Friday, August 5, 2016

1823: Hunter shares native American asthma remedies

Figure 1 - John D. Hunter

John D. Hunter published a book in 1823 describing his experiences growing up among the Indians of North America, providing us a rare opportunity to see inside Indian Tribes. Of particular interest to our asthma history is Hunter's description of how the Indians perceive hasthma and what remedies they used to treat it.

Hunter recollected no idea where he was born, although he knew the Indians massacred his parents, and took him prisoner. He became the property of a warrior named Fongoh of a tribe of the Kickapoo Nation along the Kalkaska river in Michigan. The Kickapoo were among the hundreds of thousands of Algonquin Indian tribes, and they were nomads who "roam with unrestrained freedom" to hunt for game and to cultivate the soil for the purpose of planting crops used to make food and crafts. The main crop of the Indians Hunter lived with was sugar, at least while they lived along the Kalkaska River. (1, page 8)
Figure 2 -- Kickapoo Hut (wickiup) and tribal member

The Kickapoo set up huts called wickiups, which consisted of an "oval base and a rough frame covered with reed mats, grass, or brushwood."

You can see a picture in figure 2.

As they traveled from place to place these were easily set up. Inside many of these homes, and amid the contents carried on their backs as they traveled, were medicine bags made of beaver or otter skin that were "curiously ornamented."

These bags contained "small sacred articles," along with "medicinal barks, roots, and herbs." Since they were considered sacred, not even "unhallowed hands" would interfere with their contents. (1, page 342)

Hunter said that...
...every encroachment made upon their territory, whether with or without their consent, is, sooner or later, regarded as infringement of their natural rights, and has frequently given rise to long, cruel, and exterminating wars, not only between different tribes, but between the Indians and the whites. They regard the latter with much the most scrupulous jealousy; because experience has taught them that every settlement on their part, within their boundaries, is a precursor to their farther recess, which, they most sensibly feel, will only terminate with their final expulsion, extermination, or incorporation with those they esteem their natural and most bitter enemies. (1, page 8)
This, he believes, is how he came to live among the Indians. He watched them go to war with white families, and massacre the warriors, and take the children prisoners. While jealousy is a main cause for war, he said that in most cases the the Indians were "provoked" by "frauds and thefts practised upon them, which provoke to retaliation and aggression; consequently, the innocent and guilty indiscriminately suffer. Such conduct, mutually practised by them and the whites, along the whole extent of the conceived, though arbitrary boundary, is the cause of the inveterate hostility that exists between them, and leads to all the scenes of Indian cruelty that are practised on the frontier settlers." (1, page 9)

So it was in this way that he and others like him were "forced to assume the Indian character and habits," and after a while they became "happy and contended as though they had assembled directly from the Indians, and were in possession of their patrimony." (1, page 13, 14)

Many of the other white children raised by the Indians adapted to the simple primitive life so well that they chose to live out the remainder of their lives among the Indians, Hunter said.

He added that he was not one of these.   (1, page 13, 14)

When he was 19 or 20 he says he was allowed to go free, and he most duly accepted his freedom. He returned to become a citizen of the United States, and it was during this part of his life that he wrote of his experiences among the Indians.  (1, page 13, 14)

The first Indians he lived with marched north to Mackinac where there was better hunting, and they joined with other Indians, and at some point these Indians, and all the Indians he lived with, were massacred, and once again all the women and children were taken prisoners. Somehow along the way he ended up with a tribe associated with the Osages, who were much less settlers as the Kickapoo were, and more likely to wander in search of game. Occasionally they came into skirmishes, as did the Kickapoo, and in the course massacres occurred, and the heads of enemy warriors were walked back to camp, along with prisoner women and children. He didn't know the name of the tribe, although he knew they were among the Pawnee. (1, page 18)

His tribe ended up among the Kansas tribe, were ambushed, and members of his tribe either fled, were killed, or taken prisoner. Hunter was among those taken prisoner, and with his new tribe set off on a long march to the Kansas River. He was "adapted into the family of Kee-nees-tah by his squaw (wife), who had lost a son in one of their recent engagements with the Pawnees. I was exceedingly fortunate from this election; and not only the chiefs and squaws, but the whole tribe, treated me with regard and tenderness. This conduct in respect to myself was not singular, for all the women and children were treated in the same manner; while the warriors who were so unfortunate as not to fall in battle were nearly all tortured to death: a few of them, however, were respected for their distinguished bravery, and permitted to live amongst them. (1, page 19)

