Friday, January 15, 2016

1600-1900: Native American Fumigations

It's well known by ancient writings that fumigations and inhalations were used in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt for medicinal purposes.  The same is true of ancient civilizations in the Americas.

Did knowledge of how to pour dried and crushed herbs on heated stones migrate from Europe and Asia to the Americas, or was it knowledge that was simply learned by American natives?  The answer to this question will probably never be know, mainly because there was not much in the line of written languages in the Americas.

How far back were inhalations and fumigations used in the Americas?  The answer to this question may also never be known.  However, what is known is that they were used by native Americans, and, we can probably assume, were used since time immemorial.

Virgil Vogel, in his 1970 book "American Indian Medicine," described the native American use of fumigations.
Many western tribes treated respiratory, rheumatic, or other ills by fumigant substances such as cedar branches or sweet smelling herbs,which were heated or burned over live coals. "Sometimes an infusion of herbs was poured over hot stones to form steam.  Among the Navahos the latter treatment was used, with appropriate song and ritual to treat headache, insomnia, eye trouble, and arthritis.  Substances used included pinon, juniper, sage, and prickly pear cactus.
The purple cone flower (Echinacea angustifolio DC), a universal panacea in the Plaiins area, was used in smoke treatment for headache. Red cedar was another widely used fumigation among Plains tribes. The Dakotas, Omahas, Poncas, and Pawnees burned the twigs and inhaled the smoke for head colds, while both patient and fumigant were enclosed in a blanket. the Comanches attributed a "purifying effect" to juniper leaves. The Creeks used cedar fumes for cramps in the neck muscles... The Flambeaus spread pulverized flowers of pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea L) over live coals to aid a patient stricken by paralysis. the Pillager Ojibwas inhaled the smoke from dried flowers of Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus) to relieve head cold. (1, page 187)
This type of primitive fumigation, or inhalation, was used throughout the primitive world, although the ritual and diseases treated varied from culture to culture, or tribe to tribe.

  1. Vogel, Virgil J, "American Indian Medicine," 1970, London, Oklahoma University Press
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