Indians Curing the Sick

Date: 1590
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images


This 1590 engraving by Theodore de Bry depicts a variety of healing techniques practiced by Florida Indians. The man on the mat in the picture's bottom left is having his skull cut open (trepanned) by the surgeon leaning over him, a procedure believed to relieve severe headaches or bleed-out infections. The person laying face down on the right is inhaling a fumigation made from burning herbs, and the woman standing on the left is drinking an herbal tonic. These techniques were probably very old, but with the arrival of Europeans and their new diseases, Indians tried adapting them to treat unprecedented imported conditions like smallpox.

Although fumigations and simple brain surgery might seem like rather unusual medical practices, it is perhaps even less familiar to modern sensibilities that the man in the back of the engraving is smoking tobacco for medicinal purposes. Despite modern bio-medical evidence as to the harmful effects of tobacco, this mild narcotic was almost universal in pre-Columbian medicine in the Americas and continues to be used for healing in rural areas with large Indian populations. Shamans, curanderos, and even bonesetters are known to smoke tobacco to a point of delirium in order to induce dreams that will instruct them as to the cause or potential cure of an illness. After receiving their vision, a healer can use tobacco for a multitude of afflictions: it could be rubbed into an insect or snake bite to slow infection, induce nasal bleeding to relieve headaches, made into plasters to soothe ulcers, and the smoke could be blown into the wounds, nose, ears, and eyes for a spiritual cure and mild anesthetic. In the centuries immediately following European conquest, many whites promoted the curative powers of tobacco, which was considered to be one of the potential botanical wonder drugs from the New World. Although there is more than enough evidence that the habitual use of tobacco causes several life-threatening conditions, health is regulated by both physical and mental influences, and the controlled application of tobacco by a professional healer may indeed be medically viable.

Reference: Robicsek, Francis. The Smoking Gods: Tobacco in Maya Art, History, and Religion. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978.

It is also interesting to note that de Bry and many other European artists portrayed Native Americans as muscular paradigms of health. In a way, this is a testament to the success of American diet and medicine, but it also reflected European stereotypes that Indians lived in an uncorrupted state of nature, a kind of primitive Eden. Just like the stereotypes that labeled all Indians as savages, the notion that Indians were physically or morally superior because of their distance from Europe was a Eurocentric generalization that reflected European presuppositions far more than actual circumstances.
CITATION: Indians tending their sick by trepanning to remove diseased blood and fumigation to remove toxins from diseases contracted from Europeans, including syphilis and smallpox. Engraving, c. 1590, by Theodore de Bry from his "Historia Americae." Courtesy of the Granger Collection, NY. ID: 0036899.