Day 211: Cross-Cultural Materia Medica

Ozark medical knowledge isn’t a uniform set of traditions and practices. It was born out of a sense of necessity, and has always incorporated new knowledge into the repertoire as it was discovered. It’s never been a closed, protected tradition (for the most part) but instead has represented an ever-changing materia medica that has incorporated practices, theories, and medicines from several different traditions.

I’ve mentioned many of these influences before in other articles, today I’d like to talk a little bit about the interactions between Native peoples and the Ozark hillfolk.

Before the Ozarkers came to settle in these hills and hollers they mostly came from the Appalachian Mountains in the mid to late 19th century. These families, who were mostly a mixture of Scots-Irish, German, Black, and Native peoples, were later followed by an influx of Irish, German, and Italian immigrants later on into the 20th century. These families settled in the Ozarks, as the story goes, because it reminded them so much of the Appalachian Mountains where they were coming from. If you’ve ever been to both of these places, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

There had been European exploration in the Ozarks region since the 17th century, but with no permanent settlement until much later with the influx of families coming west. It’s a sad fact that most of the histories on the Ozarks don’t mention the reasons why these families were able to settle in the Ozarks. Since the early part of the 19th century the population of the Osage, who were the main inhabitants of the Ozark region since the decline of the Caddo people, had been declining due to sickness, relocation, and encroachment from both the Europeans and the Cherokee who were being forcibly resettled into west-central Arkansas. Ozark people were able to settle these lands because the original inhabitants were either killed off or relocated. Here’s a brief quote taken from the article on the Osage people found in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas:

“Forced to cede their indigenous homelands via treaties signed in 1808, 1818, and 1825, the Osage relocated to the Three Forks area of eastern Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Cherokee settling in increasing numbers along the Arkansas River between present-day Morrilton (Conway County) and Fort Smith (Sebastian County) began to encroach on lands north of the river the Osage still claimed. This led to a number of violent conflicts between the tribes, in response to which Major William Bradford and a company of U.S. Army soldiers arrived at Belle Point along the Arkansas River in December 1817 to begin construction of Fort Smith. This show of force prompted Osage and Cherokee delegations to meet the following summer in St. Louis, Missouri, with Missouri territorial governor William Clark, who served also as the territorial supervisor of Indian Affairs. Clark negotiated a truce, part of which involved the Osage selling a tract of land extending north of the Arkansas River from Frog Bayou to the Verdigris River, known as ‘Lovely’s Purchase,’ intended to serve as a buffer between the tribes. Ultimately this truce failed, and Osage and Cherokee violence continued for several years until another treaty was signed, this time at Fort Smith, in August 1822.”

Many of the Osage stayed hidden in the area, and would eventually intermarry with the white settlers, much like what happened with the Cherokee in the Appalachian Mountains. The Cherokee also would have a great influence upon Ozark culture, not only because of interactions with whites in the Appalachians, but then interactions with the new Ozark people after their forced relocation. I have been able to find four different Native ancestors of mine that ended up in the Ozarks because of relocation. They, like many others, married white people and settled, never finishing the long, hard road to Oklahoma.

So, when we look at Ozark medicine we have to look at the Native influences coming in from the Cherokee and Osage peoples. There are, I’m sure, other influences, the difficult part of this sort of research is sifting through all of this folklore and folk knowledge and being able to say whether this piece is European, Native, African, or something completely new to this area (which happens a lot.) Some pieces are easier to identify than others. Take for instance the plant-based medicines. Knowledge of most of the New World plants would have come from interactions with the Native peoples. There are a lot of plants in the Ozark materia medica that do not have European variants, and when you look at plant usage amongst white and Native populations and those usages are the same, you can pretty much say that there was some inter-learning going on. You also see the European plants like mullein, yarrow, and plantain, which are not New World plants, being used in Cherokee and other Native materia medica, showing that not only was the transmission of knowledge Native to White but also White to Native, and many times much more complicated when you add in the African aspect, which I will talk about in another article.

