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The Origin of Disease in Cherokee Tradition, and Several Plants of Significance

as transcribed from
The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees The 7th annual report
of the Bureau of Ethnology
to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution
By: James Mooney

Myth of the Origin of Disease and Medicine

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.


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.

Selected List of Plants and their Uses in Cherokee Tradition

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.

    1. Unaste’tstiyû = “very small roots” – Aristolochia serpentaria – Virginia or black snakeroot: Decoction of root blown upon patient for fever and feverish headache, and drunk for coughs; root chewed and spit upon wound to cure snake bites; bruised root placed in hollow tooth for toothache, and held against the nose made sore by constant blowing from colds. Dispensatory : “A stimulant tonic, acting also as a diaphoretic or diuretic, according to the mood of application: *** also been highly recommended in intermittent fevers, and though itself generally inadequate to cure often proves serviceable as an adjunct to Peruvian bark or sulphate of Quinia.” Also used for typhous diseases, in dyspepsia, as a gargle for sore throat, as a mild stimulant for typhoid fevers, and to promote eruptions. Th genus derives its scientific name from its supposed efficacy in promoting menstrual discharge, and some species have acquired the “reputation of antidotes for the bites of serpents.”
    2. Unistil’ûnistÎĭ1= “they stick on” – Cynoglossum Morrisoni Beggar lice; Decoction of root or top drunk for kidney troubles; bruised root used with bear oil on skin as an ointment for cancer; forgetful persons drink a decoction of this plant, and probably also of other similar bur plants, from the idea that the sticking qualities of the burrs will thus be imparted to the memory. From a similar connection of ideas the root is also used in the preparation of love charms. Dispensatory: Not named. C. officinale “ has been used as a demulcent and sedative in coughs, catarrh, spitting of blood, dysentery, and diarrhea, and has been also applied externally to burns, ulcers, scrofulous tumors and goiter.”
    3. Ûnnagéi = “black” – Cassia Marilandica – Wild senna: Root bruised and moistened with water for poulticing sores: decoction drunk for fever and for a disease called Ûnnagéi, or “black” (same name as plant), in which the hands and eye sockets are said to turn black; also for a disease described as similar to Ûnnagéi, but more dangerous, in which the eye sockets turn black, while spots appear on the arms, legs, and over the ribs on one side of the body, accompanied by partial paralysis, and resulting in death should the black spots also appear on the other side. Dispensatory: Described as “an efficient and safe cathartic, *** most conveniently given in the form of infusion.”
    4. Kâsd’úta = “simulating ashes,” so called on account of the appearance of the leaves- Gnaphalium decurrensLife everlasting: Decoction drunk for colds; also used in the sweat bath for various diseases and considered one of their most valuable medical plants. Dispensatory: Not named. Decoctions of two other species of this genus are mentioned as used by country people for the chest and bowel diseases, and for hemorrhages, bruises, ulcers, etc., although “probably possessing little medicinal value.”
    5. Altsa’sti = “a wreath for the head” – Vicia Carolinia Vetch: Decoction drunk for dyspepsia and pains in the back, and rubbed on stomach for cramp; also rubbed on ball-players after scratching, to render their muscles tough, and used in the same way after scratching in the disease refereed to under Ûnnagéi, in which one side becomes black spots, with partial paralysis; also used in same manner in decoction with Kâsd’úta for rheumatism; considered one of their most valuable medicinal herbs. Dispensatory: non named.
    6. Distai’yĭ = “they (the roots) are tough” – Tephrosia Virginiana – Catgut, Turkey Pea, Goat’s Rue, or Devil’s Shoestrings: Decoction drunk for lassitude. Women wash their hair in decoction of roots to prevent its breaking or falling out, because the roots are very tough and hard to break; from the idea ball-players rub the decoction on their limbs after scratching, to toughen them. Dispensatory: Described as a cathartic with roots tonic and aperient.
