Herbal Medicine Secrets Of Seminoles Revealed: Use Of Natural Medicine In Florida’s Indian Country

Alice Micco Snow bequeathed a legacy to mankind when she passed away in 2009 at the age of 87. Eight years earlier she had co-authored the first published record of the Seminole’s ancient healing medicines in a book titled Healing Plants, Medicine of the Florida Seminole Indians. This book has received little attention, but its value to ethnobotany cannot be disputed.

These records add immense knowledge to the field of ethno medicine, according to Snow’s co-author, anthropologist Susan EnnsStans. “Local or indigenous people have accumulated their healing information through empirical observation and from enculturation from parents and peers,” wrote Stans. “Ethnobotany represents a growing academic field as we search for cures for modern diseases.”

Stans lamented that traditional Native American and indigenous healers are dying and with them the special knowledge they have of the relationship between the animal and plant world.

Healing Herbal Remedies Shared

Showing great courage as an elder, Snow co-wrote this valuable book to ensure that the traditional medicine of her people will not be lost forever in the modern age. She wrote the book despite criticism for revealing tribal secrets.

Snow pondered the future of the Seminoles as the old ways disappear and native language and traditions are being lost. “I am writing this book because young people need to learn Indian medicine before it is lost,” Snow wrote in the forward. “White medicine will not cure all of the sicknesses, so it is important that my people have the knowledge to carry on a long tradition of healing.”

Natural Medicine Not New

Native American tribes have practiced natural medicine for thousands of years. In today’s world, complementary or alternative medicine is very popular. Yet, all that is new is actually old. Indians since ancient times have always had natural remedies in their arsenal of healing. Many tribes continue to consult their medicine man when illness befalls them.

Herbs Gathered for Medicine Man

Snow was a lifelong herbalist taught at an early age to be an assistant to the tribe’s medicine man. It is an honored position to which only a few are selected. She fulfilled her role faithfully. One of Snow’s major life achievements was cataloguing and recording for posterity the native plants and herbs used by her tribe for healing.

Snow called herself an herb gatherer. It was her job to go into the piney woods and hammocks of the sub-tropical forests of the Brighton Seminole Reservation to find herbs needed for treatments and remedies. During her lifetime she worked many long hours and many days collecting herbs, especially when someone urgently needed medicine. She delivered the herbs correctly prepared under instruction of the medicine man that conducts the healing practices.

Snow did not reveal all the ways the medicine man conducts a healing treatment but only the herbs and their particular uses. To the person unfamiliar with Indian culture, the book may seem foreign and strange, medical mythology perhaps. But be careful not to judge what is not understood. Scholar and author Joseph Campbell says that myths are what we call other people’s religion.

Rituals and Song Part of Indian Medicine

Be sure of one thing. Indian medicine is holistic. It addresses the state of mind and spirit of the sick one, not only the ailing body. There are certain comforting and traditional rituals, songs, chants and symbolic practices only the medicine man is allowed to perform that accompany use of herbs. These are secrets still to this day. Seminoles do not casually share with non-tribal members what they hold to be sacred. In Snow’s book we get a glimpse of what is performed in some healing practices, but not necessarily how they are performed.

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Snow’s handbook of Seminole medicine includes chapters on treatments, remedies and plant identification. Common herbs she wrote about are elderberry, button snakeroot, wax myrtle, ginseng, saw palmetto, sumac and willow. For instance, she described the use of bark of willow for twelve conditions including miscarriage, bad dreams, stroke, hysterectomy, fear of walking after a long illness and “on the wagon” medicine.

Modern Medicine Replaces Natural Medicine

But the book is much more than a compendium of herbs. It is a study of Seminole life in an age when Native American traditions and spiritual beliefs were still strong in Snow’s community. It is the saga of Snow’s arduous life of poverty until Indian gaming changed the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s fortunes. Today reservation life at Brighton is mobile, modern and upscale. And, for most illnesses, modern medicine has replaced Indian medicine. Thus, the role of the herb gatherer is becoming obsolete.

Snow learned her role as an herbalist through rigorous apprenticeship. It takes years of training to identify the correct plants. She realized fewer people of the tribe are using the traditional plants or collect the plants or know the songs to treat the herbs that provide them with healing power. She hoped this book would be a safeguard against lost knowledge.

Medicine Dance Or Thirst Dance: Assiniboine Initiation To Warrior Status

Samuel Steele of the North-West Mounted Police, after settling in at Fort Walsh in 1875, recounted his attendance at the Assiniboine Medicine Dance on the north side of the Cypress Hills. He had witnessed other Sun Dances by different tribes, but none matched this particular dance of the Assiniboine.

Initiation of a Warrior

Steele witnessed the ceremony with several other members of the NWMP which is an initiation of a young brave becoming a warrior. He described the dance occurring in the centre of the Medicine Lodge where a large post supported the fabric of the teepee with a railing of rough saplings around three-quarters of the inside. Behind the railing near the door or entrance stood a single rank of braves, each with a whistle in their mouth secured by a string tied around his neck. During the ceremony the braves neither ate nor drank until it was over. The whistles were blown in time to the beat of the tom-toms.

Each participant came forward naked to the waist and painted in turns, accompanied by their female relations to the centre of the tent where the Medicine Man stood ready to administer the rites. The Medicine Man, with the aid of the women, drove sharp skewers of hard wood through the thick muscles of the breast, secured them to the end of a rawhide lariat which was attached to the upper part of the centre post. When this was completed, the young brave would through his full weight back upon the lariat until the skewers were torn from the flesh, accompanied by the low, deep chanting of the warriors, the whistling and drumming of the musicians, and the shrieks of the women in the lodge. By enduring this ordeal the brave was made a warrior, and the next participant came forward. There were variations of heavy buffalo skulls attached to the skewers which would pass through the muscles of the back and chest while the candidate danced until the weight of the skulls tore the skewers out of the flesh.

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These severe endurance tests were borne by the young braves with the greatest fortitude, with no cry or moan escaping while beads of sweat appeared on their foreheads. There was no appearance to indicate that they were in pain.

While the initiation rite was in progress, large numbers of braves in the tribe were dressed in feathers and war paint watching anxiously that the initiates should pass their trial. If a young brave failed in the test, it meant they would have to remain in camp with the women and children when the warriors went on the warpath.

Federal Government Bans Medicine and Thirst Dances

In 1884 amendments were made to the Indian Act by Canada’s federal government to ban the medicine, sun and thirst dances, although the aboriginals continued on in secret with them as part of their political and religious life.