In the old days quadrupeds, birds, fishes, and insects could all talk, and they and the human race lived together in peace and friendship. But as time went on the people increased so rapidly that their settlements spread over the whole earth and the poor animals found themselves to be cramped for room. This was bad enough, but to add to their misfortunes man invented bows, knives, blowguns, spears, and hooks, and began to slaughter the larger animals, birds and fishes for the sake of their flesh and skins, while the smaller creatures such as the frogs and worms, were crushed and trodden upon without mercy, out of pure carelessness or contempt. In this state of affairs the animals resolved to consult upon measures for their common safety.
The bears were the first to meet in council in their town house Kuwa’hĭ “Mulberry Place”1, and the old White Bears chief presided. After each in turn made complaint against the way in which man had killed their friends, devoured their flesh and used their skin for his own adornment, it was unanimously decided to begin war at once against the human race. Some one asked what weapons man had used to accomplish their destruction. “Bows and arrows, of course,” cried all the bears in chorus. “And what are they made of?” was the next question. “The bow of wood and the string of our own entrails,” replied one of the bears. It was then proposed that they make some bows and arrows and see if they could not turn man’s weapons against himself. So one bear got a nice piece of locust wood and another sacrificed himself for the good of the rest in order to furnish a piece of his entrails for the string. But when everything was ready and the first bear stepped up to make the trial it was found that in letting the arrow fly after drawing back the bow, his long claws caught the string and spoiled the shot. This was annoying, but another suggested that he could overcome the difficulty by cutting his claws, which was accordingly done, and on a second trial it was found that the arrow went straight to the mark. But here the chief, the old White Bear, interposed and said that it was necessary that they should have long claws in order to be able to climb trees. “One of us has already died to furnish the bowstring, and if we now caught of our claws we shall all have to starve together. It is better to trust to the teeth and claws which nature has given us, for it is evident that man’s weapons were not intended for us.”
No one could suggest any better plan, so the old chief dismissed the council and the bears dispersed to their forest haunts without having concerted any means for preventing the increase of the human race. Had the result of the council been otherwise, we should now be at war with the bears, but as it is the hunter does not even ask the bears pardon when he kills one.
The deer next help a council under their chief, the Little Deer, and after some deliberation resolved to inflict rheumatism upon every hunter that killed one of their number, unless he took care to ask their pardon for the offense. They sent notice of their decision to the nearest settlement of Indians and told them at the same time how to make a propitiation when necessity forced them to kill one of their deer tribe. Now, whenever the hunter brings down a deer, the Little Deer, who is swift as the wind and can not be wounded, runs quickly up to the spot and bending over the blood stains asks the spirit of the deer if it has heard the prayer of the hunter for pardon. If the reply be “Yes” all is well and the Little Deer goes on his way, but if the reply be in the negative he follows on the trails of the hunter, guided by the blood on the ground, until he enters invisibly and strikes the neglectful hunter with rheumatism, so that he is now rendered on the instant a helpless cripple. No hunter who has regard for his health fails to ask for pardon of the deer for killing it, although some who have not learned the proper formula may attempt to turn aside the Little Deer from his pursuit by building a fire behind them in the trail.
Next came the fishes and reptiles, who had their own grievances against humanity. They held a joint council and determined to make their victims dream of snakes twining about them n slimy folds and blowing their fetid breath in their faces, or to make them dream of eating raw or decaying fish, so that they would lose appetite, sicken and die. Thus it is that snake and fish dreams are accounted for.
Finally the birds, insects and smaller animals came together for a like purpose, and the Grubworm presided over their deliberations. It was decided that each in turn should express an opinion and then vote on the question as to whether or not man should be deemed guilty. Seven votes were to be sufficient to condemn him. One after another denounced man’s cruelty and injustice toward the other animals and voted in favor of his death. The Frog (walâ’sĭ) spoke first and said: “We must do something to check the increase of the race or people will become so numerous that we shall be crowded from the earth. See how man has kicked me about because I am ugly, as he says, until my back is covered with sores;”and here he showed the spots on his skin. Next came the Bird (tsi’skwa: no particular species indicated), who condemned man because “he burns my feet off,” alluding to the way in which the hunter barbecues birds by impaling them on a stick set over the fire, so that their feathers and tender feet are singed and burned. Others followed in the same strain. The Ground Squirrel alone ventured to say a word in behalf of man, who seldom hurt him because he was small; but this so enraged the others that they fell upon the Ground Squirrel and tore him with their teeth and claws, and the stripes remain on his back to this day.
The assembly then began to devise and name various diseases, one after another, and had not their invention finally failed them not one of the human race would have been able to survive. The Grubworm in his place of honor hailed each new malady with delight, until at last they had reached the end of the list, when some one suggested that it be arranged that it be arranged that menstruation sometimes be fatal to women. On this he rose up in his place and cried: “Wata’n! Thanks! I’m glad some of them will die, for they are getting so thick that they tread on me.” He fairly shook with joy at the thought, so that he fell over backward and could not get on his feet again, but had to wriggle off on his back, as the Grubworm has done ever since.
When the plants, who were friendly to man, heard what had been done by the animals, they determined to defeat their evil designs. Each tree, shrub, and herb, down even to the grasses and mosses, agreed to furnish a remedy for some one of the diseases named, and each said “I shall appear to help man when he calls upon me in his need.” Thus did medicine originate, and the plants, every one of which has its uses if we only knew it, furnish the antidote to counteract the evil wrought by the revengeful animals. When the doctor is in doubt what treatment to apply for the relief of a patient, the spirit of the plant suggest to him the proper remedy.