In comparing the Kickapoo with the Kansas, he said:
Injustice to my own feelings, I cannot avoid making some remarks in this place, on the difference of character that exists between the Kickapoo and Kansas Indians. The former are treacherous, deceitful, cunning, not tenacious of a good character, exceedingly remiss in their social habits and intercourse, and are held in humble estimation by the neighbouring tribes: while the character of the latter, according to the estimation I formed of their conduct to me, is directly the reverse.  In this difference of their general character, it is, however, possible for me to be mistaken; but gratitude is a virtue inculcated by all the Indian tribes with which I have been acquainted; and so great was the change of conduct towards me, after my transposition from the former to the latter, that I am persuaded my readers will excuse me, even should I have committed an error. (1, page 19-20)
They had horses, and they ate venison, buffalo meat, corn, nuts, etc. He learned how to ride horses, learned how to hunt, and learned to protect his hunting grounds from encroachments. He learned their virtues, values, and customs by listening to the "inspiring narratives" of the sages. The sages, according to Hunter, would say things like:
"Never steal, except it be from an enemy, whom it is just that we should injure in every possible way. When you become men, be brave and cunning in war, and defend your hunting grounds against all encroachments. Never suffer your squaws or little ones to want. Protect the squaws and strangers from insult. On no account betray your friend. Resent insults — revenge yourselves on your enemies. Drink not the poisonous strong-water of the white people; it is sent by the Bad Spirit to destroy the Indians. Fear not death; none but cowards fear to die. Obey and venerate the old people, particularly your parents. Fear and propitiate the Bad Spirit, that he may do you no harm; — love and adore the Good Spirit, who made us all, who supplies our hunting grounds, and keeps us alive."
It is in this way that Hunter learned the ways of the Indians, and became a credible author on the subject. He said that the Indians were were a very healthy people, and that the warriors were morel likely to die in a fray as compared to natural causes. There were essentially few diseases among the Indians, and most tribes were familiar with the diseases that were most common to their tribe, and by trial and error they learned of the best remedies for treating these maladies. Since asthma was a disease that plagued those who lived to old age, there would be remedies for asthma in many medicine bags. (1, page 342)

He wrote the following about asthma:
Asthma. — When we consider the hardships the Indians undergo, it is not surprising that they should be subject to asthma. This is not an unfrequent disease among them. Their remedies are blisterings, fomentations, and anodynes. There is, perhaps, no complaint, in which Indian remedies are more successfully employed. They use the sweat-oven, as before described, with great success. Sometimes relief is obtained by the application of small bags of wet ashes upon the breast; and sometimes by inhaling the streams arising from water poured upon hot stones, and herbs of various kinds. But by far the most valuable remedy ever used among them for the cure of this distressing complaint, is a small plant, .wesh-ke-nah. This plant somewhat resembles the common flax, though it is more branched, and not linty like the latter. An infusion of it, roots and tops together, in doses of half a pint, at intervals of twenty minutes, till relief is obtained, is the usual mode of administering it . In a short time its beneficial operation is perceivable by a gentle moisture on the skin, more easy respiration, ability to lie in a recumbent posture, &c. Shortly after a more copious sweating comes on, attended with an expectoration of phlegm or mucus, and entire relief from pain. The patient now falls into a comfortable sleep, from which he awakes free from his disease. Thus have I seen these untutored followers of Esculapius subdue some of the worst cases of asthma. (1, page 443-4)
This description of asthma is not the same as our modern definition. As would be normal for the time, his description was mainly of the symptom of shortness of breath or dyspnea, which could be from any generic cause.

