Creek Indian Medicine
by Phyllis D. Light
Intro: Phyllis is one of the more naturally insightful herbalists we know, as well as one of the few in our community blessed to have grown up in a place-based healing tradition. Southern Appalachian Herbalism is informed not only by African, Celtic and other European strands, but by the perspectives and practices of the indigenous peoples of the region. We are pleased to share with you the following excerpt from Phyllis’ column in the upcoming issue of Plant Healer Magazine, an introduction to Creek Indian medicine and materia medica in particular. To read the twice-as-long version with more history and plants included, subscribe to:
My traditional herbal training included large doses of Creek Indian medicine learned from my grandmother in north Alabama. Not a well-known form of Native training but one indigenous to the lower Southeast, Creek Indian medicine. The Creeks were one of the first Native groups to be swamped by contact with Europeans, particularly the Spanish, and were also the first of the Five Civilized Tribes. They were known for their hot temper and warring ways, hence the expression, “Good Lord willing and the Creeks don’t rise.” They were willing to fight with almost anyone over almost anything.
After the disease holocaust brought by the Spaniard, DeSoto’s expedition, the descendants of the Creeks and remnants of several other tribes banded together to form the Creek Confederacy or the Muscogee, the People of One Fire. Since the Trail of Tears, Creek Indians can be found on the reservation land in Oklahoma, with the Seminole in Florida, with the Poarch Creek Band in Alabama, in various state recognized bands, and scattered in small pockets throughout the original lands.
My maternal great-grandmother was a descendant of Creeks who chose to hide in the coves and hollows around Cotaco Valley and in this way avoided the Trail. I grew up in the same area that my Creek ancestors had lived for many generations. My great-grandmother, a full-blooded Creek, was the second daughter in a family with three sisters. According to Creek law, if a woman’s husband dies and she becomes a widow, then her sister’s husband takes her for a wife. And if a wife dies, her unmarried sister must step forward and take her place. My great-grandfather eventually married all three sisters and family reunions are really unique.
Because of their eclecticism, Creek medicine ways were always evolving. Training usually began at an early age and the positions were often hereditary, but not necessarily so if a talented person was born outside of the traditional families.
The first category, the main medicine person, was the Knower which the whites called the Prophet. This person was especially gifted and could see into the future and could also see into the past. The Knower had the visions for new cures and was able to diagnose diseases. This person was also in charge of all the mystical and magical energies which could either be used for healing or used during battle against enemies. The next category was the Carrier, also known as the Assistant, persons who were drawn to learn about the medicines and carry the information into the future. Their knowledge, acquired through rigorous training, was very practical. These were the teachings which required no initiation, were based on experience and were passed from generation to generation. The Carriers were taught only the good use of the medicines, not the bad, and were considered a force for healing and light. They were good solid herbalists.
The Specialist was responsible for the caretaking of the ceremonial grounds. This person had to know all the rituals, songs, dances and needs of a particular ground. A lot of back-breaking hard work and earth tending were required of the Specialist and for this reason, it was considered a male only position.
The Creeks used a system based upon four elements: fire, earth, air and water. For example, a decoction or infusion was considered to carry all four elements; plants from the earth, water to make the tea, fire to heat the water, and, as the steam rises, air to instill breath into the tea. Sometimes the herbalist would blow into the tea with a hollow tube, such as cane, to instill air (breath) into the tea if needed. This strong emphasis on the four elements is still apparent in Southern Folk Medicine today, as the mixing of the different cultures in the South created a regional medicine. The four elements form the basis of the Southern Blood Types (bitter, sweet, sour, and salty) and is also inherent, to a lesser extent, in the Greek medicine which also influenced Southern Folk Medicine.
