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Choctaw Medicine

Nov 29, 2017
Claire Guzman
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 15 min.

Medicine made from plants and roots by Choctaws of long ago

In centuries past, Choctaws used plants and roots for many of their medicinal needs. Roots were dug in the fall of the year when they were purer and most of the poison had gone out of them. They were steamed to the boiling point but were not allowed to boil hard. A medicine is said to have been named most often for the insect or animal which attends it. The following notes were obtained regarding specific remedies:

Rabbit tobacco, also called by the whites “life everlasting”, was made into an infusion and drunk in cases of fever. It was also used as a tobacco substitute.

Boneset was used in the steaming process to make one throw up “cold and bile..”

Jerusalem oak, or rather wormseed, called in Choctaw “children’s medicine”, was made the basis for a kind of candy and fed to small children who had worms.

The “pink root” was used with just enough whisky put with it to keep it. It is a system builder, and when one has it, he needs no doctor. It makes one very sick at first but afterwards thoroughly well. It drives out fever and is a good tonic for old and young. When it was to be given to children it was weakened and in later times sugar was added.

The Choctaws used scurvy grass to clean the teeth.

Sampson snake root (Choctaw, nipi lapushkichi) is a poison to any other poison and was therefore used in cases of snake bite.

The mayapple (Choctaw, fala imisito) or “crow pumpkin” is a fine medicine. The fruit is given to children as a purgative. In cases of biliousness they powdered the root, put half an ounce of this into a pint of water, boiled it down to about an ounce, and mixed it with whiskey. One swallow, or as much as a person could stand, was a dose. It received its name from the fact that the crow, which is a wise bird, feeds upon the mayapple.

The wild cherry is looked upon as one of the best medicines for young girls. In winter, if cherry wine has not been put up, a tea may be made of the leaves which is given internally to stop pain and cause perspiration. If enough is taken it was believed to purify the blood. If the leaves are gone, the outside bark may be peeled away and the inside bark used in the same way and for the same purposes.

The prickly ash (Choctaw, nuti alikchi) is good in cases of toothache. A piece of bark may be cut off to hold in the cavity of the tooth, or it may be powdered and made into a poultice.

Modoc weed “yellow root” (Choctaw, akshish lakna) was used for a weak stomach, in cases of fainting or when the nerves give way. The roots were boiled in water and taken along with whisky.

Golden rod (Choctaw, okhinsh balalli) and the puccoon root were sold to the whites for medicinal purposes but not employed by the Choctaw.

The pottage pea (Choctaw, balongtaichi tapachi) is an onion-like root with a sweetish taste used in cases of diarrhea.

The butterfly root (Choctaw, hatapushik okhinsh, “butterfly medicine”) was used for human beings in cases of colds. The tops could be employed as well as the roots. However, it seems to have been more often employed as a medicine for horses, being given when they had the blind staggers or seemed physically broken down. It was also given them in the fall to protect them from such sickness the following spring.

When they gave up their old out-of-doors life and came to live in poorly ventilated houses of poles and split logs daubed with mud the Choctaw were attacked by tuberculosis and suffered severely. It was suggested that they move out into the forest until they got well and those who did so saved a part of their families but most of the others died.

Information taken from Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians by John R. Swanton, pages 237-238)

Plants used as medicine

Cayenne – Taken as a tonic beneficial for the heart and circulation, reduced vitality. Stimulant, astringent, carminative an antispasmodic. Normalizes circulation. Use for either high or low blood pressure.

Cinnamon – Brewed as tea for upset stomach and nausea, indigestion and gas.

Dandelion roots – Effective hepatic tonic and blood purifier. Combined with chicory for coffee substitute.

Garlic – universally renowned culinary cure all. Home remedy used traditionally in many cultures. Effective alternative, stimulant, antibiotic.

Ginger- benefits stomach, intestines, circulation. Enhances effectiveness of other herb. Used as a tea for indigestion, cramps and nausea.

Hops -Bitter tonic, drink before meals to avoid poor digestion and heartburn. Stimulating effect on liver.

Horehound – In Mexico, a tea of the leaves is taken for weight loss, Formerly in domestic medicine, a tea or tincture of horehound was administered for sore throat and cough.

Nutmeg – To promote digestion, carminative, aromatic. Also as a flavoring and condiment and add to potpourri.

Peppermint leaves – Beverage tea; has antispasmodic, carminative, diaphoretic and stimulant effects. Good for stomach, intestines, muscles and circulation.