    7. U’ga-atasgi’skĭ = “ the pus oozes out” – Euphorbia hypericifolia Milkweed: Juice rubbed on skin for skin eruptions, especially children’s heads; also used as a purgative; decoction drunk for gonorrhœa and similar diseases in both sexes, and held in high estimation for this purpose; juice used as an ointment for sores and sore nipples, and in connection with other herbs for cancer. Dispensatory: The juice of all of the genus has the property of “powerfully irrigating the skin when applied to it,” while nearly all are powerful emetics and cathartics. This species “has been highly commended as a remedy in dysentery after due depletion, diarrhea, menorrhagia, and leucorrhea.”
    8. Gȗnĭgwalĭ’skĭ = “It becomes discolored when bruised” – Scutellaria lateriflora Skullcap. “The name refers to the red juice which comes out of the stalk when bruised or chewed. A decoction of the four varieties of Gȗnĭgwalĭ’skĭ – S. lateriflora, S. Pilosa, Hypericum corymbosum, and Stylostanthes eliatio – is drunk to promote menstruation, and the same decoction is also drunk and used as a wash to counteract the ill effects of eating food prepared by a woman in the menstrual condition, or when such woman by chance comes into a sick room or a house under the tabu; also drunk for diarrhea and used with other herbs in decoction for chest pains. Dispensatory: This plant “produces no very obvious effects,” but some doctors regard it as possessed of nervine, antispasmodic, and tonic properties. None of the other three species are name.
    9. Kȃ’ga Skȗntagĭ = “crow shin” – Adiantum pedatum Maidenhair Fern : Used either in decoction or poultice for rheumatism and chills, generally in connection with some other fern. The doctors explain the the fronds of the different varieties of fern are curled up in the young plant, but unroll and straighten out as it grows, and consequently a decoction of ferns causes the contracted muscles of the rheumatic patient to unbend and straighten out in the like manner. It is also used as decoction for fever. Dispensatory: The leaves “have been supposed to be useful in chronic catarrh and other pectoral affections.”
    10. Anda’nkalagi’skĭ = “it removes things from gums” – Geranium maculatumWild alum, Cranesbill: Used in decoction with Yânû Unihye stĭ (Vitis cordifolia) to wash the mouths of children in thrush; also used alone for the same purpose by blowing the chewed fiber into the mouth. Dispensatory: “One of our best indigenous astringents. *** Diarrhea, chronic dysentery, cholora infantum in the latter stages, and the various hemorrhages are the forms of disease in which it is most commonly used.” Also valuable as “an application to indolent ulcers, an injection in gleet and leucorrhea, a gargle in relaxation of the uvula and aphthous ulcerations of the throat.” The other plant sometimes used with it is not mentioned.
    11. Ûnlê Ukĭ’ltĭ = “the locust frequents it” – Gillenia trifoliata – Indian Physic. Two doctors state that it is good as a teas for bowel complaints, with fever and yellow vomit; but another says it is poisonous and that no decoction is ever drunk, but that it is a good poultice for swellings. Dispensatory: “Gillenia is a mild and efficient emetic, and like most substances belonging to the same class occasionally acts upon the bowels. In very small doses it has been though to be tonic.”
    12. Skwa’lĭ = hepiatica acutiloba – Liverwort, Heartleaf: Used coughs either in tea or by chewing root. Those who dream of snakes drink a decoction of this herb and I’natȗ Ga’n’ka = “snake tongue” (Camptosorus rhizophyllus or Walking Fern) to produce vomiting, after which the dreams will not return. The traders buy large quantities of liverwort from the Cherokees, who may thus have learned to esteem it more highly than they otherwise would. The appearance of the other plant, Camptosorus rhizophyllus, has evidently determined its Cherokee name and the use to which it is applied. Dispensatory: “Liverwort is a very mil demulcent tonic and astringent , supposed by some to posses diuretic and deobstruent virtues. It was formerly used in Europe in various complaints, especially chronic hepatic affections, but has fallen into entire neglect. In this country, some years since, it acquired considerable reputation, which, however, it has not maintained as a remedy in hæmoptysis and chronic coughs.” The other plant is not named.
