In many American Indian tribes, there are amazing health and wellness treatments used to enhance, supplement and heal a variety of aliments. Many of these treatments are considered rituals through ceremonial performances with explicit steps. Most importantly the American Indian culture prevails at the connection between nature and self. Most tribes believe an illness is connected to one self’s imbalance of nature. Although traditional American Indians are not well known for their beauty regimes, they indeed have elaborate beauty, health and spa rituals that we can definitely learn from and apply in our own spa rituals.
Before we describe these rituals, let me first correct the idea that American Indian were not necessarily known for their beauty. There is one passage I read that pretty much summed it up. Mr. Beresford, a chronicled Captain George Dixon’s exploration of Yakutat Bay in 1787, made a starling comment about the Yakutat Tlingit Indians. These Indians were noted as women who were ‘fond of painting their faces with a variety of colors, so that it is no easy matter to discover their real complexion; however, we prevailed on one woman, by persuasion, and a trifling present, to wash her face and hands, and the alteration it made in her appearance absolutely surprised us; her countenance had all the cheerful glow of an English milkmaid; and the healthy red which flushed her cheek, was even beautifully contrasted with the whiteness of her neck; her eyes were black and sparkling; her eye-brows the same color, and most beautifully arched; her forehead so remarkably clear, that the translucent veins were seen meandering even in their minutest branches – in short, she was what would be reckoned handsome even in England.’
One of the most famous American Indians was of course Sacagawea where at the young age of 12 years old, she was kidnapped by a war party of Hidatsa Indians in 1800. The Hidatsa Indians were enemies of her tribe, the Shoshones. Sacagawea was later traded as a slave and became wife of a Toussaint Charbonneau, member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. While on the expedition she gave birth to her first child. Sacagawea, with the infant Jean Baptiste, was the only woman to accompany the 33 members of the permanent party to the Pacific Ocean and back. Her activities as a member of the Corps included digging for roots, collecting edible plants and picking berries; all of these were used as food and sometimes, as medicine. On May 14, 1805, the boat Sacagawea was riding in was hit by a high wind and nearly capsized. She recovered many important papers and supplies that would otherwise have been lost, and her calmness under duress earned several compliments of the captains. During the expedition’s return journey, as they passed through her homeland of the Shoshone Indians, Sacajawea remembered the trails and proved to be a valuable guide. After the expedition, it was thought be many that she died at 25 of a tepid fever relating to an illness she had struggled with her entire life.
Sacajawea is just one of many amazing American Indian women who utilized a variety of herbs for medicine and beauty routines. Most of the herbs were utilized for healing, as it was a dangerous way of living on the land. To maintain beauty, one had to be able to heal ones self off the land regardless of season. To do so, there were several methods for obtaining help. Firstly, an herbiest would provide a concoction of ingredients found from the local environment especially those herbs considered sacred to the tribe. There were also rituals to appease the spirits, including the spirits of animals, lightening, the Supreme Being and mother earth. There were sacred herbs as well as traditional herbs for daily usage.
There are Four Sacred Medicines to the North American Indians were often used in ‘smudging’ where they were smoked and used as an incense to awaken the soul and carry their prayers to the Creator. Interestingly, before these plants were harvested, they were blessed. It was believed that the picker needed to communicate their intention and gather the plants permission before they could harvest. And they harvested only what they needed and never more as ever part of the ceremony process had to be balanced with nature and the spirit world. These herbs are sacred in both ceremonies and daily routines and commonly used in today’s modern society.
- Sweetgrass (Weengush) – Sweetgrass is sacred to the American Indians as it was often used in many of their ceremonial rituals including prayers and ceremonies. It was smoked as tobacco in ceremonies, burned as incense at burials. Smudging with Sweetgrass was meant to purify the spirit representing love, kindness and honesty. The sweet smell was thought to bring positive energy and positive spirits to the ritual. Sweetgrass was also braided, dried and burned producing a sweet fragrance also often used as braiding of the hair to produce a natural perfume. Today’s Sweetgrass is a common element of potpourris.
- Cedar (Keezhik or most commonly referred to as Cedarwood essence oil) – The Ancient American Indians utilized cedar in teas to cleanse the body of infections, especially when mixed with sage. In smudging ceremonies, cedar was used for protection and more specifically to protect the home and chase away negative spirits.
- Sage (Sukodawabuk) – Sage is most often used in the American Indian Ceremonies because it has physical healing properties, calming effects and releases negative energy.
- Tobacco (Semah)– The most commonly know sacred medicines is the tobacco as it is the main activator and used to make smoke. Tobacco is unique in that is was also used to communicate to the spirit world. It was given as part of a gift to the elders before a ceremony in order to produce your honorable intentions as an offering. Although today’s modern world has connected health risks with smoking tobacco, Ancient American Indians also used it as a pain reliever to relieve toothaches, mouth sores, skin worms, skin rashes, and heal deep wounds commonly used it.