He also explains the asthma remedies stored in the medicine bag.
  • Wesii-ke-nah.—  It relieves hard breathing. The flax weed—grows in the fissures of rocks, particularly on cliffs, on the margin of the rivers, to the height of ten or twelve inches; the root sends off many branches, which in July produce numerous small pale blue flowers. The Indians gather the plant, while in blossom, and prescribe it for asthmas and coughs with the happiest effect . The roots, leaves, and stalks, are made into a decoction, and given freely to the patient, as warm as he can conveniently take it; and no medicine displays its salutary effects more promptly. I speak thus confidently, because I have witnessed its operations. The Indians sometimes while travelling, or when just returned from long and fatiguing journeys, are seized with the asthma, but are certain to obtain prompt and decided relief from this remedy. I believe it almost uniformly excites a perspiration, on the appearance of which the patient becomes easy. (1, page 410)
  • Was-saw-ba-he-ja. The fat of the bear. Bears' oil.— This is used as a medicine, both internally and externally, in combination with many drugs...  For colds they seethe the roots of wild liquorice in it, which they drink hot as they can well bear it. They also take it for asthma and pleurisy. They esteem it among the most valuable articles of food, especially in their journies. It is highly nutritive, agrees well with the stomach, and produces no thirst . From the smallness of the quantity necessary to satisfy the appetite, it produces no shortness of breath. The Indians, while travelling, take about four ounces in twenty-four hours, which they continue for days together, with very little other nourishment. (1, page 404)
  • Ne-pe-sha.Bad luck to touch it. Milk-weed.— ...The Indians use the roots in decoction for the cure of dysentery, dropsy, and asthma. It is also used as an emetic, and held in tolerably high estimation as a medicine in the above cases. (1, page 414)
  • Sin-des-nes-ni.It grows by the water. Green-twig.—(Willow) This is a shrub very common on the banks of rivers and water courses. It seldom attains to a height exceeding six or eight feet, and is considered valuable in colds, and asthma; they give a warm infusion at night, with a design to excite perspiration. (1, page 411)
  • TU-TUS-Se-GA-O-GA-SHE. To expel Wind. Spikenard. — This spikenard is one of the most luxuriant of the forest plants: it grows in the beds of hollows in hilly districts in great abundance, and if it possesses half the virtues ascribed to it by the Shawanee Indians, it merits a high rank in the Materia Medica. They give it with a view to expel wind from the stomach, to stop coughs, and to relieve pain in the breast and asthma. (1, page 422)
  • Sweating:  The various herbs above usually cause improved breathing by causing the patient to sweat. (1, page 410)  Another means is to take in a draught of herbs and spices.  Another means was to places herbal solutions on heated bricks, rocks, or pots, and place a blanket or furs over the patient's head.  Another means was the sweat house, where water was placed on heated rocks and the fumes inhaled.  This was done while drinking tea. (1, page 423-4)
There are other ailments that plagued the Indians besides asthma, and these included pleurisy, fevers, and upset stomachs and pains. Consumption also plagued them, although rarely. (1, page 342, 347)

Usually the plagues were short term, and were the result of exposure to the elements and fatigue from long excursions and working hard and bravery. Although at times diseases became chronic, or the patient became "dangerously sick." (1, page 342, 347)

Some of these patients become sick enough to be housed in a hut for sick people, with cots that were raised from the ground. The medicine men would treat these patients daily, and nurses, usually women, would care for their daily needs. These may have been considered as hospitals. As they traveled from place to place, the sick were continuously cared for (1, page 342, 347)

Since pure asthma must have been extremely rare among the Indians, most asthma must have actually been bronchitis from inhaling smoke, or heart failure from old age, and these probably would have been the asthmatics referred to by Hunter. This must have often been what ensued when a warrior lived to old age. Of these, Hunter wrote the following: 
When all natural means fail, the physicians do not abandon their patients; on the contrary, they cling to them till their last gasp, but substitute, instead of their prescriptions, fastings and prayers to the Great Spirit. "So long as there is life," say they, "there is room for hope; and to despair of effecting good, and to neglect means that appear remote and almost foreign to the disease, bespeak a careless and unskilful practice." When their hopes fail, they seldom inform their patients of their danger, but are very cautious that their last moments may be calm and undisturbed. In general, they look upon sickness and affliction as chastisements for their offences against the Great Spirit, and commonly bear them with great resignation and fortitude. When they become peevish and fretful, as sometimes happens, their doctors then say, that the abatement of their disease permits their minds to be idle or unoccupied, and the danger is past. (1, page 350-351)
He described the Indians as having "no anxiety about the future, and they, but leave the world with an apparent satisfaction, under a belief, provided their conduct has been in consonance with the precepts which they have been taught, that their title to the future happiness is unquestionable." (1, page 352-3) 

This must be similar to modern Christians, whose belief in God and the afterlife allows them to end life with grace in dignity.

For the most part, however, as a remedy was needed, either the patient or the nurse, who was mostly the mom or consort or some other woman in the tribe, gave the remedy to the sick person.  

If the remedy no longer worked, which most likely would happen if the person was severely sick (as if close to death), the medicine man (or physician) would be consulted.  I will describe the healing powers of the North American Indian Medicine Man in my next post.  

Note:  Similar remedies were used for colds, pneumonia, consumption, and pleurisy.  (You can find some more asthma remedies by reading "Herbal and Magical Medicine: Traditional Healing Today," edited by James K. Kirkland et al, page 157)

  1. Hunter, John D., "Memoirs of a captivity among the Indians of North America, from childhood to the age of fifteen: with anecdotes descriptive of their customs to which is added some accounts of the soil, climate and vegetable productions of the territory westward of teh Mississippi," 1823, London, Paternoster-Row
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