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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


As in other aspects of culture, the Native peoples of Oklahoma possess medical beliefs and practices that are simultaneously tribally distinct and variously shared in common with other groups. Communities whose ancestors were forced west to Indian Territory from homelands in the eastern woodlands share a regional medicine tradition with many features in common. The Oklahoma tribes from the plains participate in a second distinct tradition. The so-called Missouri River tribes, who have always lived at the prairie boundary between the woodlands and plains, possess beliefs combining characteristics of both regions.

The features that are characteristic of tribal and regional medicine traditions are founded on two significant bases. The first is ecological. In Native America, wild plants are of fundamental importance in medicine. Species distribution has always influenced the content of medicinal repertoires. This impact was significant for changes wrought by the removals of the nineteenth century. Forced migration meant that some medical plants were unavailable in new homelands, and new plants and new neighbors produced additions to tribal medicine.

The second major factor shaping Oklahoma Indian medicine is the impact of broader understandings of the world that characterize tribal cultures. Among many Plains Indian groups, power is a characteristic that individuals can obtain through personal experiences, such as in encounters with animal spirit helpers. The well-known "vision quest" is a manifestation of this principle. The success of a healer in this context is based, in large part, on personal power obtained through direct encounter with sacred powers. In contrast, Woodlands groups associate power, including the ability to heal, with possession of esoteric knowledge that exists outside the experience of the individual.

These differences are illustrated by the fact that animals are the source of healing power on the plains. Such healers are often identified on the basis of their animal helpers, for instance, as an "eagle doctor." By contrast, among Woodlands peoples, the spirits of animals are often the source of illness. Specific plants were created with the power to cure these animal illnesses. In their training Woodlands doctors are taught how to diagnose them and which plants counter them. These doctors also learn procedures, rituals, and songs that activate the curing power of plants. Woodlands medicine and the knowledge to use it are not discovered anew by spiritually powerful practitioners but were provided to tribal ancestors by the Creator in the ancient past and were subsequently handed down across the generations.

There is a widespread belief among American Indian people in Oklahoma that Europeans introduced the ailments of contemporary life, such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Since the medicine of their ancestors did not have to cope with these ailments, American Indian people today must rely on the services of modern Euroamerican doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceuticals. While doing so, many American Indian people in the state continue to turn to practitioners of traditional medicine. Of fundamental importance too is participation in tribal ceremonies that are viewed as helping maintain the heath of both individuals and communities.

Jason Baird Jackson


James H. Howard, Oklahoma Seminoles: Medicines, Magic, and Religion (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984).

Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976).

Jason Baird Jackson, "Customary Uses of Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) by the Yuchi in Eastern Oklahoma," Economic Botany 54 (2000).

David E. Jones, Sanapia: Comanche Medicine Woman (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972).

William C. Surtevant, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, Vols. 13–15 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1986).

Gladys Tantaquidgeon, Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1972).

Gene Weltfish, The Lost Universe: Pawnee Life and Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1965).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Jason Baird Jackson, “Medicine, American Indian,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=ME007.

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