Traditional Medicines

Here you can find information on Navajo traditional medicines which are as much for healing the body as for the mind and spirit. We have begun this page with a description of only a few medicinal and traditional plants. We ask for your input – your own stories and your grandma’s stories about the types and uses of traditional medicines. Please click on Contact Us to send your contributions to us.

Dr. Patrisia Gonzales (Kickapoo, Comanche, and Macehual) is a professor at the University of Arizona, teaching the Mexican American Studies/American Indian Studies 435 class on Indigenous Medicine. In their winter semester of 2011, Dr. Gonzales’ class researched and compiled some priceless material on Navajo traditional medicines and generously allowed us to use this material on the dinehnet, so that other people might benefit from this information and their work. We thank each of these dedicated students and Dr. Gonzales who contributed this material.

Introduction and Background

by Letitia Castro (Dine’) (U of A)

In order to understand the Navajo people and their relationship between themselves and their environment, one must understand the Navajo creation story. The Navajo creation story tells us about the emergence of the Navajo people; it is centered on Dinetah, where the Navajo people live. The creation story is the most important identity marker for Navajo people for it provides the basis of the Navajo traditional belief. According to the Navajo people, there are three worlds from which they emerged. From the third world they emerged into the fourth world, which is the present world that we live in.

The First World was a small island floating in the middle of four seas. The people of the first world were Diyin Dine’e, Coyote, and various insect people. First Woman and First Man came into existence here and met for the first time after seeing fires from each other. Shortly after First Man and First Woman met the insect people began fighting with one another and departed by flying out an opening in the east. This escape led them into Second World, Ni Hodootłizh. Second World had furred animals, birds, and the new insect people. In this world the beings of First World acted mischievously and offended Swallow Chief Táshchózhii, and they were asked to leave that world. First Man then created a wand of jet and other materials so that the people from first world could walk into the next world through an opening in the south. They then entered into the Third World, Ni Hałtsooí, in this world there were two rivers that connected the Sacred Mountains but there was no sun in this world or the worlds before. Third World contained more animal people. In this world it was not their attitudes that drove them away but a great big flood cased by Tééhoołtsódii. Tééhoołtsódii caused the flood because Coyote stole her baby. When the people arrived into Fourth World, Ni Hodisx’s, there were monsters (naayee) living here and this world was covered in water. The Sacred Mountains were reformed from soil taken from the original mountains in the Second World. First Man and First Woman along with the Holy People created the sun, moon, seasons and stars. It was here that true death came into existence after Coyote tossed a rock into a lake and declaring that if it sank then the dead will go back into the previous worlds.

Based on the Navajo Creation story it is apparent that the Navajo people rely on their connection with their environment to survive and evolve. The creation story tells us that in each world Sacred Mountains are pertinent to their survival, without their Sacred Mountains the Navajo People would not have such a strong identity, this makes sense because as we learned in the lecture on January 31, (Dr. Gonzales 2011) mountains are powerful. Mountains provide protection, soil for farming, balanced seasons and in a spiritual way mountains provide ceremonial protection. As we read in “A People’s Ecology” American Indians already understood that a connection between themselves and their environment was the essence of their survival and identity as people. American Indian tribes were able to adapt to their environment as it was pertinent to their survival (Cajete 1999). One distinguishing information that we read in the book “They all want magic” by Elizabeth de la Portilla states that her mother had a garden of herbs in their backyard and that she planted these herbs and utilized them for medicinal and food purposes alike. However, as our research points out, American Indians adapted to whatever environment they chose to survive on, for instance in the southwest the Navajo people used various plants from their environment for medicinal purposes. Some of the specific plants/herbs that the Navajo people use for these purposes are sage, juniper, greasewood, corn pollen, cedar, cottonwood, broom snakeweed, jimsonweed, and silverleaf nightshade. (By Letitia Castro, University of Arizona, March 2011)

Sage

by Letitia Castro (Dine’) (U of A)

SageThe Navajo people use sage as an herbal medicine. Sage brush leaves and stems are used to make an herbal tea drink to relieve cold symptoms. It can ease stuffy nose, sinus congestion, and wheezing. The process for relieving each of these symptoms is different, for instance, in order to relieve stuffy nose one would need to prepare the sage in the form of herbal tea. And the other needs to be steamed at an extreme temperature. (By Letitia Castro, University of Arizona, March 2011)