It’s beginning to look like the more I learn about Ozark medicine and folklore from recorded folklorists and first-hand accounts alike, and the more I learn about Native medicine, the more similarities and direct transmissions are going to pop up. For example, one similarity I discovered the other day is the use of skunk oil in the Ozark and Cherokee materia medica. Here’s what Mooney had to say about it:

“The odour of skunk…is believed to keep off contagious diseases, and the scent bag is therefore taken out and hung over the doorway, a small hole is pierced in it, in order that the contents may ooze out upon the timbers. At times, as in the smallpox epidemic of 1866, the entire body of the animal was thus hung up, and in some cases as an additional safeguard the meat was cooked and eaten and the oil rubbed over the skin of the person.”

And here’s a few quote from Vance Randolph on the Ozark use of skunk oil:

“Many Ozark youngsters are dosed with large quantities of skunk oil for throat ailments, particularly croup. This stuff is rendered from the fat of skunks trapped in the winter a strong stinking mess which makes many children vomit.”

“The grease from skunks or civet cats, mixed with peppermint leaves, is highly praised by some hillfolk as a lubricant for rheumatic joints.”

“I knew one man who always carried the bullet which had been cut out of his leg; whenever he felt a twinge of pain, he would take the bullet out of his wallet and put a drop of skunk oil on it. He laughed a little every time he did this, and never admitted that he believed in the efficacy of such a procedure.”

Another interesting example is the use of buzzard feathers and bodies in connection to healing practices. Here’s a quote from Mooney:

Buzzard feathers are hung over the doorway, and I have also witnessed a case where the whole carcass was hung up in the room and was allowed to decay there…This buzzard is used in the connection because of its habit of preying on decayed carcasses and rubbish; as he is immune from any ill effects, ‘caused by the bad odors,’ he is supposed by the Cherokee to be immune from disease-contracting propensities, and therefore to be able to communicate this valuable trait to those who keep his feathers, etc., as a charm.”

And again from Vance Randolph:

“The body of a buzzard is somehow used to treat cancer, but this must be done secretly, for the killing of a buzzard means seven years of crop failure for the whole countryside, and the man who shoots one of these birds is naturally unpopular.”

“Others think that a buzzard’s feather is best of all, a belief attributed to the Cherokees; an old woman near Southwest City, Missouri, painfully bent and twisted by rheumatism, assured me that the black feather she always wore in her hair ‘had done more good than twenty year o’ doctorin’!’”

Mooney also gives a few other examples of interactions which are quite interesting to look at. Here’s an excerpt from Mooney and Frans M. Olbrechts’ “The Swimmer Manuscript” about some of the folkloric and medical exchange between the white and native populations:

“The following are the only beliefs and practices in the domain of medicine that can actually be traced to European influence:

“A crowing hen causes a death in the family; the death can be averted by killing the animal…

“…A howling dog likewise “causes” death. (It is interesting to note that what in European folklore is considered as an omen may become a cause in Cherokee belief.) W. told me that his mother, Ayo., used to scold the dog, and command the animal to either stop howling or else to die itself. If the dog died, its evil-foreboding howling had no further effect.

“…To give a dog water to drink with which cartridges have been rinsed, in order to make it a sure tracker, is another practice which only too evidently shows its pedigree.

“There are, moreover, some beliefs and practices of which it is not possible to say whether they have been borrowed from European folklore or whether they have originated independently. Such are to my mind:

“The vomiting into the river.

“The use of spider web as a styptic.

“The remarkable properties ascribed to such material medica as stump water and lightning-struck wood.”

All of these examples can be found in Ozark folklore and materia medica, and there are so many more that can be mentioned. It’s interesting for me to look at these interactions because so often we see folk traditions labeled as being completely homogenous in practices, beliefs, and folklore, when that’s just not the case. Ozark folkways are not just Scots-Irish, but rather a complicated puzzle made up of pieces from a lot of different cultures and peoples many of whom have a very tense and heated past. In looking at these interactions we are better able to identify with the “other” and our closed communities, which we are quick to preserve and protect, become much more complicated entities. Through this process of discovery, by reaching out and learning from the people who we would normally, through paranoia, avoid, we can perhaps right some of the wrongs of the past and better insure that the future will be a more understanding and tolerant place.

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