American Indian Healing Arts: Herbs, Rituals and Remedies for Every Season of Life

When my sister-in-law returned from a trip to her native Dominican Republic, she told me that she hadn't felt well while staying at her Mother's farm up in the mountains. "What did you do?" I asked knowing the closest pharmacy (and town) was an hour away. She told me she did what Native Americans have been doing for centuries: she picked some leaves from the plants growing on the farm and made a medicinal tea.

This is the essence of American Indian Healing Arts: Herbs, Rituals, and Remedies for Every Season of Life by E. Barrie Kavasch and Karen Barr. Healing herbs, teas, tinctures and prayers used by Native Americans in their healing practices are offered to the modern reader. Although the book warns that the remedies should not be used as a substitute for the advice and care of healthcare professionals, it is never the less fascinating to see the herbal roots of modern medicine. Ancient medicinal remedies, from the Mayans to the Delaware Indians are revealed in this book. Items that we would easily recognize today, such as cornstarch to absorb moisture and mint to freshen breath, were used by Native Americans. Mood altering drugs that are just being recognized by medical authorities today (St. John's wort) were used by native people for centuries. Even aromatheraphy was recognized by various tribes to have the ability to trigger memories and emotions. Burning sage has a calming effect while mesquite can invigorate.

Native Americans approached health from four aspects: Body, Mind, Spirit and Nature. Rituals that encompass the mind and spirit are recreated in the text, retelling the stories that the tribesmen taught to their children. Legends that explained life's passages from birth to death and philosophies to guide how they lived, taught how people were healed within the Native American culture.

Common Native Remedies

Nature's remedies used by different tribes to heal the body and sooth the mind are also described in the book. Some of the items found in the American Indian's medicine chest are:

  • arnica oil, used for muscle pain
  • corn silk, for kidney and bladder infections
  • echinacea for colds and infections
  • sage leaves for purification and antiseptic use
  • witch hazel lotion for rashes
  • yucca root for shampoo and hair care

Healing Recipes

Strawberry Mint Digestive Tea

  • 3 large strawberry leaves
  • 9 large peppermint or spearmint leaves 

steep in 2 cups of boiling water for 10 minutes and sip as a treatment for indigestion.

Aloe-Sage Lip Balm

  • 1 tsp. cocoa butter, grated
  • 1/2 tsp. pure beeswax, grated
  • 1/2 tsp. almond oil
  • 1/2 tsp. ground dried sage
  • 1 tsp. raw honey
  • 1 tsp. aloe gel
  • 3 drops vitamin E oil

Carefully melt the cocoa butter, beeswax and almond oil together in a microwave oven. Add remaining ingredients and blend well. Pour into container and allow to cool and solidify. Use as needed.


The list of healing plants with toxic qualities is integral for avoiding any serious side effects. Indian Balm (Trillium erectum) Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arsaema triphyllum), Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) all have toxic properties in some situations. Witch Hazel (Hamamelis verginiana) can be used safely as a topical solution but will cause serious physical problems if ingested.

Always check with your health care provider if you are using herbal remedies and taking prescription drugs at the same time to avoid possible toxic interactions. Also watch taking herbal remedies with over the counter drugs.

Native Plants and Rituals for Love, Marriage, and Children

There is an interesting chapter on love medicines that not only gives herbal hints for capturing the heart of the one you love but keeping it as well. The purple New England aster, the partridgeberry, blue lobelia, boneset and poke are some of the plants used by Native Americans to attract and keep a mate. Giving the person you love a tea made of scented liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha) will make the drinker think of only the one who made the potion.

Rituals of puberty and marriage of various Indian tribes are also discussed in the book. These rites address the passage of becoming an adult and what it means to be a member of the tribe. Children's games had a deeper symbolic meaning to help adolescents understand their roles in life. Marriage ceremonies would reflect the road of life, or path, the couple should take. These philosophies are just as relevant today and this book offers thoughtful spiritual contemplation along with Native American healing arts.

By Barbara Sabatino


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