Other frequently used herbs from traditional American Indians include:
- Aloe Vera, a common cactus plant, is one of the most amazing natural remedies discovered by the Native Americans as a source of long lasting hydration to sooth dry skin, bug bites, heal wounds, heal sun burns, moisturizer hair and treat dry scalp. It was also used in making soaps to cleanse the skin without striping it of its natural oils. Even in modern times, makeup products continue to utilize Aloe Vera as wonderful makeup removers. In Ayurveda medicine it is used to heal chronic skin issues like eczema, acne and psoriasis.There are two substances the Aloe Vera plant can product, a gel from the inner part of the leaf and a latex form that comes from under the plant’s skin that is usually yellowish in color.The benefit of Aloe Vera is that is acts like a protective layer to the skin to allow moisture to be locked in and heal quicker should there be a wound. There are some studies that indicate Aloe Vera increases circulation in the tiny blood vessels and kills bacteria and fungi. There are two hormones found in Aloe Vera that assists with reducing inflammation and helping act as a anti-inflammatory: Auxin and Gibberellins. Additional Aloe Vera contains the following antioxidants: beta carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E which not only helps the skin stay hydrated but also improves the skin’s elasticity. It also contains other beneficial elements such as minerals, enzymes, anthraquinones (phenolic compounds), lignin, saponins, sterols, amino acids and salicylic acid.Look for 100% aloe juice products and gels if you can’t use it directly from the aloe leaf. Avoid any products that are extracts, as they do not contain all the benefits listed above.
- Prickly Pear (Nopales, Barbary Figs) – The Prickly Pear is the second most amazing herb utilized by the American Indians. It has antiviral, antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties. It also has a host of great elements such as magnesium, essential fatty acids, amino acids, antioxidants (including vitamins E, C, B & K), beta-carotene, potassium, iron and calcium. In fact, Prickly Pear has 150% of vitamin E that is contained in argon oil. It was used by American Indians as a healing food in soups, teas with its flowers, stems, leaves and fruit. The flavonoid compounds prevent inflammation of the joints also enabled healing to skin wounds, rashes and blemishes. Today, you can find the same benefits in the cold pressed seeds of the Prickly Pear. The antioxidants in Prickly Pear are perfect to rejuvenate protect against premature aging. With Vitamin K it fights against dark circles and of course the antioxidants soften the skin almost immediately once applied. Not only was Prickly Pear used to moisturizer the skin; it was also used as a conditioner the hair. It seems to be the go to beauty essential.
- Juniper Essential Oil, in a steamed-distilled oil from the needles and berries of the juniper plant. It can treat skin conditions that can lead to toxins accumulation in the body. It is currently used as an antiseptic for wounds and an anitheumatic to improve blood circulation. Another benefit of Juniper oil is that it is effective at stimulating and relaxing the muscles, especially cramps and spasms. Juniper oil can also act as an astringent by assisting blood vessels to contract to reduce the chances of hemorrhaging.
- Bearberry Leaf (three species: Common, Alpine & Red) – Each of the three Bearberry bushes have the elements for the following listed benefits. The Bearberry leaf was commonly used by the Ancient American Indians to relieve itchy scalps usually caused by a fungus as well as skin sores and abrasions. Bearberry leaves have a high polyphenolic compound relating to it’s high in antioxidants elements to renew, repair and regenerate skin cells. Bearberry leaves are one the highest free radical reducer to reduce premature wrinkles and skin elasticity. It also contains arbutin, which inactivates tyrosinase (an enzyme that causes skin pigmentation). The Bearberry leaf extract hit the beauty market on high at the beginning of 2014 as a skin brightener. Ancient American Indians boiled the leaves and then allowed the water to cool just before rinsing their hair with the solution. They also mixed it with a grease-like salve to condition their hair and for healing skin abrasions.
- Fireweed (a willow herb sometimes called ‘Asperg’) – Native Americans utilized the many benefits of fireweed, as it was able to grow in the harsh winter of North America. It was used to treat skin burns and moisturizer the skin. It is still used today in teas and soups for digestive, diarrhea, asthma, and bronchial issues for it’s astringent and demulcent (soothes irritated mucous membranes) properties. Fireweed has both anti-inflammatory and antibacterial elements making it perfect for healing skin injuries, ulcers and rashes. The Black foot Indians utilized fireweed as a powder to rub on their faces to shield them from the bitter cold winter conditions. Fireweed is rich in tannins and flavonoids
- Saw Palmetto (low growing palm tree) – Saw Palmetto was used as a hormone regulator for women, it assisted with decreasing the amount of testosterone levels in the woman that lead to unwanted hair growth or hirsutism. Saw Palmetto contains an anti-inflammatory through its high amount of polysaccharides that helps boost the immune system. Today it’s thought to help control hormonal related acne in both men and women.