THEORY OF DISEASE—ANIMALS, GHOSTS, WITCHES.
Such is the belief upon which their medical practice is based, and whatever we may think of the theory it must be admitted that the practice is consistent in all its details with the views set forth in the myth. Like most “primitive”* people the Cherokees believe that disease and death are not natural, but are due to the evil influence of animal spirits, ghosts, or witches. Haywood, writing in 1823, states on the authority of two intelligent resident of the Cherokee nation:
“In ancient times the Cherokees had no conception of anyone dying a natural death. The universally ascribed the death of those who perished be disease to the intervention or agency of evil spirits and witches and conjurers who had connection with the Shina (Anisgi’na) or evil spirits. *** A person dying by disease and charging his death to have been procured be means of witchcraft or spirits, by any other person, consigns that person to inevitable death. They profess to believe that their conjurations have no effect upon the white men”1
On the authority of one of the same informants, he also mentions the veneration which “their physicians have for the numbers four and seven nights were instituted for the cure of diseases in the human body and the seventh night as the limit for female impurity.2
Viewed from a scientific standpoint, their theory and diagnosis are entirely wrong, and consequently we can hardly expect their therapeutic system to be correct. As the learned Doctor Berendt states, after an exhaustive study of medicine books of Mayas, the scientific value of their remedies is “next to nothing”. It must be admitted that many of the plants used in their medical practice possess real curative properties, but it is equally true that many others held in as high estimation are inert. It seems probable that in the beginning the various herbs and other plants were regarded as so many fetiches and were selected from some fancied connection with the disease animal, according to the idea known to modern folklorists as the doctrine of signatures. Thus at the present day the doctor puts into the decoction intended as a vermifuge some of the red fleshy stalks of the common purslane or chickweed (Portulaca oleracea), because those stalks somewhat resemble worms and consequently must have some occult influence over worms. Here the chick weed is a fetich precisely as is the flint arrow head which is put into the same decoction, in order that in the same mysterious manner its sharp cutting qualities may be communicated to the liquid and enable it to cut the worms into pieces. In like manner, biliousness is called by the Cherokees dalâ’nî* or “yellow,’ because the most apparent symptom of the disease is the vomiting by the patient of yellow bile, and hence the doctor selects for the decoction four different herbs, each of which is called dalânî*, because of the color of the root, stalk, or flower. The same idea is carried out in the tabu which generally accompanies the treatment. Thus a scrofulous patient must abstain from eating meat of a turkey, because the fleshy dewlap which depends from its throat somewhat resembles an inflamed scrofulous eruption. On killing a deer the hunter always makes an incision in the hindquarter and removes the hamstring, because this tendon, when served, draws up into the flesh; ergo, any one who should unfortunately partake of the hamstring would find his limbs draw up in the same manner.
There can be no doubt that in course of time a haphazard use of plants would naturally lead to the discovery that certain herbs are efficacious in certain combination of symptoms. These plants would thus come into more frequent use and finally would obtain general recognition I the Indian materia medica. By such a process of evolution an empiric system of medicine has grown up among the Cherokees, by which they are able to treat some classes of ailments with some degree of success, although without any intelligent idea of the process involved. It must be remembered that our own medical system has its remote origin in the same mythic conception of disease, and that within two hundred years judicial courts have condemned women to be burned to death for producing sickness by spells and incantations, while even at the present day our faith-cure professors reap their richest harvest among people supposed to belong to the intelligent classes. In the treatment of wounds the Cherokee doctors exhibit a considerable degree of skill, but as far as any internal ailment is concerned the average farmer’s wife is worth all the doctors in the whole tribe.
The faith of the patient has much to do with his recovery, for the Indian has the same implicit confidence in the shaman that a child has in a more intelligent physician. The ceremonies and prayers are well calculated to inspire this feeling, and the effect thus produced upon the mind of the sick man undoubtably reacts favorably upon his physical organization.
The following list of twenty plants is used in Cherokee practice will give a better idea of the extent of their medical knowledge than could be conveyed in a lengthy dissertation. The names are given in the order in which they occur in the botanical notebook filled on the reservation, excluding names of food plants and species not identified, so that no attempt has been made to select in accordance with a preconceived theory. Following the name of each plant are given its uses as described by the Indian doctors, together with its properties as set forth in the United States Dispensatory, one of the leading pharmacopœias in use in this country.4 For the benefit of those not versed in medical phraseology it may be stated that aperient, cathartic, and deobstruent are terms applied to medicines intended to open or purge the bowels, a diuretic has the property of exciting the flow of urine, a diaphoretic excites perspiration, and a demulcent protects or soothes irritated tissues, while hæmophytes denotes a peculiar variety of blood-spitting and aphthous in an adjective applied to ulcerations of the mouth.
1One of the high peaks in the Smoky Mountains, on the Tennessee line, near Clingman’s dome.
* These statements are in the words of the original author, and not reflective of the beliefs of the transcriber.
2Haywood, John; Natural and Aboriginal History of East Tennessee, 267-8. Nashville, 1823.
3Ibid., p. 281.
*The u shape on the I is upside down, but is an outdated character.
*The u shape on the I is upside down, but is an outdated character.
4Wood T. B., and F.: Dispensatory of the United States of America. 14th ed. Philadelphia, 1877.
5The Cherokee plant names here given are generic names, which are the names commonly used. In many cases the same name is applied to several species and is it is only necessary to distinguish between them that the Indians use what might be called specific names. Even then the descriptive term used serves to distinguish only the particular plants under discussion and the introduction of another variety bearing the same generic name would necessitate a new classification of species on a different basis, while hardly any two individuals would classify the species by some characteristics.