 

Juniper

by Letitia Castro (Dine’) (U of A)

Juniper

Juniper is used for flavoring and coloring blue corn mush. Blue corn mush is made by burning the leaves and using the ashes for flavor and coloring of blue corn mush. The berries of the Juniper can be eaten or chewed to keep from getting hungry. These berries do not need to be washed, but some people voluntarily rinse the berries before being eaten. In ceremonies, Juniper is used as a medicine to cure headaches, influenza, stomach ache, nausea, spider bites, and post partum pain. Juniper sap can also be used for second degree burns (Means 2011). Juniper berries are also useful in Navajo weaving, where the berries are used to dye the wool brown. (By Letitia Castro, University of Arizona, March 2011)

Greasewood

by Letitia Castro (Dine’) (U of A)

GreasewoodAs a child I always loved greasewood because as the weather blesses us with rain, greasewood is among the strongest aromas that you will smell as the beloved rain washes the earth. The Navajo people believe that plants are connected by their root systems in the earth, Navajo herbalists believe that whole colony mass is really just a single plant with many nodes. Greasewood leaf has a slightly yellow/olive green shade, but is shiny with resins. The leaves resemble the scales of large lizards. Navajo people use greasewood to clear sinuses, cure the common cold, help tuberculosis, calm bowel complaints, cancers, flu and aching joints.

All of the aforementioned herbs (sage, juniper, greasewood) can be combined together and used in a sweat lodge ceremony during which the most sacred teachings are voiced and the deepest meditations are experienced. (By Letitia Castro, University of Arizona, March 2011)

Corn Pollen

by Ersilia M. Loustaunau (U of A)

Everything has a beginning and, according to a common Navajo creation story, in the beginning the Dineh (the people) were given an option to choose between two yellow powders; one was Uranium, a yellow dust, and the other was Corn Pollen (Eichstaedt 1994). Once the Dineh had chosen Corn Pollen, which the Navajo believe possesses the positive elements of life, the gods issued a warning: leave the yellow dust in the ground for if it was ever removed, it would bring evil (Eichstaedt 1994). The creation story helps to define the way traditional indigenous methods seek to maintain balance; as something is given to the people, so must they consciously leave something alone. This sense of responsibility and mindfulness is prevalent in much of indigenous tradition.

A common thread in every aspect of Navajo ceremonial and traditional life, used for blessings and as well as for health, it is carried always by healers and not to be used for ill (Raitt 1987). Interestingly, while corn pollen may be scattered upon a person or place in an act of blessing and during prayers, it can also be strewn about in place of prayer; an act of praying without words (Raitt 1987). Although many herbs traditionally utilized by the Navajo can be used in more than one way, corn pollen has the distinction of being consciously used to nourish the body, mind and spirit in everyday life almost equally.

Increasing proposals by both Natives and non Natives to incorporate indigenous belief and ceremony within conventional settings (Trimble 2009) are to be viewed cautiously for although one can hope that the growing mainstream respect for organic and respectful use of all plants continues, historically the outcome has not been favorable to Indigenous people or their traditions. Should the future find corn pollen to become of value beyond the tradition of the Navajos, precautions must be taken to allow for differences in cultures between indigenous peoples, who have prized it for centuries, and others whose sole desire may be to exploit its future monetary value.

Generally, once a hegemonic culture becomes aware of highly desired medicinal properties of a plant used by Indigenous peoples for generations, the risk of over harvesting it increases exponentially. Science must do its part to ensure that indigenous research continues with the blessings of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous thinkers, as mentioned in class lecture on February 7, 2011, but also with indigenous methods, such as encountering three of the same plant before harvesting one (Peat 1994). In this way we can ensure that balance is maintained. (By Ersilia M. Loustaunau, University of Arizona, March 2011)

Cedar

by Ersilia M. Loustaunau (U of A)

CedarIt is commonly reported that indigenous peoples of the southwest often combine true cedar wood and Juniperus virginiana, known as Eastern red cedar, into the umbrella term of cedar. Superficially this would seem to indicate the importance of some plants over others until we remember how indigenous peoples consider all living things to have a spirit of their own and are therefore all sacred in their own right (Allen 1991).

