Thursday, July 23, 2009

Do You Have Something for Memory in There?

When I was younger, one of my favorite books was Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Auel. It’s a looong book, tracing the life of a young Cro-Magnon girl being raised by a clan of Neanderthals over 30,000 years ago.

I was most fascinated by the herbal lore in the book. The medicine woman of the Clan was very knowledgeable about thousands of plants and their medicinal properties, and since they had no written language she knew it all by heart. Reading about her knowledge was the first time that I had really thought about plants having different properties and uses--other than building forts, of course. The thought of one plant being good for headaches AND for setting bones opened up a whole new world. (Plus, I really wanted to be the know-it-all who always knew what kind of herb to administer. Yes, I was a self-important child--why do you ask?)

Sadly, I don’t think that I’ll be able to memorize all the plants in existence, even if I eat copious quantities of Ginko biloba . I’m going to have to count on written language. Specifically, I can look at our new book, Native American Medicinal Plants.

I have tons of mint growing in my backyard. I drink it in tea as a digestive aid, and I looked it up in the book to see how else it was used. Now I know that wild mint was used by the Navajo to "counteract effects of being struck by a whirlwind," and that the Cheyenne used it to improve one's love life. Other tribes used it to lower fevers, cure toothaches, prevent influenza, treat colic, soothe coughs, and, interestingly, to make a person vomit in the case of poisoning. And here I always thought it had a calming effect on the stomach.

The range of uses for each plant led me to check the introduction to the book, to see if the cures “work.” Here’s what Daniel E. Moerman, the author, has to say:

The first thing people usually ask about American Indian medicinal plants is, Do they work? This, it turns out, is tricky question. The short answer is, Yes. The longer answer is more interesting. What does it mean to say that a medicine “works”? Essentially it means that the medicine has the effect that we want it to have, that it meets our expectations. This means that a drug that meets one person’s expectations may not meet another’s, and people may therefore disagree over whether the drug works. Such disagreements usually hinge on different conceptions of health or healing. This is to say that definitions of health and well-being are often cultural matters; they are rarely simple matters of fact.

Chani West-Foyle, Marketing Associate

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