Seminole Medicine, Plants and Religion

Explore the Native American herbal traditions of the Seminoles.


| July/August 1997



07-97-052-HOUSES.jpg

The sun rises on Johnson Harjo’s grave house (with flowers) at Rock Springs Baptist Church near Sasakwa. It faces east in the traditional way.


The Seminole nation in southeast-central Oklahoma is a land of rolling hills, scrub oak, red dirt, and deep-cut, slow-moving creeks. Tribal boundaries are not marked by signs and do not appear on state maps, though they are real; no one lives in the fourteen (or is it twelve? or perhaps now only two?) traditional tribal towns, which also appear on no maps. The Nation’s capital is the small, racially mixed community of Wewoka, about eighty miles southeast of Oklahoma City (though tribal offices are not to be found there). A long tradition of herbal medicine is closely intertwined with traditional religious beliefs, which may (or may not) still be practiced.

We have come to interview one of the last of the Seminole medicine men, but find that he died two months before. We hear of another over in the next county who might talk to us, but “no real medicine man will talk of these things.” We learn of another who is practicing medicine he learned from his father; he agrees to visit with us, but when we find our way through the woods to his home, no one is there.

The Seminole are an elusive people with a complex and tragic history. The tribe began as a loose confederation of smaller tribes—Oconee, Yuchi, Yamassee, Apalachicola, and others—who moved from Alabama into northern Florida in the seventeenth century. After Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1819, the Seminole were first driven from their agricul­tural lands into the swamps and then made targets for elimination. They fought, they fled deeper into the swamps, but the final outcome was their forced removal, beginning in 1835, to lands west of the Mississippi in what is now Oklahoma. A remnant of the tribe eluded capture and lives on reservations in Florida to this day; of those who made the move west, only a fraction survived. They found the land they had been promised already allotted to the Creek Indians, the Plains tribes were hostile, and the Civil War caused many casualties and a cruel division within the tribe.

After the war, the Seminole were allowed to regroup on land of their own and live in their own way until 1907, when Oklahoma became a state and all tribal lands were divided into small individual allotments, many of which were soon sold to non-Indians. Thus today, the Oklahoma Seminole are a nation with virtual boundaries but no land, a people with a proud but private identity.

New plants in a new land

Moving from the Florida Everglades to Oklahoma necessitated learning a whole new vocabulary of plants quickly. The Seminole found some familiar ones in their new homelands: sumac, passionflower, button snakeroot, pussy willow, devil’s shoestrings, and others. But many important herbs were left behind: sweet flag, spice bush, American ginseng—especially ginseng. Discovering alternatives for the important ritual and healing herbs required a lot of fasting and praying on the part of the medicine men, according to Ted Underwood, a cultural affairs officer of the tribe, and the discipline and personal denial implicit in this search still characterize the sincere traditional healer.

The search for useful plants yielded some unexpected results. Known to the Seminole as “white medicine”, ginseng had been indispensable in Flor­ida for everything from curing nosebleeds and treating shortness of breath to catching women, but it doesn’t grow as far west as Oklahoma. Healers in Oklahoma are reported to have substituted black nightshade, a somewhat poisonous plant in no way related to true ginseng. Though its roots were thought to be just as useful as ginseng, and it was often referred to as Indian ginseng, today the Seminole buy true ginseng root at a local drugstore or order it by mail. But both plants are used.





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