Native American Herbal Symbolism
Everything is alive, sacred and connected on the Native American path, which honors the earth by respecting all that she bears. Plants are the hair of the earth in some traditions. Herbs and herbal traditions are steeped in emotion and symbolism in ceremonies and events celebrating all aspects of life and death.
Long before European Colonists arrived in the Americas, natives were cultivating, gathering and using herbs. Our Native American fore-bearers introduced 75% of current agricultural crops. Each Indian Nation carries traditions passed on generation-to-generation, using herbs for healing, seasoning and promotion of spiritual well being. These are some of the herbs and how Native Americans apply them in the language of herbs.
‘The Three Sisters:’ maize or corn, squash and beans were traditionally, not only a food staple for most tribes, but symbolized the essence of life itself – fertility, growth and renewal. The Iroquois prayed, “We return thanks to the corn, and to her sisters, the beans and squashes, which give us life.” If not for Squanto’s famous gift of corn and instructions for planting it in hills with dead fish, the early Pilgrims would never have survived their first winter. Just as Native Americans gave life to the early European immigrants, corn or maize figures in many American Indian myths of the beginning of people on earth. Traditions teach that corn or maize came to us from a supernatural being and each tribe had their own version of how this came about.
The Navajo believe that corn was among the First Ones, and that First Man and Woman were created from two ears of corn, the white ear and the yellow ear. The First Ones sing:
From below the earth my corn comes
I walk with you.
From above the water for the young comes
I walk with you.
From above vegetation comes to the earth
I walk with you.
From below the earth corn pollen comes
I walk with you.
Tobacco* is considered one of the oldest plants in creation and many Native Americans believe that smoking tobacco or burning it enables one to carry messages to the Creator through long, curling tendrils of smoke. The Delaware Indians concocted a special blend of sumac and tobacco, which distinguished them from others because of the their tobacco smoke scent. Tobacco was also used in ceremonies to ward off disease, misfortune, or danger. Using tobacco is the way to bring good fortune, assist one in need and to allay fear.
Cedar is a powerful herb, whose incense is used to purify and consecrate ritual spaces and its celebrants or to release heavy emotional energies, bring financial success and increase psychic powers. The incense is also used at child blessings and namings, which are special events in Native American cultures. When hung inside the house, it protects the home against lightening and negative energies. Cedar in your wallet or purse will attract money.
A Native American ritual of smudging is a way of using the smoke from burning herbs to cleanse the body, an object, or a given area of negative influences. Three of the best herbs for smudging are sage of all types, cedar, and sweet grass. Burn sage to drive out evil spirits, negative thoughts and feelings, and to keep Gan’n(negative entities) away. Burn sweet grass after smudging with sage, to welcome in good influences after the bad are driven out. For cleansing a house, first offer cedar smoke to the four directions outside the house. Then, take a sage bough and go throughout the inside of the house, making sure the smoke penetrates every nook and cranny of the house. Smudging should be done with reverence and in an attitude of love. Show respect and honor to the herbs and they will return the favor by keeping us well and free from disease and negative energy. Sage is also said to increase psychic powers.
North American Natives consider the maple an herb that loves the company and attention of people. It symbolizes positive thinking and the use of intuition. Those who use maple are gentle and love their families.
The fragrant sassafras tree is especially attractive because of its beguiling odor; its leaves smell citrusy, the roots root beer-like and its wood medicinal. Sassafras purifies the spirit. The Creek and Seminole Indians used wax myrtle as a charm against illness and for exorcising the spirits of their dead.
Today American Indians still use herbs to celebrate every aspect of life and death, for healing, for seasoning, and to improve spiritual well being. Long past Native American herbal traditions, passed on from generation-to-generation, are now available through modern technology of writing and the inter-net to all who wish to have a more beautiful and meaningful relationship with the earth and nature.
*This representation of the symbolism of tobacco is in not intended to encourage the use of it. Based on current medical knowledge it is known to be harmful with extended use.