Folk medicine still plays an important role in traditional communities throughout Oklahoma. It is part of a world view that combines both the organic and the spiritual in healing traditions that seek to maintain both personal and community harmony and equilibrium. Oklahoma folk medicine is remembered, conserved, and passed down by word of mouth, demonstration, and repetition from one generation to the next. Only rarely is information recorded or written down.
Traditional views of health involve not only healing and health maintenance but also address personal protection. Lucky coins, medicine bags, amulets, tobacco, or milagros are used to ward off evil or sickness. Illness is seen to attack both the body and the spirit and is often attributed to one's own sins, evil spirits or the dead, or the actions of one's enemies. Medicine men, "doctors," curanderos, and other respected treaters, both male and female, were once the only health care providers in Oklahoma. They distributed herbal medicines, set bones, delivered babies, removed warts, or cured coughs, at the same time treating the spirit by prayer, laying on of hands, sings, or trances. Despite the availability of public health care and pharmaceuticals, many Oklahomans continue to incorporate folk medicine in their contemporary health practices.
Among the American Indians indigenous to Oklahoma, the Caddo were noted by early colonials to be accomplished in the healing arts. Like other Southeastern tribes, the Caddo maintained a perpetual sacred fire and observed an agriculturally based ceremonial cycle. Herbal medicines and emetics were prepared for ritual occasions, and community healers used native plants and prayer to treat illnesses, injuries, and spiritual maladies.
Contemporary Southeastern tribe communities maintain these traditions. Muscogee Creek, Yuchi, Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw communities still have honored practitioners who prepare "good medicine" and treat "bad medicine." Medicines made from local plants such as red root and yaupon are used for both internal and external cleansing during the yearly ceremonial cycle. Songs and dances function like prayers and are used with herbal preparations to maintain balance and prosperity in the coming year.
The Plains Indian tribes brought their own medicinal traditions. Medicine men remove foreign objects "shot" into a patient's body by a practitioner of bad medicine, or prescribe sweats, the use of tobacco, or smoke from cedar or sage for cleansing, protection, luck, and healing. The Native American Church, a pan-tribal religion that blends Christian and American Indian perspectives, employs peyote in treating illnesses.
Spanish American folk medicine combines both aboriginal beliefs and Christian faith. Illnesses are divided into mal natural (natural illness) and mal puesto (illness caused by brujeria, or witchcraft). The mal de ojo (evil eye) is thought to cause bad luck or illness. The effects of mal de ojo may be deflected by the use of prayer or by the use of sympathetic magic to transfer the effects to another person or thing.
Mexican American folk medicine often incorporates treatment by sobadores, practitioners who massage and manipulate the body. Herbal teas are also prepared for bodily ills such as colds or stomach problems. A curandero receives his healing gift from God and may employ spirit assistants when performing cures. Midwives, or señoras, are called upon to treat conditions such as caida de la mollera, the sinking of a baby's cranial soft spot, by rubbing the roof of the baby's mouth while suspending it upside down over water.
African American immigrants combined elements of African, American Indian, and Anglo-European practices. Community doctors and learned grandmothers used what was available, dispensing herbal remedies such as corn shuck tea for rashes, tobacco to draw out poison from stings or bites, turpentine for congestion, or alum and honey for coughs. Sympathetic magic is still employed in rural communities when a silver dime is placed under the lip to stop a nosebleed or a band of copper is worn for arthritis. Until the twentieth century, African American root doctors, who were said to descend from powerful African medicine men, were called upon to treat the physical effects of witchcraft or the devil.
Anglo-European folk medicine was also based on practicality and availability. Remedies were made from sugar, kerosene, whiskey, vinegar, or soda. Medicinal plants such as mullein, used to treat respiratory ailments, were cultivated by pioneer families, who also used plants such as sassafras, willow bark, or yarrow to treat illnesses of the blood and organs. Sympathetic magic was common in pioneer healing rituals, as when a midwife cut the pain of labor by placing an ax under the bed. Metals were also used in treatments: gold was rubbed on a boil or sty, a lead pendant worn to cure nosebleeds, and copper was worn to cure arthritis. Faith remains an important component in folk medicine, and faith healers still employ scripture and the laying on of hands to treat illness in traditional Anglo-American communities.
Recent immigrants to the state have brought their own folk practitioners and traditions, as exemplified by the proliferation of specialty shops that carry herbs and other treatments from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and India. While some have discontinued these practices, folk medicine remains viable in many traditional communities in Oklahoma.
Dana L. Morrow and Cynthia Taylor, eds., A Celebration of Tradition, Retrospective, 1991–1993 (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma County Metropolitan Library System, 1993).
Newbell Niles Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1926).
Walter R. Smith, "Northwestern Oklahoma Folk Cures," in Man, Bird and Beast, ed. J. Frank Dobie (Austin: Texas Folklore Society, 1930).
Robert T. Trotter and Juan Antonio Chavira, Curanderismo: Mexican American Folk Healing (2d ed.; Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997).
Virgil J. Vogel, American Indian Medicine (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970).
Robert S. Weddle, ed., La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf: Three Primary Documents (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1987).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Dayna Bowker Lee, “Folk Medicine,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=FO009.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.