For a very long time Native Americans have been surviving and flourishing throughout this land. The Lakota believed that not only animals, but plants also were sacred (wakan) and their spirit was able to heal the sick, both physically and spiritually through the guidance of the Medicine Man. It was also believed that the plant’s powers was dangerous for the average Lakota to harvest them, for they did not know the rituals of the plant spirits like the Medicine Man did. If the average Lakota did harvest one of the sacred plants, without the guidance of the Medicine Man, then the plant would not heal, but could even kill a person.
The Lakota’s view of sickness is very different to that of modern secular belief. It is felt that “evil mysteries” from spirits around us, or certain animals, can impart their potency on the body and cause disease. Only the Medicine Man has the knowledge through song, drum, rattle, and his own medicine bag (which contains a number of plants) to heal the body. In old times, there were different types of medicine men for different sicknesses. For example, a Medicine Man of the Bear Society (Bear Medicine) was responsible for the healing of battle wounds, and therefore his song and medicine was unique to his specialty.
Unfortunately, many of my people have lost the once in-depth knowledge of medicinal plant use, but are slowly returning and learning, once almost forgotten, traditions of plant uses in everyday life.
One plant that I remember being used in my younger years was the Yucca Plant (Soap Weed). We use to use the root and rub it on our hands with water. It would lather up into a soap like consistency and wash way any dirt. The ancestors use to also use Soap Weed for swelling, by making it into a powder and mixing it with water. It would then be rubbed into the swollen site.
Another plant that is used is the Purple Cone. I never knew the name of this plant, but always knew it by sight. Purple Cone grows on the Reservation around mid – late summer. I have heard that in the old days it was used as an antidote for snake bite, but I have not known anybody to use it as this in modern times. I was told that if the plant was burnt so it would produce smoke, it was good for headaches and the fresh root was great for toothaches, as well as tonsillitis and stomach pain.
However, not all plants were used for physical ailments, they were, and still are, also used for spiritual purposes and in ceremonies.
The Sage is also a very sacred plant used in ceremonies. Like the Cedar, it is used as a purification (through the smoke it produces when it is burnt). It was understood that the burning of Sage would please the Great Spirit, Tunkasila who would then hear the prayers of the people and help them.
So, like my ancestors in old times, today the Lakota are returning to many of our traditions and understandings of the physical and spiritual aspects of health and healing. Therefore, gaining more understanding of medicinal plants, traditional ways and this physical/spiritual connection may be one area that can be combined with modern medicines to successfully fight the battle against modern diseases (such as diabetes) plaguing the Native American today.