Plant Medicine of the Cherokee People

by J.T. Garrett

Today the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina have a good health care system with a modern hospital to provide medical and dental care but funding is based on availability of Federal and tribal resources with priorities for care. As a tribal member, I am proud of our rich cultural and traditional values.

Webster's definition of American Indian medicine describes a ritual or magical force over natural events. Actually, Indian Medicine is more about using natural and plant helpers to aid the physical and mental process of natural healing. It's also about prevention and promotion of natural health by encouraging harmony and balance. Both modern medicine and health care can and is practiced by many tribes today with Indian Medicine as a helper in the process of prevention, promotion, protection, and healing. As a Cherokee elder once said, "It (healing) is more about the way of harmony of mind, body, and spirit in a natural balance of the human and the environment. Our song-chants or ceremony is a helper, along with the natural plant helpers."

Based on the number and type of healing ceremonies and formulas used by earlier Cherokee, my estimate is that there were about 70 diseases or conditions when Columbus arrived here on Turtle Island. Today, there are more than 3,000 diseases adversely affecting our health and well-being.

There are about 450 different uses of plants that are used individually or in formulas by American Indians in the Eastern part of the United States. Many of these uses include remedies by non-Indians or mountain folks along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the area now known as the Great Smoky Mountains. We have a rich history of using plants for about every condition that is based on the interchange of Indians and non-Indians surviving together in the Eastern mountains of the United States since the early 1600's.

It did not take long for non-Indian naturalist and writers to explore the American Indian uses of plants, trees, mosses, and natural substances as remedies that became popular in Europe and other countries. William Bartram in the 1790's and John Howard Payne a little later were among those that traveled into Cherokee country to discover a mountain treasure chest of healing plants. Fortunately, they described and made drawings of the plants and recorded their uses by Cherokees and other American Indians. There were also later researchers such as Mooney in the early 1900's, that recorded formulas and ceremonies used by the Cherokee. Unfortunately, these travelers and researchers tried to compare Indian uses with the herbal pharmacopeia of Europe, which did not yield similar uses. Therefore, they surmised that Indians must have their use wrong. Today we know that such plants as Golden Seal, Purple Cone Flower (Echinacea) and St. John's Wort were effectively used by American Indians.

These natural plants and substances were used following a different paradigm than using separate plants for specific diseases or conditions. The paradigm was based on more of a holistic approach that included spiritual, natural, physical and mental values for harmony and balance. Part of this approach included the Four Directions, a system that refers to the cardinal directions of East, South, West and North. As an example, East Medicine focused on the beginning or birth of life, the sacred fire, and relations with families. The Medicine or "Medicine Bundle" included angelica, echinacea, motherwort, evening primrose, red clover and others for female conditions of birthing to menopause and infections. The South Medicine focused on "clearing-way" ceremonies, children and skin conditions with common uses of such plants as burdock, Melissa balm, dogwood and elm, ferns, goldenseal or yellowroot, plantain and others for skin wounds and related skin conditions. The West Medicine focused on internal conditions such as the gastrointestinal tract and kidneys or plants for strength and competition. The North Medicine focused on what an elder described as "calming the spirit for clear vision for hunting." The Medicine included remedies for calming anxiety, depression, breathing problems and healing eye conditions. The key is still to restore harmony and balance.

These Medicine ways have been preserved by the Cherokee Indians and many other tribes. As one elder put it, "We are just one generation from loosing the Medicine, but we are connected in spirit to many generations of our ancestors." In my new book, "The Cherokee Herbal," my purpose is to preserve and educate in a way that would honor those elders so others would respect the Medicine way of life that American Indians cherish for health, healing and protection of a unique cultural and traditional way of life.

J.T. Garrett, Ed.D., is member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and is author of "The Cherokee Herbal: Native Plant Medicine from the Four Directions" (Inner Traditions/Bear & Company; 2003; $15.00). He is a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee from North Carolina. For more info on his books, please visit: or call 1-800-246-8648.