Sage – Infusion of leaves for indigestion and stomach acidity. Bitter tonic, suppressed menstruation. Inhibits roundworm or pinworm infection. Extremely bitter. Also called mugwork, wormwood.

Rosemary – Infusion of leaves for tonic, diaphoretic, stimulating memory, nervous disorders and hair and skin rinse.

Sweet clover – fresh green plant used for floor covering in Navajo sweat lodge. External poultice for sore breasts. Tea for soothing stomach and chronic flatulence.

Sweet grass – Burned for incense to purify the air; used in Native American Church alone or with flat cedar during prayer offerings. Usually sold by the braid or cut-up. Basket material.

Wild Oregano – favorite herb of Hopis especially when freshly gathered before flavoring. For cooking spice. Flowers steeped for suppressed menstruation, drink cool. Also for gastritis and indigestion.

Yucca – Traditional ceremonial hair wash used by Navajo and Hopi.

Traditional Choctaw Medicine

Information compiled from The Chronicles of Oklahoma.

A decade before the Choctaws’ removal to Indian Territory, Hoolatahooma, Chief of the Six Towns division of the Choctaw Tribe, expressed a desire to “follow the ways, of the white people.” Choctaw leaders had begun to realize that If they were to survive in a place increasingly populated and ruled by white people, then the Choctaws must adapt to white man’s ways.

Before the march along the “Trail of Tears” missionaries helped educate the Choctaw people. Choctaw medicine reflected this, becoming a mixture of old traditions and new beliefs, and earning a reputation of being as useful as “white mans’ medicine.” Some Choctaw alikchi (medicine man) were knowledgeable about the use of herbs and gradually adopted parts of the white man’s medicine. Some common Choctaw remedies were:

\* Blackroot and ball willow were used for measles and smallpox

\* Boneset and burnweed were each used as a purgative

\* Mayapple fruit was given to children as a purgative

\* Prickly ash bark could be held in a tooth cavity to stop a toothache or powdered for a poultice

\* Pink root was combined with just enough whiskey to preserve it, then used as a system builder

\* Sugar, soot and spider webs were combined and applied to stop bleeding

\* Persimmons were sun-dried and mixed with a type of bread to control diarrhea

\* Sycamore bark was boiled, sweetened with sugar and given in tablespoon doses for coughs.

\* Ground Ivy was made into poultices, and used for treating sores.

\* Slippery elm was combined with new milk and used as a wash to soothe burns.

\* Wild Cherries were considered good for young girls; it was supposed to purify the blood

\* Modoc weed roots were boiled in water and taken with whiskey for fainting, nerves, and weak stomachs

\* Jerusalem oak was made into a type of candy given to children for worms

Medicine of the Choctaw Nation centuries ago

In the book Choctaw Social and Ceremonial Life, an interview with Simpson Tubby and notes from Cushman tell of the medicinal practices of the Choctaw tribe more than a century ago.. .

It was a common Choctaw belief that people got diseases from the food they ate, and therefore before killing a chicken, it was shut up and fed by the owner until what it had foraged for itself was out of it. On the other hand, it was thought that animals gathered their own medicine. The hog roots in the ground for his medicine and a dog should not be shut up or he will not be able to find his own proper remedies. This was one of the reasons advanced by Mushulatubbi in opposing allotment. He maintained that in time the stock would be enclosed so that they could not get their natural medicine and that the same thing would sooner or later happen to the Indians. The old Choctaw doctors are said to have held, like the Creeks, that animals caused diseases.

The same informant averred that the head chief appointed from one to three doctors from each of the five Choctaw bands, and that he and the doctors together appointed medicine givers who were later to be appointed doctors themselves. After their appointment the doctors and medicine givers were placed in charge of the band captains who had to see that they carried out their instructions. Since it is said that medicine could be given only in the presence of one of these people, and that a man had to be present to see that a man took his medicine and a woman had to be present to see that a female took it, it would seem that the medicine givers at least were of both sexes. Medicine was administered by “swallows”, “fractions of swallows”, and “drops”. He also said that no one was allowed to take medicine except in the presence of a medicine giver, but it seems evident that only certain medicines were administered in this official manner.

Mention has been made of the readjustment of the pillow in response to certain symptoms. If one complained of a dead feeling in the legs and thighs, the doctor would reduce the height of the head end of the pallet so that the blood would flow less readily toward the feet.

If a person had lived some time in one place and had had much sickness, he would move. This was often at the direction of the doctor, and if the latter told him to move at a certain time he would do so, perhaps living in a tent until there was time to erect a house. Sometimes a man would move a dozen times on 40 acres of land.

