One must remember that nearly all medicines are poisonous to a degree, and that almost all poisons, properly used, have medicinal uses. A well-taught shaman in this country had access to a “medicine bag” with which he could produce some dramatic effects.
The first flower of spring, the pasque flower or so-called “crocus”, has an irritating oil containing anmonine. Mrs. Durney lived at East Pine where the crocus used to blue the grassy south-facing hills in spring. There, deer grazed in large herds in spring in the early days. She accounted for an observation we had made — the flowers were nipped off neatly as if by a little child. “The deer crop them,” she said. An observant Indian would exploit whatever value he suspected. One bit of lore is known to trappers – the flowers laid on hot coals will kill off the pestiferous mosquito that appears in teepee or tent. The crocus’s relative, the buttercup, is also poisonous, especially the one called “cursed buttercup” which is common here.
The perennial larkspur is known to poison cattle in poor pastures. We wonder whether the Indians discovered that the pounded leaves made into a paste would kill body lice? Some of the tribes were critical of white men for harboring these pests.
With a near relative of the larkspur, the monkshood which grows in deep moist woods and is very common in Pine Pass, the shaman could produce an exciting vision for his patient. The irregular action of the heart produced the sensation of rising and falling or flying through the air. As far as we know the natural antidote digitalis is not found here. Hence there was the grave danger of the permanent flying away of the patient’s “shadow”.
The monkshood and another plant, false hellebore, were useful for poisoning arrows. The hellebore, a tall, green, coarse-looking plant, grows in the Pine Pass, and similar mountain places. Considering how many of the folk-tales tell of a few Beaver Indians killing astounding numbers of their enemies, one wonders …. On the other hand, false hellebore provides a powerful drug, similar to Rauwolfia for reducing high blood pressure, as it is a tranquilizer.
Dogbane provides a substitute for digitalis of which we have no known source here. Knowing how to use this would enable the shaman to “bring back to life” a case of “heart failure”. The plant grows abundantly on roadsides, – about 12 to 16 inches tall, dangling dainty pink striped bell-flowers over gray-blue leaves – followed by long dangling seed capsules of fluffy seeds. When plucked, the broken surfaces of stems and leaves exude a white, milky juice.
The devil’s club, that horrid plant of the wet mountainsides whose spines make sores and scratches that don’t heal, is under study. The Indians say that some part of it if used in a way that is not well known, can produce visions. That plant should do something to justify is existence! “Mountain misery” or its proper name ,Fatsia Horrida are both well-earned.
One of the Indians’ confections was pounded and dried chokecherries, pits and all. The pits, with their characteristic smell of bitter almonds contain hydrocyanic or prussic acid, – cyanide.
Fortunately selenium has leached out of our soil and washed away to sea, hence we do not have the “Locoweed” which is poisonous to livestock only when grown on selenate-bearing soil.
We must not conclude that a shaman or “witch doctor” acquired all of his knowledge by dreams or visions, because, before he became a “professional”, he underwent an apprenticeship under a practicing shaman. Over the centuries a considerable amount of lore must have been stored up by men and women who spent their whole lives in contact with nature, and whose lives depended on close observation and application.
From native doctors around the world we have inherited many of our most potent natural drugs: belladonna, cocaine, morphine, heroin, rauwolfia, chaulmoogra oil (the first break in the treatment of leprosy), strychnine, caffeine, castor oil, diocumarin, digitalis and “aspirin” to name just a few. The biochemistry departments of great universities are devoting much time to experimenting with the “folk-medicines” of many of earth’s areas — first to find the natural drugs, and then to synthesize them for mass distribution. This fact makes the “witch doctor” almost respectable.
Here are some Indian remedies, collected in the book “Buckskin Cookery“. [Quesnel Advertiser, Quesnel, B.C.]
Boils (1) Apply jackpine pitch. Soon breaks boil.
Colds and (1) Drink tea made of young spruce tops.
Coughs (2) Separate and dry roots and also tops of yarrow. Mix and boil when needed.
(3) Stew “Balm of Gilead buds”. (Black poplar or cottonwood)
(4) Dried inner bark of pincherry or chokecherry. Soak 2 days. Boil good. Strain. Add sugar.
(5) Cut up jackpine needles. Boil until turns red, water half gone.
Flu (1) Make a tea of wild sage.
Diarrhea (1) Dry wild strawberry runners and boil up when needed.
(2) Cook up roots of wild strawberries, and give baby the juice for belly trouble.
(3) Boil up leaves of Labrador tea.
Baby Colic (1) Boil up blueberries. Give baby little drinks in morning for bellyache. No sugar.
Laxatives (1) Boil inner bark of aspen poplar for 2 hours. Strain. Take 4 times a day until trouble go. [We know that poplar contains salicylate – a painkiller for rheumatic fever.]
(2) Mash maple buds and boil one hour.
(3) Boil cottonwood flowers and drink the juice.
Kidney Trouble (1) Brew juniper berries and drink tea. Pretty soon no run out all time. Trouble better
Fevers (1) Wash roots of red willow, cut up and pound. Soak in pot of water one day. Boil for many hours. Strain. A big drink will break fever.
(2) Dandelion roots made into tea.
(3) Fireweed leaves are good for fever if made into tea.
Sore Throat (1) Gargle with a tea made from red willow bark.
Spring Tonic Towards the end of the long winter months, Indians began to show signs of scurvy. They treated themselves with a variety of tonics that relieved their sufferings as soon as the sap rose in the trees.
(1) Take bark off Jackpine. Then scrape up tree and take his fat in long white strips and eat all you want. It takes away your pain and you feel strong and good.”
(2) Chokecherry brush, soapallalie brush and saskatoon brush is a good tonic in spring.”
(3) Boil alder bark until water brown. Strain. Take drinks for 2 or 3 weeks.”