    13. Da’yewȗ = “it sews itself up,” because the leaves are said to grow together again when torn – Cacalia atriplicifolia Tassel Flower: Held in great repute as a poultice for cuts, bruises, cancer, to draw out the blood or poisonous matter. The bruised leaf is bound over the spot and frequently removed. The dry powdered leaf was formerly used to sprinkle over food like salt. Dispensatory not; Not named.
    14. Â’talĭ Kȗlĭ’ = “it climbs the mountain.”Aralia quinquefolia Ginseng or “sang:” Decoction for root drank for headache, cramps, etc., and for female troubles; chewed root blown on spot for pains in the side. The Cherokees sell large quantities of sang to the traders for 50 cents per pound, nearly equivalent to two days wages, a fact which doubtless increased their idea of importance. Dispensatory: “The extraordinary medicinal virtues formally to ginseng had no other existence than in the imagination of the Chinese. It is little more than a demulcent, and in this country is not employed as a medicine,” The Chinese name, ginseng, is said to refer to the fancied resemblance of the root to a human figure, while in the Cherokee formulas it is addressed as the “great man” or “little man,” and the resemblance no doubt has much to do with the estimation in which it is held by both peoples.
    15. Û’tsatĭ Uwadsĭska – “fish scales,” from the shape of leaves – Thalictrum anemonoides- Meadow Rue; decoction of root drunk for diarrhea and vomiting. Dispensatory: Not names.
    16. K’kwě Ulasu’la = “partridge moccasin” – Cypripedium parviflorum Lady slipper: Decoction of root used for worms in children. In the liquid are placed some stalks of the common chickweed or purslane (Cerastium vulgatum) which, from the appearance of its red fleshy stalks, is supposed to have some connection with worms. Dispensatory: Described as “a gentle nervous stimulant” useful in diseases in which the nerves are especially affected. The other herb is not named.
    17. A’Hawi’ Akă’tă = “deer eye.” from the appearance of the flower – Rudbeckia fulgida – Cone Flower: Decoction of root drunk for flux and for some private diseases; also used as a wash for snake bites and swellings caused but (mythic) tsgăya or worms; also dropped into weak or inflamed eyes. This last is probably from the supposed connection between the eye and the flower resembling the eye. Dispensatory: Not named.
    18. Utĭstugi – Polygonatum multiflorum latifoliumSolomons Seal; root heated and bruised and applied as a poultice to remove an ulcerating swelling called tu’stĭ, resembling a boil or carbuncle. Dispensatory: This species acts like P. uniflorum, which is said to be emetic. In former times it was used externally in bruises, especially those about the eyes, in tumors, wounds, and cutaneous eruptions and was highly esteemed as a cosmetic. At present it is not employed, though recommended by Hermann as “a good remedy in gout and rheumatism.” This species in decoction has been found to produce “nausea, a cathartic effect and either diaphoresis or diuresis,” and is useful “as an internal remedy in piles, and externally in the form of decoction, in the affection of the skin resulting from the poisonous exhortations of other plants.”
    19. Ămădita’tĭ = “water dipper,” because water can be sucked up through its hollow stalk – Euphatorium purpureum Queen of the Meadow, Gravel Root: Root used in decoction with a somewhat similar plant called Ămădita’tĭ û tanu, or “large water dipper” (not identified) for difficult urination. Dispensatory: “Said to operate as a diuretic. Its vulgar name of gravel root indicates the popular estimation of its virtues.” The genus is described as a tonic, diaphoretic, and in large doses emetic and aperient.
    20. Yâna Utsěsta = “the bear lies on it”Aspidium acrostichoides – Shield Fern: Root decoction drunk to produce vomiting, and also used to rub on the skin, after scratching, for rheumatism – in both cases some other plant is added to the decoction; the warm decoction is also held in the mouth to relieve toothache. Dispensatory: Not named.

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.


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Photo by MJ Tangonan
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