Cherokee Indian Hygiene and Medicine

No rules are ever formulated as to fresh air or exercise, for the sufficient reason that the door of the Cherokee log cabin is always open, excepting at night and on the coldest days in winter, while the Indian is seldom in the house during his waking hours unless when necessity compels him. As most of their cabins are still built in the old Indian style, without windows, the open door furnishes the only means by which light is admitted to the interior, although when closed the fire on the hearth helps to make amends for the deficiency. On the other hand, no precautions are taken to guard against cold, dampness, or sudden drafts. During the greater part of the year whole families sleep outside upon the ground, rolled up in an old blanket. The Cherokee is careless of exposure and utterly indifferent to the simplest rules of hygiene. He will walk all day in a pouring rain clad only in a thin shirt and a pair of pants. He goes barefoot and frequently bareheaded nearly the entire year, and even on a frosty morning in late November, when the streams are of almost icy coldness, men and women will deliberately ford the river where the water is waist deep in preference to going a few hundred yards to a foot-log. At their dances in the open air men, women, and children, with bare feet and thinly clad, dance upon the damp ground from darkness until daylight, sometimes enveloped in a thick mountain fog which makes even the neighboring treetops invisible, while the mothers have their infants laid away under the bushes with only a shawl between them and the cold ground. In their ball plays also each young man, before going into the game, is subjected to an ordeal of dancing, bleeding, and cold plunge baths, without food or sleep, which must unquestionably waste his physical energy.

In the old days when the Cherokee was the lord of the whole country from the Savannah to the Ohio, well fed and warmly clad and leading an active life in the open air, he was able to maintain a condition of robust health notwithstanding the incorrectness of his medical ideas and his general disregard of sanitary regulations. But with the advent of the white man and the destruction of the game all this was changed. The East Cherokee of today is a dejected being; poorly fed, and worse clothed, rarely tasting meat, cut off from the old free life, and with no incentive to a better, and constantly bowed down by a sense of helpless degradation in the presence of his conqueror. Considering all the circumstances, it may seem a matter of surprise that any of them are still in existence. As a matter of fact, the best information that could be obtained in the absence of any official statistics indicated a slow but steady decrease during the last five years. Only the constitutional vigor, inherited from their warrior ancestors, has enabled them to sustain the shock of the changed conditions of the last half century. The uniform good health of the children in the training school shows that the case is not hopeless, however, and that under favorable conditions, with a proper food supply and a regular mode of living, the Cherokee can hold his own with the white man.

The Sweat Bath

In addition to their herb treatment the Cherokees frequently resort to sweat baths, bleeding, rubbing, and cold baths in the running stream, to say nothing of the beads and other conjuring paraphernalia generally used in connection with the ceremony. The sweat bath was in common use among almost all the tribes north of Mexico excepting the central and eastern Eskimo, and was considered the great cure-all in sickness and invigorant in health. Among many tribes it appears to have been regarded as a ceremonial observance, but the Cherokees seem to have looked upon it simply as a medical application, while the ceremonial part was confined to the use of the plunge bath. The person wishing to make trial of the virtues of the sweat bath entered the â´si, a small earth-covered log house only high enough to allow of sitting down. After divesting himself of his clothing, some large bowlders, previously heated in a fire, were placed near him, and over them was poured a decoction of the beaten roots of the wild parsnip. The door was closed so that no air could enter from the outside, and the patient sat in the sweltering steam until he was in a profuse perspiration and nearly choked by the pungent fumes of the decoction. In accordance with general Indian practice it may be that he plunged into the river before resuming his clothing; but in modern times this part of the operation is omitted and the patient is drenched with cold water instead. Since the âsi has gone out of general use the sweating takes place in the ordinary dwelling, the steam being confined under a blanket wrapped around the patient. During the prevalence of the smallpox epidemic among the Cherokees at the close of the late war the sweat bath was universally called into requisition to stay the progress of the disease, and as the result about three hundred of the band died, while many of the survivors will carry the marks of the visitation to the grave. The sweat bath, with the accompanying cold water application, being regarded as the great panacea, seems to have been resorted to by the Indians in all parts of the country whenever visited by smallpox-originally introduced by the whites-and in consequence of this mistaken treatment they have died, in the language of an old writer, “like rotten sheep” and at times whole tribes have been almost swept away. Many of the Cherokees tried to ward off the disease by eating the flesh of the buzzard, which they believe to enjoy entire immunity from sickness, owing to its foul smell, which keeps the disease spirits at a distance.


