Healing Secrets of the Native Americans

Herbs, Remedies, and Practices That Restore the Body, Refresh the Mind, and Rebuild the Spirit


By Porter Shimer

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Learn how Native Americans have used the bountiful gifts of nature to heal the mind, the body, and the spirit.Bestselling Healing Secrets of the Native Americans brings the age-old knowledge and trusted techniques of Native-American healing to a wider audience.

Discover how the Native-American tradition uses plants and herbs, heat, movement and sound, visualization, and spirituality to heal dozens of everyday ailments and illnesses — from back pain to insect bites to flu and sore throat and much more and apply it to your life to improve your health and your mind.

Broken into sections, the book covers such topics as “The Healing Spirit” (including dream therapy, spirituality, and prayer), “The Native American Spa” (healing with heat, massage, sound and movement, and nutrition), “The Native American Pharmacy” (including more than 40 herbs and plants, how to obtain them, and how to use them), plus remedies for more than 40 ailments from acne to wrinkles.




The philosophy that underlies all Native American healing techniques—herbal, physical, and spiritual—is really very simple. In order to live healthfully, people must learn to live in harmony with the world around them. In a sense, the Native Americans were the first ecologists. They wanted their relationship with Mother Earth to be as harmonious as possible because they believed that only when they lived in harmony with the earth would they achieve spiritual peace, which was essential for good health.

It’s become clear in recent years that they were on to something. Research has shown that our emotional well-being has an enormous impact on physical health. According to Lewis Mehl-Madrona, M.D., Medical Director of the Center for Complementary Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and author of Coyote Medicine, “When we are in harmony with the earth and the people around us, our cells are in harmony within us. It’s disharmony that creates cellular degeneration and disease.”

The Native Americans discovered ways of living in harmony with Mother Earth, despite the hardships she sent their way. They dedicated themselves to holding all aspects of their environment, including wild animals and inclement weather, in the highest regard. When they killed a bear, for example, they made a necklace of its claws, which was worn by the warrior to honor the animal’s courage and strength. After any successful hunt, they always left gifts such as small pouches of tobacco to express their sincere thanks to Mother Earth. They treated plants the same way. Whether they harvested plants for medicine or food, they always did so with profound respect. It was their way of showing gratitude for the generosity of the Great Spirit, which they believed was responsible for all living things.

They believed that a failure to live in harmony with Mother Nature—by not giving sufficient thanks for successful hunts and harvests, for example—would have dire consequences. According to one historian, “An Indian who hunted animals or gathered herbs must always sing the necessary songs or prayers, or offer gifts of tobacco to the spirits of the animals or plants, as failure to do so might lead to illness or bad luck.”

Just a few decades ago, this spiritual approach to nature and the environment sounded strange to modern ears. However, Americans have begun to see the wisdom in the holistic approach. The modern phrase “what goes around comes around” shows how much we’ve come to understand and appreciate the Native American way of living.


It’s impossible to exaggerate the Native American belief in the interconnectedness of human beings and nature. They looked at all living things, as well as certain physical aspects of nature, such as rivers, mountains, and weather, as relatives—all members of one big and at least potentially happy family. “We share our breath with all that is visible—the deer, bear, hawk, snake, tree and shark,” writes Native American psychotherapist Robert Blackwolf Jones. A similar sentiment is expressed by the Native American philosopher Chief Seattle, who wrote: “Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it, such that whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

The Native Americans believed that sickness was often caused by a bad relationship with certain aspects of nature. Although some types of injuries, like snake bites and wounds, had obvious causes, it was harder to explain internal illnesses. The Native Americans felt that “invisible” illnesses were most likely to be caused by the angry spirits of animals, who were taking revenge for insults they received in life. According to historian William Corlett, “An animal ghost will cause trouble if respect is not shown to its body after it has been killed.”

Because the Native Americans believed that humans and nature were intimately entwined, almost any thought or action, if it showed disrespect to nature, could have harmful consequences. Spitting on a fire, for example, could anger the spirits and result in illness.

Nature wasn’t always viewed with fear, of course. Just as the spirits of animals and other aspects of nature could be harmful when they were angered, they also could be helpful when they were pleased. The Native Americans believed, for example, that herbs and even the organs of animals were full of tremendous healing powers. They also called on the spirits of animals for assistance during their many healing ceremonies.

Different animals were thought to have unique personalities and attributes, such as cunning, intelligence, and strength. Native Americans would call on individual animal spirits during healing ceremonies, asking each in turn to share its unique gifts with the person being healed.

Today, of course, doctors are unlikely to recommend calling on the spirits of eagles and bears to stabilize blood sugar or relieve arthritis, but they’re very aware of the power of nature to heal or harm—depending on how it’s treated. Excessive exposure to sunlight, for example, can cause cancer, but when the sun is used appropriately (about 15 minutes exposure daily) it helps the body produce vitamin D, essential for strong bones. The foods we eat are filled with nutrients, such as vitamin A, iron, folate, and sodium. In the proper amounts, each of these nutrients is essential to life; in excess, all of them can be harmful.

Because harmony and balance are the keys to health, who could not benefit from taking a lesson from the Native Americans? The place to start is by treating the world around us with the utmost respect. According to Robert Blackwolf Jones, “It’s time we climbed down from the lonely pedestal we have created for ourselves and recognize our place alongside our fellow inhabitants.”


The Native Americans had great reverence not just for the natural world, but for human relationships as well. “An Indian’s wealth is measured not by what he possesses, but rather what he gives away,” says Robert Blackwolf Jones. “For life to be rich and full, we must give as well as take.”

When Native Americans celebrated a birthday, for example, the honoree wasn’t lavished with gifts. Rather, he was expected to give his guests presents to honor them for attending. Giving to others, they recognized, was an essential part of living because it brings peace of mind as well as health—gifts that money can’t buy.

The Native Americans believed that disease was often caused by what they referred to as “soul loss.” This occurred when people abandoned their spiritually generous ways for traits such as selfishness, dishonesty, and despair. The Encyclopedia of Native American Healing explains that soul loss could result in a “deterioration in health and strength.” Unless the soul was returned to the body, death was sure to follow.

These beliefs may sound strange today, but research has shown that the body does suffer when we hold “negative” thoughts and attitudes. This is why highly aggressive people with “type A” personalities are more likely to suffer heart attacks than calmer, more accepting souls. “Feelings of spiritual emptiness generate conditions that encourage internal cellular breakdown,” Dr. Mehl-Madrona says. “Without feelings of fulfillment, connectedness and faith, the body cannot maintain health.”


The earliest European settlers considered Native Americans essentially pagan, but that was both inaccurate and unjust, for they were intensely religious. They believed not in the singular God of Christian tradition, but rather in a spirit world embodied in animals, plants, and the physical elements of the earth itself. They prayed to these spirits, gave them gifts of appreciation, asked for their guidance, and appealed to them for good health when ill. Again, these prayers bore little resemblance to Christian worship. They were usually performed in elaborate group ceremonies involving song, chanting, and dance.

“These beckonings to the spirit world often were visualized as arrows aimed toward the target goals of healing and the restoration of harmony between the patient and his or her environment,” explains Bernyce Barlow, author of Sacred Sites of the West. Native American prayers were very detailed and so specific that even certain vowel sounds were assigned particular meanings, such as wisdom, innocence, purity, and strength. The dances, too, were highly choreographed, with every movement having a special significance.

And how often did such spiritual “arrows” hit their intended mark? Dr. Mehl-Madrona conducts shamanic healing ceremonies as the Medical Director of the Center for Complementary Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and has participated in numerous Native American healing ceremonies. “Native American ceremonial treatment methods are the most powerful I have encountered,” he says. “Prayer and ceremony hold a magic and a power that cannot be denied.”

Dr. Mehl-Madrona reports having witnessed healings that some would term miraculous: a teenage girl cured of gallbladder disease; a woman saved from terminal cancer; a man cured of cirrhosis of the liver. As a medical doctor, Dr. Mehl-Madrona says, he might come up with rational explanations for some of the shamanic healings he has seen, but he prefers not even to try. “It’s a grave and sometimes fatal mistake to insist that every experience has an explanation that avoids the power of spirituality,” he says. “To be healed, we need to believe in the possibility of being healed, and in a greater world, and in powers higher than our own.”

There is some scientific backup for Dr. Mehl-Madrona’s position. Recent studies on the power of prayer in general have found that it can have measurable healing effects— even when the person being prayed for knows nothing about it! These findings merely confirm, Dr. Mehl-Madrona says, that the truest reality may simply be “too expansive and complex for us to understand.”

So Native Americans, like Dr. Mehl-Madrona, didn’t even try. In their faith, they simply appealed to those higher powers and did so with additional belief in the strength of numbers. Traditionally, as many friends and relatives of the patient as possible would attend a Native American healing ceremony so that the power of their prayers would be compounded for greater effect. This communal aspect of their healing ceremonies was symbolic of the harmony between man and the natural environment that the Native Americans believed was crucial. For them, religion and community life were inseparable.

The intense spirituality of the Native Americans demonstrated above all, Dr. Mehl-Madrona says, that with the help of faith, “We all carry within our souls the capacity to heal ourselves. Modern doctors, therefore, must learn to take their patients on spiritual journeys,” he says. “Those who do not will miss out on some truly incredible healing tools.”

