexually transmitted disease education and prevention services, mental health services, nutrition education and counseling services, pharmacy services, health education, optometry services, social services, and home health care.”REF#3882

    Non-Native American healers may also practice aspects of Native American medicine, such as the use of various herbs, but they must be careful not to cross cultural boundaries.

    As previously mentioned, billions of dollars have been allocated to study various plants and herbs used in Native American folklore. Many of these have been the basis of life-saving drugs that have made pharmaceutical companies, but not the Native Americans, billions of dollars.

    Some universities also offer training in the basics of Native American Medicine and culture so doctors can be more informed about their patients’ needs and beliefs.REF#3883

    Despite the monopoly of biomedicine today, overall, Native American groups have been able to retain their ceremonies, herbal remedies, and traditional beliefs.

    Today, nearly anyone can experience aspects of Traditional Native American medicine, though some practices and modalities are reserved for Native people only. 

    And since much wisdom was passed down orally, much remains mysterious or hidden from the modern world.

    How to Learn More About Traditional Native American Medicine

    Many resources are available to learn more about Traditional Native American medicine, including online articles, books, online and in-person herbalism courses, college and university classes, and attending local tribal events.

    For specific information on herbs used in Traditional Native American medicine, click the links in the “Traditional Herbs and Plants Used in Traditional Native American Medicine” section of this article and check out these additional resources:


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