In the case of cedar, the bark, berries, leaves, seeds, and twigs can all be used for medicine, from treating problem skin in the form of an astringent or antiseptic or to treat oily or irritated scalp and skin as well. The calming attributes relieve the itching and soothe the more serious skin conditions of psoriasis and eczema. Other uses listed in various online sites include working as an insect repellant, as an inhalant for respiratory issues, and as a sedative. Little documented research was found on recipes detailing exactly how the cedar is prepared for the aforementioned uses with the exception of one author who reported that Navajo were seldom definite about quantities (Wyman 1941). Fortunately class activities which focused on creating tinctures and “baños” (baths) while adhering to the mantra of “tira nada” (waste nothing) indicate how this could be done while in addition to looking up how Cedar Baths/Soaks are used.

With cedar, careful attention must be paid as high concentrations can and will irritate the very skin is it trying to soothe. One should frequently consult an experienced healer as to dosages as pungent plants such as cedar commonly have powerful attributes (Sun Bear, Wabun Wind, & Mulligan 1991). Often the amount required to achieve the desired outcome is miniscule, as we heard during class lecture on January 24, 2011 concerning creosote and how an amount in the size of the tip of your finger is generally sufficient. Once again balance is shown to be of utmost importance in the ministrations of powerful medicine; a little is good, too much of a good thing is not. With proper care and preparation cedar can be used to tend mind, body and spirit in an ethical and respectful way for the healer, the participant and the plant itself. (By Ersilia M. Loustaunau, University of Arizona, March 2011)

Cottonwood

by Ersilia M. Loustaunau (U of A)

CottonwoodSo much of indigenous knowledge is a combination of a respectful relationship with the four elements of air, earth, fire and water, and the Dineh ethical practices of taking what was useful and making it their own. Cottonwood embodies this attribute in that it is exceptional for uses benefiting the human body both inside and out.

Being part of the willow family means that cottonwood is imbued with salicin and populin, the precursors to aspirin, and encompasses antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. For the inside of the body, the leaf tea is used for reducing fever and inflammation while the cottonwood bark makes a bitter tea that can be used to treat stomach upset. For the outside of the body, Navajo cradle boards and snowshoes [are made] from it as well as using it for splinting fractured limbs (Wyman 1941). Some research suggests the Dineh may have preferred cottonwood for starting fires prior to the availability of matches, (Elmore 1976). The buds of the Cottonwood can be soaked in Almond oil or Olive oil and combined with beeswax to create a salve (Moore 2003) which can then be used for burns, inflammation and sprains, once again using its salicylate properties, this time on the outside of the body.

The Cottonwood is a good example of how so much in the Indigenous community is connected to our relationship with all that surrounds us (Dr. Gonzales February 7, 2011). The cottonwood grows near water, which is life giving and sustaining, its wood cradles infants while its teas cool and soothe the body. As we wonder at the many uses of the cottonwood we become conscious of the importance of maintaining agricultural practices and cultural competencies with people who have an original relationship with the land. (By Ersilia M. Loustaunau, University of Arizona, March 2011)

Broom Snakeweed

by Laura Tobin (U of A)

Broom SnakeweedBroom snakeweed is a shrub that is native to the United States, and part of the sunflower family. Its florets are yellow and bright when completely bloomed, which is typically from August to October. It is found in many different types of land, including rocky plains, dry foothills, ridge tops, mountain slopes and semi-desert valleys (Hurteau 2011). For the Navajo people, this particular shrub has many different medicinal uses. Throughout their society’s history, pregnant Navajo women have used broom snakeweed to make tea and would drink it to speed up the process of childbirth. It is their belief that it promotes the expulsion of the placenta, therefore bringing on childbirth faster (Millspaugh, et al. 2011) Another use of broom snakeweed amongst the Navajo is to treat headaches and dizziness. In order to treat this ailment, they would rub the ashes of the shrub on their head near the localization of the pain or dizziness (Hurteau 2011). They would also chew broom snakeweed and then use the resin of the shrub to treat wounds and different bites such as snakebites and other insect bites by applying it directly on the infected area.