A Few of The Plants
Plants are used for physical illnesses, for emotional illnesses, and for spiritual illnesses and practices. In the true tradition, a song would accompany the remedy for a particular situation or illness but much of that has been lost in time.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), white medicine, is used for many illnesses including shortness of breath, heart problems, cough, pneumonia, to stop bleeding, for endurance, to stave away hunger, and for sore throat. It is used to build the body after illness or injury and to drive away ghosts. It also used in a formula for a man to attract a woman. Ginseng is much more than an adaptogen and was often mixed with other herbs to facilitate, potentiate and carry the remedy to its needed location. As a white medicine, it is used to bring peace and balance to the body or to rebuild what has been lost. If you will notice, these are not the common uses of ginseng touted in modern herbal literature.
My father used American ginseng almost exclusively because he knew how much to use for a particular situation. I had to find, harvest, prepare, and use ginseng in all its power before I could seriously study another herb. That took me seven years. Most people use too much ginseng as a tonic. A capsule is too much. I generally recommend three drops daily of tincture of wildcrafted ginseng. While this low dose may not seem like a very potent amount, it’s perfect for a tonic. Let it build up in the body and over time, a difference can be noticed.
Red root (Salix humilis), red medicine, is called red root because it turns the water bright red when decocted. It grows throughout the prairie regions including the Black Belt prairie of Alabama. Unfortunately, this herb is getting harder and harder to find. Like many other members of the willow family, red root is useful for fevers, malaria, headaches, and to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. It is also used for liver conditions, general aches and pains, and for sunstroke. Red root helps to remove poisons from the body and was part of a spring tonic. This herb was also used for cleansing before ceremony and to drive away witches.
I never knew red root. It was already very scarce when I was learning my herbs. However, spicebush roots (Lindera benzoin) are often used as a substitute.
Rattlesnake master (Erynigium yuccifolium), a red medicine, grows in well-drained land. It helps reduce inflammation and pain and has a marked effect on the nerves, making it useful for neuralgia. Rattlesnake master supports the kidneys, adrenal glands and the spleen. It was used for malaria and other high fevers and for venereal disease. As a red medicine, it could also be used for cleansing and purifying the blood and played an important part in ceremony. As its name suggests, the plant was used in rattlesnake bite.
I still use rattlesnake master, though it is getting harder to find. It is diaphoretic, diuretic, emetic, expectorant, and stimulant. Rattlesnake master is excellent for pelvic inflammation and is useful in many women’s urinary tract and reproductive complaints.
Lobelia, or tobacco bloom (Lobelia inflata), was one of the seven sacred herbs to the Creeks. It is used in many formulas and for many different illnesses, offering a broad range of actions and as a potentiator for certain formulas. A potentiator is an herb that makes the formula work better and faster. Lobelia is excellent for any type of respiratory illness, including cough, colds, pneumonia and asthma. It is also used to ward off ghosts. Lobelia’s oldest form of use is smoking and legend says that smoking lobelia predates smoking tobacco. It may also cause vomiting in large doses.
I often use lobelia, just a few drops, in formulas as a potentiator. Other potentiators include cayenne, wild ginger and smartweed. Lobelia is also useful as a stop smoking aid due to the presence of lobeline which attaches at nicotine receptor sites. I caution clients using lobelia for stopping smoking that after a couple of days of use, smoking may cause nausea.
These are just a sample few of the sacred herbs of the Creek Indians, and you will find many others listed in the full length version of this article (appearing in the Winter issue Plant Healer Magazine). In future columns I will also be discussing sweet bay magnolia, tulip poplar, pine, spicebush, yaupon holly, grape vine, oak, river birch, wormseed, mistletoe, buckeye, slippery elm, sycamore, wild cherry, baptisia, devil’s shoestring, honey locust, pipsissewa, sarsaparilla or green briar, prickly ash, callicarpa, tick trefoil, goldenrod, wild ginger, blueberry, black berries, Solomon’s seal, poke, redbud, milkweed, pink root, boneset, sumac, mulberry, wild plum, wild crab apple, wild rose, dogwood, New Jersey tea, stillingia, impatiens, rabbit tobacco, dandelion, yarrow, elderberry, and mullein.
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