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Pharmacy of the Red Man

Read before the Maine Pharmaceutical Association, June 28, 1916

It has been suggested that an article on the Pharmacy of the Red Man might, in a general way, be of interest to the members of the Association, not that there is anything to learn which would advance our art but that it is no doubt similar to the birth of Pharmacy among other races. In the case of the Indian the Physician and Pharmacist are one as prescribing and preparing medicine are done by the medicine man or medicine woman. The Indian believes that certain ones are endowed by nature with qualities not possessed by all which enable them to diagnose and treat disease with greater success than their fellows. There is a tradition that in early days before the coming of the white man it was necessary for the would-be medicine man to undergo some trying ordeal to prove his fitness for the office. As a general thing I have found it impossible to learn the diseases for which the drugs are vised as the Indians do not know the English name of the complaints they treat. To illustrate.

Dr. Sockalixis once told me in answer to an inquiry regarding ladies' slipper (Cypripedium). That is woman medicine. This is used by them as a sedative in nervous conditions and one might infer that the men are not troubled with complaints of this kind nor do I believe the average Indian is. I have not learned that they used anything from the mineral kingdom and but one animal substance, Castor, given as an Indian woman told me mostly to young women from fifteen to eighteen years of age. An emmenagogue.

They had infusions, decoctions, poultices, ointments and plasters. Oils and fats were also used as liniments. Roiling was dome in dishes of birch bark placed on coals, hot ashes or stones heated by fire beneath or heated stones were dropped into the liquid. In the case of infusions and decoctions the drugs were steeped singly or in combination. Such quantities to a given volume of water as in the judgment of the dispenser was necessary. When ready it was decanted and given the patient as needed. To relieve and to prevent chafing (as of infants) finely powdered hemlock bark was used. Plasters were made by evaporating a decoction of the barks of beech (Fugus grandiflora) and hackmatack (Larix laricina) to the consistency of an extract and incorporating with pitch of the spruce obtained by stripping the bark from the trunk of the standing tree and scorching the wood, reminding one of the method used by the natives of Central America to obtain Balsam of Peru. An ointment was made of fir balsam and animal fat. In making poultices various things were used among these, the rootstock of the white pond lily (Castalia odorata). For years I sold two old Indians butternut bark used by them as a laxative; in early days this must have been obtained elsewhere than on the Penobscot as the tree is not indigenous to that river though common on the Kennebec and, I am told, on the St. John. I have been assured by the Indians that no one would take any contagious disease if he kept in his mouth and chewed the rhizome of the sweet flag. Today both male and female attend and prepare medicine for the sick but the campfire has given way to the cook stove and the bark dish to those of earthen and metal. In the early days if an acceptable and satisfactory gift did not accompany the call for his services the medicine man demanded and received as a preliminary, his fee from the patient or his family. It might be wampum, the best bow, a quantity of arrows, moccasins, furs, venison or other food, but now when employed by the Indian agent to attend the sick the usual fee with medicine is one dollar. If additional medicine is needed the price is fifty cents a quart.

The following is a list of the drugs used by the Penobscot Indians today

Castor, Castoreum
Bloodroot, Sanguinaria
Blackberry root, Rubus

Cleavers, Galium Aparine
Red Cohosh, Actaea rubra
White Cohosh, Actaea alba
Sweet Flag, Aeon's Calamus
Gravel Plant, Epigaea repens
Butternut Bark, Juglans cinerea
Rockbrake, Pollypodium vulgare

Black Cohosh, Cimicifuga racemosa
Ladies' Slipper, Cypripedium hirsutum
Crawley Root, Corallorrhiza odontorhiza

Hair Cap Moss, Polysticum acrostichoides
Blue Cohosh, Caulophyllum thalictroides
Canada Snakeroot, Asarum catiadeijse
Wintergreen, Chimaphila umbellata
Juniper Berries, Juniperus depressa
Pennyroyal, Hedeoma pulegioides
Yellow Dock Root, Rumex crispus
Hemlock Bark, Tsuga canadensis

Pleurisy Root, Ascclpias tuberosa
Skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora
Squaw Vine, Mitchella repens
Spikenard, Aralia raeemosa

No doubt other plants, roots and barks were employed but the foregoing is a fairly complete list used during the past forty years. From the Indians was learned the medicinal uses of many of our indigenous drugs. Although at the present time the treatment of disease among the Indians is largely in the hands of regular practitioners and medicines of the white man are generally used, there are those of the tribe who prefer and employ the native doctors and their old time remedies.

Source: Sprague's Journal of Maine History, Volume 6 Number 2, 1918.


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