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.

Native peoples had long been treating illnesses through meditation, ritual, and medicinal herbs. Historians speculate that First Nation peoples 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.

For example, bark is gathered in the spring when it has the most medicinal herbal properties. Roots of perennial plants are gathered in the autumn and stored for various purposes in the winter. Leaves are often picked around the same time, as this season is right before plants bloom. Many plants are dried for later use.

Once collected, herbs are transformed into an array of tinctures, salves, and teas.

Two popular Native preparation methods are decocting and infusing the herbs. 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 means that different tribes have different localized healing methods. Here are some examples of the variety of herbs used from tribe to tribe:


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

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

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

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

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


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

Many natural and pharmaceutical drugs are adopted from Indian medicine.


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


Some American Indian tribes harness the medicinal properties of conifers (including juniper and yew which actually have berries rather than cones). These plants are 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.

The resin from coniferous trees is applied as an antiseptic on wounds, and the inner bark is mashed as a poultice.


Horsemint is 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 wasn’t mixed with many of the chemicals used today. In addition to ceremonial uses, the healing herb is used as a tea by the Flathead and Blackfoot Peoples for coughs and sore throats, as well as a way to treat chapping and windburn.


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

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

Witch Hazel

Witch hazel is 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 are each used for a variety of ailments throughout North America.

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

Have you experienced the healing properties of First Nation Peoples’ medicine? Tell us your experience in the comments.

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