Explore the Native American herbal traditions of the Seminoles.
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.
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.
You can’t talk about the Seminoles’ use of herbs without talking about their religious beliefs, and you can’t talk about religion without raising the question of how much traditional belief remains among a people who have enthusiastically embraced Protestant Christianity. Indian Baptist (and a few Presbyterian) churches dot the tribal landscape. Some say that good Christian Indians must reject the old ways. Some say that the old ways are no longer practiced. Yet the person we had hoped to interview, Johnson (also called George W., Jostibe, or Sunsey) Harjo was both a Baptist minister and one of the spiritual elders of his tribe (see next page). He used herbs and Seminole songs to purify and heal, but he used Christian prayer as well.
Did Harjo participate in the most fundamental Seminole tradition, the Green Corn ceremony? Perhaps. This summer festival—four days of dancing, feasting, and stickball games for fellowship, spirit, tradition, and fun—is preceded by a purification ceremony for men which involves drinking an infusion of button snakeroot, vomiting (though the plant is thought not to be an emetic), and scratching the arms, legs, and back with thorns or needles to draw blood. Women and children may be given a purifying infusion of pussy willow root at the same time.
Not that Harjo was an aloof man in other regards. Besides being a minister, he worked for many years as a fry cook in a Wewoka restaurant, and family and friends describe him as having great vitality. “A lot of pep and spirit,” one says; “Walked with a good stride,” says another. They search for the English words to describe his gentle charisma.
Harjo taught others, but they all died before he did. He hoped to teach his son, but the son’s drinking was an obstacle. Perhaps in the hope that his knowledge wouldn’t be lost, Harjo took on an unusual task: transcribing his songs. They are neatly penned in ledgers, using the Seminole alphabet. Many have been recopied by his widow. Whether they can be useful to a future healer is debatable—everyone has his own variations on the sacred songs. “The songs are handed down differently,” Cora says. But they will at least provide cultural memory for a tribe whose younger generation is taking a keen interest in reviving and preserving its ways.
When Harjo died, he was buried on the grounds of his Rock Springs Baptist church near Sasakwa in the traditional Seminole way. His grave is covered by a small frame house that shelters flower memorials and perhaps certain personal belongings. Replacing his ministerial functions at the church will not be difficult, but finding a leader who brings a deep knowledge of the old ways to his ministry is not likely. An era has passed.
These ceremonial herbs have both spiritual and physical properties, as do other medicinal plants used by the Seminole. Traditional beliefs link the ill will of the spirit of certain animals to the cause of illness. For instance, sleeplessness and sadness are attributed to the raccoon, which has dark rings around its eyes, and incontinence in older men is attributed to dogs, which urinate frequently and with seeming abandon. Kidney stones, thought to be caused by rabbits, have been treated with “rabbit” medicine, a tea made from the leaves and stems of a species of milkweed.
The dozens of plants used for physical or spiritual well-being by Oklahoma Seminoles today are considered useless without appropriate ceremonial preparation. This includes, in many cases, infusing the plant material in water, singing a prayer, and “bubbling” the infusion by blowing into it through a reed or cane pipe. Some say that the bubbling causes the song or prayer to enter the medicine. Some say that the way the air bubbles through the medicine predicts how well it will work.
Other plants are burned and their aromatic smoke used to heal or purify. A large bundle of cat’s-foot or fragrant cudweed hangs from the eaves of Johnson Harjo’s house, and his widow, Cora, describes how he would mix the crushed plant with cedar twigs on a shovel and burn it, waving the smoke around a dwelling or rubbing it on the body. It’s been reported that this smoke will protect one from witchcraft as well as illness. Jacob Harjo, a professor recently retired from Haskell University (an Indian school), a relative of Johnson and a devout Christian who understands but professes to have rejected the old ways, describes how Johnson anointed Jacob’s new house with such smoke during a blessing ceremony.
The intricate blending of traditional and modern customs with Christian and native religious beliefs, and the understandable secretiveness of the Seminole today, work against an outsider’s gaining a real understanding of their healing traditions. Even the comprehensive discussion of Seminole plant medicine found in Oklahoma Seminoles: Medicine, Magic, and Religion by James H. Howard with Willie Lena is open to question. This lively but scholarly work depends heavily on the knowledge of Lena, a former Seminole town chief and medicine man; yet Jacob Harjo says that no true medicine man would reveal such secrets, and Lena’s grandniece maintains that he wasn’t really a medicine man, though he did some prescribing. Furthermore, both Lena and the book’s author, Howard, died untimely deaths—a result of having revealed sacred knowledge, several have hinted. And so it goes—a fragile tradition as elusive as the smoke of cat’s-foot and cedar.
Linda Ligon is editorial director of Herbs for Health. She spent her teenage years in Wewoka, Oklahoma, capital of the Seminole Nation. Thanks to Betty Lena, Cora Harjo, Lewis Johnson and the staff of the Seminole Tribal Museum, Jacob Harjo, Margaret Jane Norman, and Ted Underwood for their help in gathering information for this story.
Howard, James M., and Willie Lena. Oklahoma Seminoles: Medicine, Magic, and Religion. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.
Wright, J. Leitch, Jr. Creeks and Seminoles. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
Wright, Muriel H. A Guide to the Indian Tribes of Oklahoma. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951.
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