Medicine in Native American Culture: Native American Heritage Day

November 25, 2022
Medicine in Native American Culture


  1. History of Medicine in Native American Culture
  2. Symbolic Healing
  3. The Medicine Wheel
  4. Native Herbal Remedies
  5. Integrating Indigenous Healing
  6. Celebrating Native American Heritage Day
  7. Final Thought


Native American traditions throughout the American continent have always had an intriguing interest and understanding of medicine throughout history. In many ways, modern medicine has been widely influenced by many Native American traditions and innovations. As part of Native American Heritage Day, we would like to highlight the significance of medicine in Native American cultures. Continue reading further to learn more!


For thousands of years, traditional indigenous medicine has been used. Native American medicine refers to the combined health practices of over 500 nations. The specific practices varied among tribes but all are based on the basic principle that man is part of nature and health is a matter of balance. The natural world drives when its interrelationships are honored, nurtured, and kept in harmony. The natural world cannot be seen by the eye and is not involved in technology, but is experienced directly and intuitively. Just as one cannot measure the inner life of a human being, nature has compelling forces that need to be integrated for balance.

Native medicine is 40,000 years old. Documentation has only now begun and has been limited to observations therefore is incomplete. Native medicine honors all creation and is not just an academic body of knowledge or technique. Native American elders usually do not share their knowledge for fear of exploitation. Native American medicine addresses the balance between inner life and overt behavior. The body, mind, spirit, emotions, social group, and lifestyle are all taken into account. A patient’s choice and preferences are always honored to create harmony.


Ceremonies play an important role in the overall well-being of traditional Native American people but the healing potential of this practice is typically unappreciated by allopathic health providers. NA ceremonies involve the patient, the family, and the community in the healing process. Ceremonial gatherings may last for days or weeks; the more people that are present, the greater the healing energy. Through their participation in songs, prayer, music, and dance, the family and community contribute healing energy to the patient.

People of all cultures utilize symbolism found in their various religions and spiritual practices to cope with health problems. NA healing ceremonies rely heavily on a combination of traditional and Christian religious symbols, icons, and ritualistic objects. These symbols cue bio-psycho-social-spiritual healing responses by restoring the harmony necessary for health. Symbolism, whether associated with ceremonies or church services, can be incorporated into their treatment plan to create a powerful healing synergy.


The Medicine Wheel, sometimes known as the Sacred Hoop, has been used by generations of various Native American tribes for health and healing. It embodies the Four Directions, as well as Father Sky, Mother Earth, and Spirit Tree—all of which symbolize dimensions of health and the cycles of life. The Medicine Wheel can take many different forms. It can be an artwork such as an artifact or painting, or it can be a physical construction on the land. Hundreds or even thousands of Medicine Wheels have been built on Native lands in North America over the last several centuries.

Movement in the Medicine Wheel and Native American ceremonies is circular, and typically in a clockwise, or “sun-wise” direction. This helps to align with the forces of Nature, such as gravity and the rising and setting of the Sun. Different tribes interpret the Medicine Wheel differently. Each of the Four Directions (East, South, West, and North) is typically represented by a distinctive color, such as black, red, yellow, and white, which for some stands for the human race. The Directions can also represent:

  • Stages of life: birth, youth, adult (or elder), death
  • Seasons of the year: spring, summer, winter, fall
  • Aspects of life: spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical
  • Elements of nature: fire (or sun), air, water, and earth
  • Animals: Eagle, Bear, Wolf, Buffalo, and many others
  • Ceremonial plants: tobacco, sweet grass, sage, cedar


The origins of Native American healing practice and ceremony are as diverse and rich as each of the hundreds of American tribes themselves. Nature has provided gifts that have been an important thread between native people and their spirituality. Beyond their medicinal benefits, indigenous plants were a staple of Native people’s diet before Western contact. Today, indigenous plants are central to efforts to improve dietary health for current generations. Here are a few examples:

  • Agave: The mescal plant is primarily used as a food source. The sap is collected and fermented as a mild liquor (pulque), that when distilled produces mescal or tequila. Some other tribes use agave to treat wounds, rashes, chapped lips, and sunburn.
  • Aloe Vera: Used for healing burns, as a tea to detoxify the body, and as a skin moisturizer.
  • Bitterroot: A decoction of the root is taken for fever, sore throats, coughs, stomach problems, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. A poultice of the crushed root is used externally for muscle cramps.
  • Chamomile/Manzanilla: One of the most common natural aids for anxiety and mild depression and a great sleeping agent.
  • Cacao: The cacao holds a variety of medicinal uses in Mesoamerican culture including helping to promote the production of breastmilk, as a soothing agent, and even used as a snakebite remedy.
  • Coconut: Niu water is used to flush and cleanse the kidneys, and balance urine sugar levels. The coconut tree also provides milk for cooking, meat for eating, leaves for shelter, woven hats, shells for utensils, fiber for cordage, and logs for building.
  • Guava: Guava is used as a juice in a concoction to help heal deep cuts, as a tea to cure headaches, as crushed leaves to revive a fainted person, and as chewed leaves to counteract diarrhea.
  • Hierbabuena/Spearmint: The plant is used for pain relief but most of all, it has healing agents that relieve digestive issues.
  • Mesquite Plant: Gum from the trunk and juice from leaves is used as an antiseptic to treat irritated eyes and pink eye; the extract may be used to treat wounds and skin ailments.
  • Mortar: for pounding and grinding medicinal plants into powders used for medicines and healing teas.
  • Plantain: Used as a poultice to help heal boils, sprains, bruises, broken bones, and torn muscles. The seeds are used for cleansing the bowel.
  • Purple Coneflower: A poultice of the root is applied to wounds, swellings, and sores. The roots and seed heads are chewed to relieve toothache, sore throat, and other ailments. A decoction of the root is used to boost the immune system and relieve flu and cold symptoms and in over-the-counter health products for enhancing the immune system and fighting off illness.
  • Willow bark: Native Americans often chewed willow bark to soothe aches and pain. The active ingredient in willow bark is salicin, a chemical that is found in aspirin.
  • Yucca: Yucca root is used as a soap and shampoo. A poultice of roots and leaves can be used to treat insect bites. The raw fruit has a laxative effect. The trunk is used to make a tobacco mix and a sore throat chew. The plant is also used ceremonially in fertility rites.


Today Native Americans frequently combine traditional healing practices with allopathic medicine to promote health and well-being. Ceremonies, native herbal remedies, and allopathic medications are used side by side. Spiritual treatments are thus an integral part of health promotion and healing in Native American culture.

Yet, the role of spirituality in health promotion and wellness is uncomfortable for many allopathic providers. Advanced practice nurses with their tradition of holism that embraces the bio-psycho-social-spiritual nature of health have an opportunity to suggest new ways to care modeled on traditional NA practices. The inclusion of family and community in treatment plans decreases the isolation often found in allopathic care. And, thinking about the lack of person-environment harmony and balance may be important clues for the diagnostic process.


Native American Heritage Day — the Friday after Thanksgiving — is a special day for Native people and communities across the United States. It is the pinnacle of the 30-day Native American Indian Heritage Month, where we celebrate and acknowledge the rich and diverse histories, cultures, traditions, and contributions of the nation’s original inhabitants and their descendants. Native American Heritage Day and Month is also a fitting time to learn more about tribes, as well as the distinct challenges that Native people have faced both historically and presently.

There are many ways to celebrate Native American Heritage Day and Month, as well as learn more about Native life and people, as towns and cities host festivals, art shows, and museum exhibitions to spotlight Native artists, musicians, and community leaders. You can also honor the culture from home by cooking Native American dishes, reading books by Indigenous authors, and supporting local Native-owned businesses.


Traditional indigenous systems of care provide a blueprint to model new healing strategies that have the potential to extend health promotion beyond the individual to the collective. In Native American culture, there is a saying that “we are all related”; all things live in relationship to one another. Living in harmony with the Earth and our environs has meaning and purpose, not only for us but the whole — the earth, its peoples, and all that is. When we engage in health promotion by “walking in beauty”, we all win. What did you think of this article? Have you ever used any of the listed herbs for health remedies? Feel free to leave your comments down below!

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