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American Indian Medicine by Virgil J. Vogel

Review by Christina Nealson

Indian lore – February 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

American Indian Medicine
by Virgil J. Vogel
Published in 1990 by University of Oklahoma Press
ISBN 0-8061-2293-5

THE FIRST AND MOST IMPORTANT FACT to remember when considering this book is that it began as a doctoral dissertation. It is a study, loaded with information, references, and names. The information within is fascinating, but not always easily accessible.

This work is thorough. Vogel hauls the reader through 266 pages of text, about 150 pages of appendices, 60 pages of end notes, and 40 pages of bibliography. He weaves a fine conglomeration of Indian history and healing practices, including chapter topics such as Indian theories of disease and shamanistic practices, early observations of white men on Indian medicine, services of Indian doctors to whites, the influence of Indian medicine on folk medicine, and American Indian therapeutic methods.

Each of these areas shoots off into numerous others. For example, “Methods” includes diverse and detailed accounts of anæsthetics, narcotics, poisons, bleeding as therapy, cupping, and sucking, and treatment of internal ailments like diabetes, epilepsy, and fevers.

The book comes most alive in the first appendix,

“Contributions to Pharmacology,” wherein Vogel lists plants used by North American Indians, as well as natives of the West Indies, Mexico, Meso-America, and South America: “Alder. Josselyn reported in 1672 that ‘an Indian, bruising and cutting his knee with a fall, used no other remedy than alder bark, chewed fasting, and laid to it, which did soon heal it.'”

Four pages are devoted to tobacco, with such lore as Aztecs using it to treat diarrhea, Choctaws tossing it into fires to abate storms, Menominee using it to induce a narcotic state, and Cherokee blowing tobacco smoke on snake bites.

A fascinating book, yes. Indispensable to anyone interested in them subject, yes. But I longed for a scrap of the passion that underlies this information. I came closest in the illustrations, several moving portrayals of Native Americans in the act of healing.

Vogel’s own closing paragraph best illustrates my disappointment with the book: “The resurrection of the forgotten story of American Indian contributions to medicine and other aspects of our culture has a certain practical importance. Ethnic arrogance is no longer fashionable in today’s world where dark-skinned peoples have suddenly become politically important. A better understanding of what some of these people have given us can form the basis of a new and healthier attitude.”

Ho hum.