Bleeding is resorted to in a number of cases, especially in rheumatism and in preparing for the ball play. There are two methods of performing the operation, bleeding proper and scratching, the latter being preparatory to rubbing on the medicine, which is thus brought into more direct contact with the blood. The bleeding is performed with a small cupping horn, to which suction is applied in the ordinary manner, after scarification with a flint or piece of broken glass. In the blood thus drawn out the shaman claims sometimes to find a minute pebble, a sharpened stick or something of the kind, which he asserts to be the cause of the trouble and to have been conveyed into the body of the patient through the evil spells of an enemy. He frequently pretends to suck out such an object by the application of the lips alone, without any scarification whatever. Scratching is a painful process and is performed with a brier, a flint arrowhead, a rattlesnake’s tooth, or even with a piece of glass, according to the nature of the ailment, while in preparing the young men for the ball play the shaman uses an instrument somewhat resembling a comb, having seven teeth made from the sharpened splinters of the leg bone of a turkey. The scratching is usually done according to a particular pattern, the regular method for the ball play being to draw the scratcher four times down the upper part of each arm, thus making twenty-eight scratches each about 6 inches in length, repeating the operation on each arm below the elbow and on each leg above and below the knee. Finally, the instrument is drawn across the breast from the two shoulders so as to form a cross; another curving stroke is made to connect the two upper ends of the cross, and the same pattern is repeated on the back, so that the body is thus gashed in nearly three hundred places. Although very painful for a while, as may well be supposed, the scratches do not penetrate deep enough to result seriously, excepting in some cases where erysipelas sets in. While the blood is still flowing freely the medicine, which in this case is intended to toughen, the muscles of the player, is rubbed into the wounds after which the sufferer plunges into the stream and washes off the blood. In order that the blood may flow the longer without clotting it is frequently scraped off with a small switch as it flows. In rheumatism and other local diseases the scratching is confined to the part affected. The instrument used is selected in accordance with the mythologic theory, excepting in the case of the piece of glass, which is merely a modern makeshift for the flint arrowhead.


Rubbing, used commonly for pains and swellings of the abdomen, is a very simple operation performed with the tip of the finger or the palm of the hand, and can not be dignified with the name of massage. In one of the Gahuni formulas for treating snake bites the operator is told to rub in a direction contrary to that in which the snake coils itself, because “this is just the same as uncoiling it.” Blowing upon the part affected, as well as upon the head, hands, and other parts of the body, is also an important feature of the ceremonial performance. In one of the formulas it is specified that the doctor must blow first upon the right hand of the patient, then upon the left foot, then upon the left hand, and finally upon the right foot, thus making an imaginary cross.


Bathing in the running stream, or “going to water,” as it is called, is one of their most frequent medico-religious ceremonies, and is performed on a great variety of occasions, such as at each new moon, before eating the new food at the green corn dance, before the medicine dance and other ceremonial dances before and after the ball play, in connection with the prayers for long life, to counteract the effects of bad dreams or the evil spells of an enemy, and as a part of the regular treatment in various diseases. The details of the ceremony are very elaborate and vary according to the purpose for which it is performed, but in all cases both shaman and client are fasting from the previous evening, the ceremony being generally performed just at daybreak. The bather usually dips completely under the water four or seven times, but in some cases it is sufficient to pour the water from the hand upon the head and breast. In the ball play the ball sticks are dipped into the water at the same time. While the bather is in the water the shaman is going through with his part of the performance on the bank and draws omens from the motion of the beads between his thumb and finger, or of the fishes in the water. Although the old customs are fast dying out this ceremony is never neglected at the ball play, and is also strictly observed by many families on occasion of eating the new corn, at each new moon, and on other special occasions, even when it is necessary to break the ice in the stream for the purpose, and to the neglect of this rite the older people attribute many of the evils which have come upon the tribe in later days. The latter part of autumn is deemed the most suitable season of the year for this ceremony, as the leaves which then cover the surface of the stream are supposed to impart their medicinal virtues to the water.

Illustration Of The Tabu

On a second visit to the reservation the writer once had a practical illustration of the gaktû´nta or tabu, which may be of interest as showing how little sanitary ideas have to do with these precautions. Having received several urgent invitations from Tsiskwa (Bird), an old shaman of considerable repute, who was anxious to talk, but confined to his bed by sickness, it was determined to visit him at his house, several miles distant. On arriving we found another doctor named Sû´nki (The Mink) in charge of the patient and were told that he had just that morning begun a four days’ gaktû´nta which, among other provisions, excluded all visitors. It was of no use to argue that we had come by the express request of Tsiskwa. The laws of the gaktû´nta were as immutable as those of the Medes and Persians, and neither doctor nor patient could hope for favorable results from the treatment unless the regulations were enforced to the letter. But although we might not enter the house, there was no reason why we should not talk to the old man, so seats were placed for us outside the door, while Tsiskwa lay stretched out on the bed just inside and The Mink perched himself on the fence a few yards distant to keep an eye on the proceedings. As there was a possibility that a white man might unconsciously affect the operation of the Indian medicine, the writer deemed it advisable to keep out of sight altogether, and accordingly took up a position just around the corner of the house, but within easy hearing distance, while the interpreter sat facing the doorway within a few feet of the sick man inside. Then began an animated conversation, Tsiskwa inquiring, through the interpreter, as to the purpose of the Government in gathering such information, wanting to know how we had succeeded with other shamans and asking various questions in regard to other tribes and their customs. The replies were given in the same manner, an attempt being also made to draw him out as to the extent of his own knowledge. Thus we talked until the old man grew weary, but throughout the whole of this singular interview neither party saw the other, nor was the gaktû´nta violated by entering the house. From this example it must be sufficiently evident that the tabu as to visitors is not a hygienic precaution for securing greater quiet to the patient, or to prevent the spread of contagion, but that it is simply a religious observance of the tribe, exactly parallel to many of the regulations among the ancient Jews, as laid down in the book of Leviticus.

Cherokee, Medicine,

Mooney, James. Sacred Formulas Of The Cherokees. Published in the Seventh Annual Report, Bureau of Ethnology, pp. 301-399. 1886.

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