Choctaw Doctors & Diseases

Among the ancient Choctaws, a mare and colt, cow and calf, and a sow and pigs were given to each child at its birth, if the parents were able so to do, and all, with few exceptions, were able; this stock, with its increase under no circumstances whatever, could be disposed of in any way; and when he or she, as the case might be, became grown, the whole amount was formally conveyed over to him or her. Thus when a young couple started out in life they had a plenty of stock, if nothing more.

Diseases, they believed, originated in part from natural causes, therefore their doctors sought in nature for the remedies. Graver maladies, to them, were inexplicable, and for their cures they resorted to their religious superstitions and incantations. They were very skillful in their treatment of wounds, snake bites, etc., Their knowledge of the medicinal qualities of their various plants and herbs, in which their forests so bountifully abounded, was very great. Tis true they were powerless against the attacks of many diseases importations of the White Race, such as small-pox, measles, whooping cough, etc; yet, they did not exhibit any greater ignorance in regard to those new diseases, to them unknown before, than do the doctors of the White Race, who have had the experience of ages which has been handed down to them through the art of printing, manifest in regard to the new diseases that so oft attack their own race. The art of blood-letting and scarifying was well understood and practiced by many of their doctors, as well as the virtue of cold and warm baths; and in many of the healing- arts they fell not so far below those of the White Race as might be supposed, though many white doctors imagine themselves perfect in the healing art, since forsooth their diplomas coast the signatures of the medical faculties in the world..

In cases of bowel affections they use persimmons dried by the heat of the sun and mixed with a light kind of bread. In case of sores, they applied a poultice of pounded ground ivy for a few days, then carefully washing the afflicted part with the resin of the copal tree. For fresh wounds they made a poultice of the root of the cotton tree, which proved very efficacious; to produce a copious perspiration, a hot decoction of the China root swallowed, had the desired effect. They possessed an antidote for the bite and sting of snakes and insects, in the root of a plant called rattlesnake’s master, having a pungent yet not unpleasant odor. The root of the plant was chewed, and also a poultice made of it was applied to the wound, which at once checked the poison and the patient was well in a few days. The medical properties of the sassafras, sarsaparilla, and other medicinal plants, were known to them. They possessed many valuable secrets to cure dropsy, rheumatism, and many other diseases, which, no doubt, will ever remain a secret with them, proving that their powers of observation, investigation and discrimination, are not, by any means, to be regarded as contemptible; while their belief, that the Great Spirit has provided a remedy in plants for all diseases to which poor humanity seems an heir, and never refuses to make it known to those who seek the knowledge of it by proper supplications, is praiseworthy in them to say the least of it.

Their doctors were held in great veneration, though they oft practiced upon their patrons many frauds. Millfort, p. 298, says: “when one of them had a patient on hand a long time, and the poor sick fellow’s means had been exhausted he privately told the relatives that his skill was exhausted, that he had done all in his power to no avail, and that their friend must die within a few days at farthest; and, with great seeming sympathy, set forth the propriety of killing him, and so terminate his sufferings at once. Having the utmost confidence in the doctors judgment and knowledge of the case, and also believing the case hopeless, the poor fellow was at once killed.” In proof of this, he states that in 1772 a doctor thus advised concerning one of his patients. “The sick man,” he says, “suspecting, from the actions of his physician, that he was advising the propriety of ending his suffering by having him killed, with great effort succeeded one night in crawling out of the house and making good his escape. After much suffering he succeeded in making his way into the Muscogee Nation, and fortunately went to the house of Col. McGillivry, who, Samaritan like, took him into his house, and soon restored him to his usual health. At the expiration of several months he returned to his home, and found his relatives actually celebrating his funeral by burning the scaffold which they had erected to his memory, with the accustomed weeping and wailing, believing him to be dead. His unlocked for appearance among them, at that solemn hour and place, threw them into the greatest consternation, and, in horror and wild dismay, all fled to the woods. Finding himself thus received by his own relatives and friends, he returned in disgust to the Muscogees and spent the remainder of his days among them. But when his relatives had become truly satisfied that he did not die, and was actually alive and well, they made the doctor pay heavily for the deception he had practiced upon them, by killing him.”

The greatest mortality among them was most generally confined to the younger children; while longevity was a prominent characteristic among the adults. After the age of six or eight years the mortality of disease among them was less than among the white children of the present day after that age. But after those baneful diseases, scarlet fever, measles, mumps, whooping-cough, diseases unknown to them before, had been introduced among them, the fatality among the children was distressing, frequently destroying the greater number of the children in a village or neighborhood; being wholly ignorant as they were of the proper mode of treatment was a great cause of the fearful fatality. Mental or nervous diseases were unknown to the ancient Choctaws; and idiocy and deformity were seldom seen. But of all the “diseases” introduced among them by the white? the most pernicious and fatal in all its features, bearings, and con sequences, to the Choctaw people, was, is, and ever will be, Okahumma (red water or whiskey); which, when once formed into habit, seemed to grow to a species of insanity equal even to that so often exhibited among the whites.

“The Medicine Man,” was a dignitary who swayed his scepter alike among all Indians, but was altogether a very different personage from the common physician. The Medicine Man professed an insight into the hidden laws of Nature; he professed a power over the elements, the fish of the waters and the animals of the land; he could cause the fish to voluntarily suffer themselves to be caught, and give success to the hunter by depriving the denizens of the forest of their natural fear of man; he could impart bravery to the heart of the warrior, strength and skill to his arm and fleetness to his feet; yea, could put to flight the evil spirits of disease from the bodies of the sick. He could throw a spell or charm over a ball player that would disenable him to hit the post; or over the ball-post that would prevent its being hit by anyone whom he wished to defeat. Such were the professed attainments of the Indian “Medicine Man.” But whether he possessed all or any of the supernatural powers he professed, it matters not, it is certain, however, that he possessed one thing, the power, art, or skill, call it which you may, to make his people believe it, and that was all sufficient for him even as it is with all humbug’s. The Choctaws regarded dreams as the direct avenues to the invisible world, the divine revelations of the Great Spirit. If a vision of the spirit of an animal appeared to the hunter in his dream, he felt confident of success on the morrows hunt. But though he invoked the friendship, the protection and the good will of spirits, and besought the mediation of the Medicine Man, he never would confess his fear of death. But chide not too harshly, reader, the poor, unlettered Indian for his superstitions and wild beliefs, for the same long existed among the civilized Nations of the world, nor are they entirely exempt even at the present day, nor is it likely they ever will be.


Cushman, Horatio Bardwell. History Of The Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians. Greenville, Texas: Headlight Printing House. 1899

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