- Corn (blue corn and not yellow or white corn) – Corn was not only a large part of the American Indian diet, but it was also used ground up to exfoliate the skin. Especially for brides to make their skin glow before a marriage ceremony. On the skin it helps circulate the blood and providing a flushed appearance through its phenolic phytochemical component and ferulic acid known to fight free radicals, which causes premature aging of the skin. Ferulic acid is also well known today to inhibit melanin production.
- Jojoba Oil – The most popular of the American Indian beauty rituals is this wonderful naturally emollient. Jojoba oil is extracted from the jojoba seed and used through out the cosmetic industry as a conditioner for hair and moisturizer for the skin. Since it is not made with traditional animal based oils that ways down skin, it’s absorbed easily and tends not to clog pores causing acne. Additionally it very similar to the molecular structure of the sebum and can even break down sebum that traditionally causes pores to become clogged. It’s thought to be helpful to acne skin as it allows the skin to still be moisturized and to help with acne without the harness of over drying the skin.
- Wild Mint (juice or oil) – Oils were often used as an antiseptic, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, antipruritic, fragrance, skin soother especially if itchy and even as a bug repellant product. American Indians often used it as hair oil for both fragrance and beauty. As a juice wild mint was used as a skin cleanser, which assisted with acne and soothing insect bites and rashes. It was commonly used in baths for itchy skin.
- Yarrow Root (Achillea Millefolium) – Yarrow was used in soups and teas to induce sweating to break a fever, soar throats, cold and flu viruses. It also helps with stimulating blood circulation within the uterus and assists with internal hemorrhaging issues. Topically it was used to treat bacterial skin issues, skin rashes, heal wounds and sooth skin itching. Yarrow oils are anti-microbial and can bring circulation to the skin for optimum cellular turn over.
- Yucca – Contains a high amount of saponins or soapy foaming properties that were used to cleanse the hair. It was commonly used to treat hair loss, dandruff and dry scalps. It was also used to wash out wounds and skin sores.
A common American Indian recipe for making Yucca Root Shampoo:
- Choose a small yucca root and clean of all debris.
- Peel the top layer of the root covering and break into pieces.
- Blend or smash the broken pieces into a pulp with juices.
- Once the pulp turns into alight amber, it’s ready to be mixed with other oils for fragrance and conditioning.
A common American Indian recipe for making Prickly Pear Hair Conditioner:
- Peel away the outer skin of the Prickly Pear (should be very easy)
- The texture of the pink pulp is crumbly with dark seeds like watermelon.
- Cut the pulp into small chunks for one cup worth of pulp
- Add a cup of water
- Shake or blend the water and pulp
- Strain and pour the liquid onto the hair
- Massage into the scalp and hair for at least 5 minutes.
- Let it set for another 10 minutes
- Rinse with warm water
Americans Indians used these herbs in their daily routines but medicine men, medicine women and shamans provided the essential guide to which herbs were needed for specific conditions. They used the four sacred medicines and a few of the other herbs listed above apart of their traditional ceremonies and rituals.
Medicine men and women provided additional support to their tribal members through healing techniques obtained through visions. Each medicine man or woman obtained the visions differently, but sometimes they were acquired by seeking out the visions. Others were chosen by spirits to become the medicine man or woman. The stories are fascinating on how they obtained these visions but regardless it was essential for each of the tribes to have this person within their tribe. Once the person obtained the connection with a spirit, the spirit would guide them on how to heal or manage the specific request presented. For each spiritual access, the medicine man or woman had a special ritual to entice the spirit to present itself. Additionally, the medicine man or woman could heal in different ways or obtain information for different needs by accessing a connection to multiple spirits. This was necessary because each spirit could assist with different healing techniques in which the medicine man needed to obtain for the specific need. Sometimes modern interpreters connect their processes to ghost channelers or mystics, however the process is very different and can be very dangerous without proper guidance. The American Indians also had a very highly decorated individual to access to the spirits world for special needs; the very highly decorated Shaman was able to solicit visions from spirit world but also retained unique knowledge of recipes and methods for healing. These recipes and rituals were usually passed down through trade teachings.
Given the American Indians are always shown with longer hair, it was actually strictly for bitten for the Medicine and Shamans to cut their hair. Similar to the story of Samson in the Bible and some modern day Jews, American Indians were taught to never cut their hair. The hair was seen as a antenna or connection to the spiritual world. By keeping the hair uncut, it enabled an enhanced sixth sense and intuition to guide them throughout their day. And by keeping the hair uncut meant it needed to be well taken care of with special cleansing and oils to maintain its strength. Interestingly, this perspective is also shared with the Eastern Indian Jhuttadarees, Eastern Europe’s Merovingian Kings from the middle ages and even the early 1900’s mysterious Vril Society. Each of these cultures attributed their long hair to the mystical connection. Hair was therefore, sacred to the individual and well maintained.
The American Indians had a tough life, living off the land in incredibly ever changing temperatures. Some tribes even moved frequently to be near food sources. Regardless, they had these staples within their culture to count on for their beauty, health and wellness. Incorporate any of these herbal elements into your beauty routines to achieve your personal best.
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