Native American Medicine

Health Tips / Native American Medicine

What Is It?

Native American medicine is an umbrella term that encompasses the healing beliefs and practices of all the indigenous people of North America. Its therapeutic approach combines spirituality, herbalism, and magic in treating a wide range of physical and emotional ailments–from the common cold to depression.

Like other ancient healing systems, such as traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurveda, Native American medicine is a holistic approach that emphasizes the treatment of body, mind, and spirit. Because Native Americans believe that the health of an individual is inextricably linked to the people and objects surrounding that person, their healing practices promote harmony among everyone in a community–and with the physical environment and the spiritual world as well.

Although there are variations in the specific healing methods of the different Native American nations (also called “tribes”), four practices are common to most.  Native Americans have utilized and benefited from them for at least 10,000 years and possibly much longer. These practices include:

• The involvement of healers, also referred to as “medicine men,” “medicine women,” or “shamans” (although some Native Americans find the term “shaman” to be inappropriate because it is European in origin)
• The use of herbal remedies
• The employment of ritual purification or purging
• The observance of other symbolic rituals and ceremonies.

Today, Native American medicine is used by both Native and non-Native Americans, either as a primary source of healthcare or as adjunctive treatment to conventional medicine. While some Native Americans feel comfortable sharing their healing knowledge with non-Natives, others believe that it is improper–and even exploitative–for non-Native Americans to utilize these healing methods. They feel that their healing process is part of a rich and complex system of beliefs, rituals, and practices, and that using any one part of that system out of context would render the whole ineffective.

How Does It Work?

Native Americans believe that all things in nature are connected. They also believe that every human and every object has a corresponding presence in the spirit world and that spirits can promote health or cause illness. Therefore, spiritual rejuvenation and the achievement of a general sense of physical, emotional, and communal harmony are at the heart of Native American medicine.

Typically a healer is used as an intermediary to the spiritual world. Sometimes the healer, or a trained herbalist, also prescribes herbal remedies to relieve symptoms of an ailment. Purification rituals may be employed to cleanse the body. And other rituals and ceremonies, such as “sings” (see What You Can Expect, below), offer opportunities not only for spiritual improvement, but also for contemplation, personal growth, and strengthening of the bonds with community.

Treatment also relies on the community coming together to help the ailing individual, and many healing ceremonies are conducted in groups, with patients often surrounded by praying or chanting family members and friends. This contrasts with the one-on-one, doctor-patient relationship emphasized in conventional Western medicine.

What You Can Expect

The specific healing practices utilized in Native American healing differ from tribe to tribe and from healer to healer. They also depend on the patient and the nature of the ailment. No matter what the tribe, however, the varying causes of disease are always considered, including a person’s past deeds, their state of mind and emotions, and whether they are in or out of harmony with the spirit world.

The following is a general description of what you may expect if you undertake this form of treatment:

The healer. As in conventional medicine, the healer (whose powers may be inherited from ancestors, transmitted from another healer, or developed through training and initiation) will likely take your medical history, ask you about your symptoms, discuss the possible causes of your ailment, and observe your nonverbal cues, including posture, breathing, and tone of voice. The healer might then use a single approach, or a combination of practices, such as prayer, meditation, symbolic healing rituals, and counseling. These are intended to appease the spirits, rid you of impurities, and restore a healthful, spiritually pure state. The treatment can take a few days, a few weeks, or longer.

In some cases, the healer may go into a trance state and seek the help of “spirit guides” to facilitate the return of parts of the patient’s spirit that may have been stolen by someone else (this is known as “soul retrieval”). If the healer believes the patient to be possessed by another person or by another earth-based spirit (animal, plant, bird, and so on), the spirit guides may be used to help remove the possession.

Herbal remedies. Of the 10 top-selling herbs in the U.S. today, seven of them have been used for centuries by Native American healers. While many Native Americans prefer to consult a conventional medical doctor for a condition that requires antibiotics or surgery, herbal remedies do continue to play a real role in treatment of various physical, emotional, and spiritual ailments. The herbs prescribed vary from tribe to tribe and depend upon the ailment and what herbs are available in a particular area. According to tribal custom, you may be told to ingest the herbs directly, take them as a tea, or mix them with another beverage or with food. The healer might also burn certain herbs, such as sage, sweet grass, or cedar, during a ceremony and let the restorative smoke waft over the patient.

Purification or purging. The traditional Native American purification ritual takes place in a sweat lodge. This is usually a small, conical structure made of willow branches and covered by blankets. Here the patient, the healer, and any helpers pray, sing, and sometimes drum together to purify the spirits. At the same time water is ladled onto red-hot stones to create large amounts of sweat-producing steam. The lodge, which is pitch black except for the glow of the rocks, is symbolic of the womb and meant to recapture primal wisdom. The sweating that occurs is believed to purge and cleanse the body of disease.

Symbolic healing rituals and ceremonies. These ceremonies vary, depending on the tribe. For example, the Lakota and Dineh (Navajo) use the medicine wheel, the sacred hoop, and the “sing,” which is a community healing ceremony that lasts from two to nine days and is guided by a highly skilled specialist called a “singer.” Many healers also employ dancing, sand painting, chanting, drumming (which places a person’s spirit into alignment with the heartbeat of Mother Earth), and feathers and rattles to remove blockages and stagnations of energy that may be contributing to ill health. Sometimes sacred stones are rubbed over the part of the person’s body suspected to be diseased.

Health Benefits

Many books and articles have been written on Native American medicine and anecdotal evidence abounds. However, there have been virtually no scientific studies done on tribal healing practices, undoubtedly due to the spiritual and magical nature of the treatments. Nevertheless, many people–Native and non-Native Americans alike–suggest that these methods really do work for a range of physical and emotional ailments, including heart disease, diabetes, thyroid conditions, cancer, skin rashes, asthma, alcoholism, and depression. Again, these accounts cannot be scientifically proved.

How To Choose a Practitioner

Gaining access to authentic Native American healers and their practices can be very difficult, especially for non-Native Americans. If you know someone who is a tribe member, you could ask that person about the possibility of consulting a healer. This may involve your traveling to see the healer or the healer traveling to reach you. It may also include the participation of others in the healer’s tribe and/or members of your own community–specifically, your friends and family.

Some people prefer to consult non-Native American healers who practice aspects of Native American healing. Others read books on Native American healing or take a course in it in order to practice self-care. Organizations such as the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York, and the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Mill Valley, California, offer classes in aspects of Native American healing. They may also be able to provide referrals.

Many Native Americans believe that certain healers, especially those found through the Internet, are phonies or “quacks.” Be sure to exercise caution when consulting with healers who are not personally recommended to you.


If you have medical symptoms or an existing medical condition, you should consult your primary-care physician before seeing a Native American healer.

If you are pregnant, you should consult your obstetrician or your primary-care physician before seeing a Native American healer.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD