Indian America has given medicines, food, resources and wisdom to the four
corners of the Earth, literally touching every single member of the human
family of today. Indian wisdom has given us corn, a crop that through
thousands of years of careful breeding, Indian farmers adapted to any
weather and any kind of land. Today, corn grows over a larger area than
does any other cultivated food in the world. Indian America gave the world
potatoes, tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, squash, chocolate (cacao), vanilla,
papayas, chilies, hickory nuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, maple syrup,
avocados, pineapples and many other plants and products.
The economies of many nations now depend on these Indian crops. The United
States leads the world in maize production. Russia is the world's producer
of potatoes and sunflowers. China leads in the production of sweet
potatoes, India in peanut production and West Africa in the production of
And yet, the greatest contribution of Indian America to the world has been
its people. In 1926, when the president of the United States wanted
Europeans to know and love Americans, he named as his personal ambassador a
man by the name of Will Rogers, a Cherokee philosopher and comedian.
All of the land that is known as the continent of America is and has always
been Indian land. The people of this land were not separate from it. Life
went in a circle and it was understood that every living thing served a
purpose. Beyond the wide diversity of cultures and languages in Indian
America, there was one common agreement: That the noblest way to follow the
human path was to walk the earth in a sacred way. When the whole world is
sacred and in balance, our soul is well. When sacredness leaves the world
and greed takes over, the soul suffers.
In the Indian healing ways, to care for ourselves and to care for the land
is the same thing. The inner and the outer world are one. To lose this
understanding is a sign that you are not walking in a sacred manner, that
you have become bad medicine for the world. Medicine in the Indian view is
not just a plant, or a remedy. Medicine is your relations, your view of the
world, your way of being. And if your way of being is out of balance with
life, you become an illness to yourself and your community. Bad medicine is
at the root of human suffering. The fact that any Indians live today at
all, is a tribute to the wisdom, love and the good medicine that indigenous
people have managed to keep alive.
The first Europeans to encounter the Indian people described their kindness
and wisdom, as well as the development of their civilizations.
Years ago, Indian healers shared their wisdom with European newcomers, who
later took the remedies back to Europe. The French explorer Jacques Carter
wrote one of the first accounts of such Indian generosity in 1535. Carter
lost many of his men to scurvy, but the Wyandots along the St. Lawrence
River taught him how to cure it. The French voyagers were taught that a tea
brewed from the leaves and bark of the black spruce tree, rich in vitamin
C, cured scurvy. It was those men, grateful for the tree having literally
saved their lives, who named it l'arbor de vie, the tree of life.
The most significant example of Indian teachings was the use of the bark
from the quinine cinchona tree that produces quinine, a substance that
cures many ailments including malaria. The introduction of quinine to
Europe in 1630 marked the beginning of modern pharmacology. This medicine
also made European settlements in America possible. Records of Virginia for
1671 reported that European settlers were dying of malaria at the rate of
one of every five persons. Malaria was seldom fatal after the incorporation
The old wisdom of Indian healers is still a resource that the people of the
world continue to benefit from. In Mexico the healing properties of the
bark of another tree, known to the Mayans as tepescohuite, eliminates pain
from burns and regenerates the skin. Tepescohuite is now a common
ingredient in burn salves. Another popular Indian herbal remedy seen in
drug stores today is echinacea, also known as the purple coneflower, which
is a native plant to the prairie. The Omaha Indians used this plant as an
analgesic for headache, toothache, eye irritation and as an antidote for
poisonous conditions such as snakebites.
Some healing modalities of American Indians have taken the fields of modern
psychiatry and psychology to new grounds: "The Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Health" has now a new category under the heading
"Spiritual Crisis" to describe positive trends that emerge in the
psychotherapeutic process when the healing intervention is done out of a
model of wellness - such as the one used by traditional Indian healers -
instead of one of pathology.
On the other hand, the sweat lodge and other traditional healing ceremonies
have proven effective in the treatment of numerous maladies including
substance abuse and psychosocial disorders. Other tribal traditions such as
the talking circle have made their way in to the United Nations where they
are used to promote truth and reconciliation.
This is where good medicine begins. Traditional healers know many paths to
purify one's heart, and each land and tribe has its own way. From the four
corners there is the knowledge on how to make a path with a heart.
Indian America continues to remind humanity that we are meant to walk this
earth in a sacred manner; that we are all connected in the web of life:
That the red road opens before us all, as the drum of life that beats in
Roberto Dansie is a clinical psychologist. In 1997 he received the golden
medallion from the National Indian Health Board for his contributions to
health in Indian country. He lives in northern California.