Simpson also described what might be called fractional sweat-bathing. In preparation for this a hole was dug in the floor big enough to hold a large pot. Over it crosswise were laid a number of sticks sufficient to hold up a quilt. A kettle containing water and medicines was then put over the fire and, after the contents had been heated, it was placed in this hole, and the affected part laid over it, a second kettle of medicine might be used after the first had become cool. After the steaming was over, the patient shut himself in his room and stayed there until the right temperature was restored, or as long as the doctor prescribed.

The use of cow horns was universal in the Southeast. Simpson says of it that in the first place the doctor took a sort of punch consisting of a piece of glass fastened on the end of a stick in such a manner that it could enter the flesh only a certain distance, place the point of it on a small vein over the afflicted part and drove it in with a little mallet. Then he clapped the wide end of the horn over the spot and sucked at the small end until most of the air had been removed, when he closed the hole by means of a bit of cloth previously lodged in his mouth. After waiting a certain time he drew the horn away and examined the blood it contained in order to diagnose the ailment. Another reason was probably to remove a foreign object which some wizard might have injected. They also extracted from a patient such objects as lizards, snakes, terrapin, millipedes, or earwigs, which it was claimed were “aggravating him to death.”

(from Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians by John R. Swanton, pages 235-236)

In 1700’s, Choctaw doctors’ opinion could mean life or death

In History of the American Indians, published in 1775, Adair says that the Indians of his acquaintance believed the time of a man’s death to be fated, and the following item regarding Choctaw doctors would seem to indicate that this fate was revealed to and consummated through the medical fraternity:

The Choctah (sic) are so exceedingly infatuated in favour of the infallible judgement of their pretended prophets, as to allow them without the least regret to dislocate the necks of any of their sick who are in a weak state of body, to put them out of their pain, when they presume to reveal the determined will of the Deity to shorten his days, which is asserted to be communicated in a dream.

Since a doctor who lost a patient might be in jeopardy of his life while he was permitted to put an end to the existence of one whose death he had prophesied, it might be thought that the scales would be weighted heavily against the patient. This lends credibility to the following story reported in the memoires of Milfort while visiting the Creek Nation:

The Tchactas revere greatly the priests or medicine men of whom I have just spoken, and in whom they have a blind confidence which the latter often abuse. These doctors exact high payments for their labors over a sick man, and almost always in advance. Their avarice is such that, when illness lasts for a long time, and the patient has nothing left with which to pay the doctor, the latter calls a meeting of the sick man’s family and informs them that he has employed all of the resources of his profession, but the sickness is incurable and it can end only in death.

The family thus forewarned decides that, the patient having already suffered a long time and being without hope of recovery, it would be inhuman to prolong his sufferings further and it is right to end them. Then, one or two of the strongest of them go to the sick man, ask him, in the presence of the entire family, how he is, and while the latter is replying to this question, they throw themselves upon him and strangle him.

In 1782 one of these who had been sick for a long time and who had nothing more to give to his doctor, found himself in danger of being strangled in the manner I have just described. As he was suspicious and was on his guard, he watched for the moment his family was assembled to hear the report of the doctor and decide to put an end to his sufferings by putting him to death. He took advantage of this moment to flee and escape the ceremony which awaited him. He dragged himself, as well as he was able, as far as a forest, which fortunately was near his dwelling. He was not able to carry with him provisions of any kind, and found himself reduced to the necessity of living on the flesh of wood rats, known under the name of “opossum,” which are very appetizing and very healthful. His flight caused all his family great astonishment, but the doctor persuaded them that he had gone away only to conceal his inevitable death.

While this unfortunate was wandering in the forest, he remembered that he had frequently visited the Creeks in order to carry thither the belts or strings of beads which serve them as records. He determined to take refuge with them and inform them of his reasons for fleeing from his own country, not doubting that he would find help and protection in a nation with the generosity of which he was acquainted. He then sought out McGillivray, who was at that time head chief, and explained to him the reasons for his journey. He reminded him that he had visited him many times on behalf of his chiefs. McGillivray received him kindly though he was unable to recognize him for he looked like a skeleton. Food was given him and, as he was still sick, some days later he had him take some emetic (i.e., cassina) diluted with sassafras water. This medicine was sufficient to cure his sickness, but as this savage had suffered much and had been ill for a long time, he remained four or five months with McGillivray in order to become wholly restored to health; I saw him often and he related his adventure to me himself. When he felt entirely restored, he returned to his own nation. About eight months had then elapsed since his escape, and his family had raised a scaffold and performed all the ceremonial rites preceding and accompanying funerals which I have described above. The doctor had so strongly persuaded the relatives of this savage that he could not recover from his illness that, when he appeared in their midst, they looked upon him as a ghost, and all fled. Seeing that he was left alone, he went to the house of one of his neighbors who, seized with the same terror, threw himself on the ground, and, persuaded that this was only a spirit, spoke to him as follows:

“Why have you left the abode of souls if you were happy there? Why do you return to us? Is it in order to be present at the last feast which your family and your friends hold for you? Go! return to the country of the dead lest you renew the grief which they have experienced at your loss!”

The other, seeing that his presence caused the same fright everywhere, determined to return to the Creeks, where he saw again, in course of time, many of his relatives, since these were in the habit of coming there every year. It was only then that he was able to disabuse them and persuade them that the doctor had deceived them. They, angered at such a piece of rascality , sought out the the doctor, heaped upon him the most violent reproaches, and afterwards killed him so that he might deceive no one else. They then made all possible representations to this savage in order to induce him to return to them, but he refused steadily and married a woman of the Taskiguys by whom he had three children, and he lives at the place where Fort Toulouse formerly stood.

Text in this historical article is from Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians, by John R. Swanton., (Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution,) pages 213-214.

February 1, 1978, Hello Choctaw, Page 15

Chahta Pashofa Dance

By Sidney J. White of Tuskahoma

Pashofa is a dish prepared by the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes by boiling hominy corn (tafaula) with cured meat; for instance, the shoulder and ham bones. Pashofa was always prepared at the dance which was held as a sacred ritual ceremony in recognition and respect of the sick.

The sick person, man or woman, was confined in a cabin several steps from the seething pots and dance ground. A limit line was drawn on the ground a few steps from the cabin where guards were placed to keep out intruders, or those persons not authorized to enter the cabin where the sick and ailing person lay.

In case the sick person was a man, only a man attendant, whom we will call (hatak alikchi) man doctor would be the only person allowed to enter the cabin of the sick. The man doctor knew all the medicinal plants. He knew for what use all the grasses, herbs and the different parts of trees that could be used for food and medicines. He knew how to cook, boil and prepare them in their natural state if necessary for the diseases and ailments prevalent in his locality. The sole attendant took whatever he prescribed to the sick and whatever the patient desired, if such as he wanted was available and not injurious to him.

If the ailing one was a woman, then her attendant was a woman, but the medication administered to her had to be prepared and directed by the (hatak alakchi) medicine man.

The guards were strong men, so your father told me, and if any man crossed the line with the intentions of entering the cabin or sick room, he was man-handled and forced to drink a bitter concoction prepared by the medicine man. The concoction, so I’ve been told, caused purging and vomiting. If such be the case we would judge that very few if anyone would dare to enter the prohibited area.

I understand that the Creek and Seminole Indians drink the bitter concoction before going into an Indian ball game. It cleans out their system and they do not become sick at the stomach while under such physical strain during the game. I never saw the Choctaws use the bitter concoction but I do know that they refused food at lunch time when they were ready to participate in a game which was to start at about 1:00 p.m.

In times past, tuberculosis (T.B.) was a menace and prevailing disease among the Choctaw people, and I am of the opinion that when a pashofa dance was held that the patient was very low. And it was held in hopes, of course, that the patient would recover. But I should believe, from what I have heard about a pashofa dance, that the patient didn’t live too long after the dance. But, nevertheless, a pashofa dance was given in respect, honor and benefit of the sick. A great multitude often attended a pashofa dance, and like the Indian ball games, an occasional fight took place among the men and not too often someone might be wounded by gunshot or maybe killed outright. To the best of my knowledge, pashofa dances were discontinued shortly after the turn of the century.

The last match game, one county against another, of Indian ball to which I was a witness, was between the opposing teams of Jacks Fork and Tobucksi (Coal) Counties. The game was played, or attempted to be played, near Blanco, Oklahoma in the month of August 15, 1911. They left for home, the 16 games unfinished. All the games played in the Choctaw Nation since that time have been exhibition games played at picnics and county fairs. In such games I have taken a part myself.

The information in respect to the pashofa dance was related to me by Lyman Pusley and I wrote the above for his son, Smallwood Pusley. The above is the exact copy of the original.

by Mike Boucher

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