A great deal of recent research validates Dr. Mehl-Madrona’s advice. More than 200 studies show that people who have religious faith have lower rates of depression, alcoholism, drug use, and suicide, and also do better at handling stress. Moreover, these studies show that young people who are religious tend to be less sexually active and perform better in school, and that religious married couples are happier and less likely to divorce.


Dreams—both regular and “spirit” dreams—were an important part of Native American culture. Traditional woven totems called dreamcatchers are everywhere these days, displayed in craft shops and even hanging from drivers’ rearview mirrors. Legend has it that the center “web” captures dreams, allowing “good” dreams to pass through and uplift the spirit. At the same time, it traps the “bad” dreams to be dissolved in the morning light.

Although today we often use dreamcatchers as mere decorations, there is a powerful connection between our dreams and our health—both physical and mental. An essential ingredient for health, according to Native Americans, was the fulfillment of one’s deepest desires. Psychologists today recognize that all of us have wishes, urges, and passions that we rarely talk about and, in fact, may not even be aware of. They’re active within us, but buried deep within our unconscious minds. However, desires do have a way of coming to the surface when we dream. We often ignore our dreams and, according to the Native American way of thinking, we do this at our peril.

The Iroquois believed that a person’s innermost desires inevitably would emerge in dreams. Unless these desires were acknowledged and in some way resolved, they would fester, causing anxiety as well as physical illness. Native Americans recognized the power of dreams long before Sigmund Freud developed his theories of the unconscious. Even more amazing is the fact that Native Americans dealt with the feelings and urges revealed in dreams by using techniques remarkably similar to the psychoanalytic methods of therapists today. Patients were encouraged to talk about their dreams and, within reasonable limits, to act on the desires they represented.

Historian Virgil J. Vogel tells of a young Native American patient who reported dreaming of feasts. Her “treatment” was to fulfill her desires by feasting—not once, but nine times. Shortly afterward, her health returned.

Dreams symbolize more than unfulfilled desires. They also represent fears that can restrict us and damage our health in ways we’re often unaware of, Dr. Mehl-Madrona says. What we would call dream analysis was and is a central part of many Native American healing ceremonies. By talking about dreams and discussing their meaning, healers are able to help patients uncover and understand their deepest fears. These ceremonies usually are conducted by a “medicine man” (or woman) called a shaman, who advises the patient on how to deal with his fears in the real, waking world. Once a person is brought more into harmony—with the external world as well as with his own soul—good health should naturally return.

“Many people mentally hold themselves hostages and repeatedly terrorize themselves with negative thinking patterns and beliefs,” says Robert Blackwolf Jones. Many Native Americans use dream therapy to get to the source of their pessimistic beliefs so they can be analyzed and cast aside—for good.


Perhaps no feature of traditional Native American medicine was as unique or important as the healers, or shamans, who practiced it. The shaman was a person who entered a state of spiritual excitement to encounter the normally imperceptible spirit world, and used this experience to help others. A shaman was something of a physician, psychiatrist, priest, fortune-teller, magician, and best friend, all rolled into one.

A shaman’s duties included diagnosing illness, which was usually done by conducting in-depth interviews that included dream analysis. Shamans led ritualistic healing ceremonies inside sweat lodges. They practiced herbalism and administered massage. And, like modern physicians, they provided follow-up counseling.

It was the shaman’s ability to communicate with the spirit world that made him truly special. Most shamans discovered their powers early in life as a result of visions they experienced during a deep trance. Once they received this early sign, they would undergo rigorous training, usually under the guidance of another shaman, to perfect their unique spiritual awareness.

Shamans had the ability to communicate with spirits throughout the natural world, including the spirits of plants, animals, and the seasons, as well as those of the most basic elements, such as fire, water, earth, and stone. During prolonged periods of singing, drumming, chanting, and praying or, in some cases, after taking an herbal hallucinogen, shamans would enter an altered state of consciousness. Then they called upon the spirits to enlist their healing help.

One of the most dramatic shamanic practices was to suck an allegedly disease-causing object from a patient’s body, using either the lips or sometimes a tube made from a hollow animal bone. Afterward, the shaman would show what had been extracted to the patient. It might be a small stick or stone, or even an insect. This caused the illness, explained the shaman, and the patient’s health would return.