When looking at images of broom snakeweed, or the plant itself, it would appear that it is just another bush, nothing above average. However, the Navajo people valued this herb and were able to put it to medicinal use. This herb is like many other sacred Navajo herbs in the sense that Navajos were able to find it medicinally significant for various ailments, and to administer it in different forms based off the desired result such as tea, resin and simply the plant as a whole. (By Laura Tobin, University of Arizona, March 2011)

Jimsonweed

by Laura Tobin (U of A)

JimsonweedJimsonweed is a controversial herb that the Navajos used, as it can be extremely poisonous if the quantity being taken is not carefully measured. The herb grows into a decently tall bush, which can range from 3-5 feet. It has many different nicknames; a majority of them are derived from the intoxicating effect that it can have on people (“Jimson Weed: Fast Facts”). Although it can be poisonous and quite intoxicating, the Navajo used this herb in a curative form. They used it to heal external sores and also various internal ailments. They would even mix Jimsonweed with tobacco in order to cure delirium, transforming it to also treat psychological disorders (Hill 1938). The Navajo were very cautious when using this herb for medicinal purposes and they were sure to use small doses, especially when it was taken internally.

In The New Mexico Anthropologist academic journal, W. Hill talks about the importance of the Navajo chanter when administering Jimsonweed for medicinal purposes. He explains that the chanter must always be there when a person consumes the herb for the first time. This aspect of using the herb in healing form shows the relationship and importance of the process in which the herb is administered; that the herb itself is not the only source bringing healing. (By Laura Tobin, University of Arizona, March 2011)

Silverleaf Nightshade

by Laura Tobin (U of A)

Silverleaf NightshadeSilverleaf Nightshade is a beautiful plant whose leaves stem out into the shape of a star. It blooms purple flowers that provide a mystical contrast with the silver hint of the plant leaves. But the beauty of the plant can sometimes be misleading, Silverleaf Nightshade is also toxic and poisonous, like Jimsonweed, and has to be taken with caution. The positive effects of Silverleaf Nightshade make it worth it to use in small doses, as it has even been shown to limit and slow down the growth of certain cancer cells. The Navajo people, of course, had their own specific functions for Silverleaf Nightshade. They used this plant to treat respiratory ailments such as throat and nose problems. They also used it to treat various stomach problems (Wyman & Harris 1941). Overall, it is a beautiful plant aesthetically and medicinally, but once again, it must be used very carefully due to its levels of toxicity. (By Laura Tobin, University of Arizona, March 2011)


Bibliography

Allen, Paula Gunn. 1991. Grandmothers of the light: a medicine woman’s sourcebook. Boston: Beacon Press.

Eichstaedt, Peter H. 1994. If you poison us: uranium and Native Americans. Santa Fe, N.M.: Red Crane Books.

Elmore, Francis H. 1976. Shrubs and trees of the Southwest Uplands. Globe, Ariz: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association.

Gonzales, Patricia. Mexican American Studies 435/535. Class lecture, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, Spring 2011.

Hill, W. “Navajo Use of Jimsonweed.” New Mexico Anthropologist 3.2 (1938): 19-21. Print.

Hurteau, Matthew D. “Broom Snakeweed.” Broom Snakeweed. USDA NRSC. Web. 1 Mar. 2011.

“Jimson Weed: Fast Facts.” Do It Now! Web. 10 Mar. 2011. .

Moore, Michael. 2003. Medicinal plants of the mountain West. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.

Millspaugh, et al. “Cherokee Messenger – Native American Herbal Remedies.” Powersource 281-265-0944. Web. 10 Mar. 2011. .

Peat, F. David. 1994. Lighting the seventh fire: the spiritual ways, healing, and science of the Native American. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Pub. Group.

Raitt, Thomas M. 1987. “The Ritual Meaning of Corn Pollen among the Navajo Indians”. Religious Studies. 23 (4): 523-530.

Sun Bear, Wabun Wind, and Crysalis Mulligan. 1991. Dancing with the wheel: the medicine wheel book. London: Simon & Schuster.

Trimble, Joseph. 2010. “The Virtues of Cultural Resonance, Competence, and Relational Collaboration With Native American Indian Communities: A Synthesis of the Counseling and Psychotherapy Literature”. The Counseling Psychologist. 38 (2): 243-256.

Wyman, Leland Clifton, and Stuart Kimball Harris. 1941. Navajo Indian medical ethnobotany. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press.