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Native Americans and Herbal Medicine

The Native Americans had many herbal healing methods that amazed the colonists enough to entice them to record what they learned. When early European settlers first arrived on North America's eastern shores, they were ill prepared for many of the problems they would soon be facing, including disease. Since few physicians joined the initial passages to the New World, the settlers eventually came to rely on the medicine of aboriginal tribes. For a long time, Native American herbals provided the only medical relief for the white man, who often became indebted to the local chief for the tribe's services. 

Native Americans and Herbal Medicine

Among the first herbal medicines to emerge from the Native Americans was Lobelia.  Generations of North American peoples induced vomiting by ingesting the powerful emetic lobelia (Lobelia inflata). This plant, also known as gag root or purge weed, was first introduced to New England physicians in 1775 by Dr. Manasseh Cutler in his treatise, "Account of Indigenous Vegetables." Native Americans smoked this weed for respiratory ailments, and hence it became known as Indian tobacco. Lobelia contains lobeline, which causes the bronchial tubes to dilate. It has been used to treat asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough. Lobelia also contains constituents that mimic the qualities of nicotine, although with fewer repercussions. The toxic plant induces vomiting and disrupts digestion.  Because lobelia has a narcotic effect, it can also repress critical functions of the brain and nervous system. The FDA currently restricts lobelia's use. However, the plant is approved for use in oral preparations intended to reduce withdrawal symptoms from nicotine.  The FDA is continually at odds with Native American groups and those who advocate herbal remedies.  The standards for herbal medicines are often difficult to draw the line between effective herbs, narcotics and dangerous toxins.

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