It seems evident that shamans had more than a little bit of the showman in them. Some of their techniques undoubtedly offered more dramatic impact than actual healing. However, as most doctors will admit, modern medicine also takes advantage of “window dressing” from time to time. Wearing a white coat doesn’t make a doctor more skilled, but it’s a reassuring symbol that lends a note of authority to the proceedings. And it may, by making people feel more confident about their doctor’s “power,” help them heal more quickly. Likewise, doctors today still at times make use of the placebo effect—prescribing a harmless pill with no active ingredients or a simple regimen to follow that somehow makes patients feel better. In these cases, as with a shaman’s remedy, it is the power of the sick person’s belief in the medicine, not the pill itself, that cures.

In a similar way, Native Americans had tremendous faith in shamans’ healing powers, and their belief was powerful medicine in its own right. “People had faith in the medicine, and so the medicine worked,” wrote one 18th-century observer. More recently, William S. Lyon, author of the Encyclopedia of Native American Healing, notes that “my own fieldwork over the past two decades has documented numerous cases in which Native American shamanic treatments succeeded when Western medicine had failed.”

Dr. Mehl-Madrona, who is himself a shaman as well as a respected medical doctor, believes that everyone has within himself the ability to heal. “All the shaman does is bring that capacity to life,” he says.

In his book Coyote Medicine, Dr. Mehl-Madrona writes that ceremonial treatments, such as those used by the shamans, “are the most powerful I have encountered.” People need rituals and ceremonies in their lives, he adds. “It doesn’t much matter which ceremony, as long as both the healer and the patient believe in it. To be healed, we need to believe in the possibility of being healed, and in powers higher than our own. I believe patients and doctors alike have much to gain by taking a close look at our Native American healing traditions.”

Native Americans traditionally believed that only certain people had the ability to be shamans. More recently, Tom Cowan, author of Shamanism as a Spiritual Practice for Everyday Life, argues that everyone has the ability to tap into the spirit world to improve health. He believes that what he calls “core” shamanism can be integrated into daily life, just as we might adopt other practices such as yoga, meditation, or prayer. Shamanism needn’t conflict with other religious beliefs. In fact, it can strengthen them, Cowan says. Shamanism simply teaches us to understand and communicate with higher levels of existence in ways that help us deal with the less-conscious levels.

Even though traditional shamans sometimes used hallucinogenic plants, shamanism doesn’t require anything more mindaltering than something to drum on or a place to connect to, Cowan says. It’s not difficult (or scary) to achieve deeply relaxed, trance-like states that will enable you to communicate with the spirit world. All that’s required is getting into a state of mind that will temporarily block distracting interferences such as sounds, skin sensations, physical discomfort, or wandering thoughts. These normally get in the way of higher contemplation, Cowan says. The shamanic trance is essentially a form of self-hypnosis—a state of mind in which you let go of daily concerns and allow your imagination to journey into what Cowan calls “the spirit world of non-ordinary reality.”

To experience a mild shamanic “journey,” close your eyes and begin drumming with your fingertips—you can use a real drum or just a tabletop or other resonant surface. Tap gently if arthritis or another condition causes discomfort. While you drum, imagine that you’re leaving the “real” world by journeying through a long tunnel with a light at the end. It doesn’t matter what the tunnel looks like—let your imagination conjure what it will—but how you drum does make a difference. To achieve a trance-like state, you must use a steady rhythm of 205 to 220 beats a minute, and keep on drumming for about 10 minutes, making the sound as regular and monotonous as you can. “This is not intended to be music, but rather a mesmerizing sonic drive for the purpose of creating an altered state of consciousness,” Cowan explains.

Don’t expect a sudden understanding of life’s greatest mysteries. Though that would be nice, it’s unlikely to happen. But if you give this exercise an honest effort, you’ll almost certainly discover some unusual and intriguing insights. At the very least, taking a shamanic journey is a great way to relax when you’re feeling particularly stressed. Whether or not you embark on a full-fledged journey into the spirit world, you can temporarily disassociate yourself from the daily concerns of life.


Native American warriors prepared for battle by donning their best clothing and most elaborate headdresses. They did this not to impress or intimidate their enemies, but to be prepared for their own funerals should they die in combat. This willingness to look death in the face bravely, and even to welcome it, is a theme that ran through all of traditional Native American life.

The early Native Americans did not believe in an afterlife, at least not in the Christian sense of souls living eternally in heaven or hell. However, they did believe strongly in immortality. When we die, they believed, our souls leave our bodies and enter a spirit world where they freely communicate with the spirits of other living things that have died throughout the history of the universe, plants and animals included.

The only way souls could enter this spirit world was to become part of the earth, the ultimate place of origin. In Listen to the Drum


On Sale
Sep 1, 2004
Page Count
208 pages

Porter Shimer

About the Author

Porter Shimer is a health and fitness author who has written several books on natural ways to conquer pain, lose weight, and achieve a healthier life.

Learn more about this author