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Sordid Medicine Shows Exploited Indigenous Cures

American settlers capitalized on Indigenous Peoples' long history of using plants to treat ailments.

This article was first published in The Montreal Gazette.

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman — heroine of the 1990s television western of that name — prescribed willow bark tea for just about any ailment, a practice she learned from the Cheyenne. Historical accounts and archeological evidence indicate that Indigenous Peoples in North America really did use willow bark to treat aches, pains and fevers long before 18th-century cleric Edward Stone introduced willow bark as a medicine in England.

Apparently, Stone once chewed on the bark after observing local people were using it to alleviate pain and fever. He found it to be bitter, and knowing that cinchona bark, which at the time was used to treat malaria, also tasted bitter, he thought maybe willow bark could also be used as medicine. Stone had a chance to give it a shot when he developed a fever. It worked! He began to recommend it to his parishioners, and in 1763 he reported his results to the Royal Society.

Today we know that white willow bark contains salicin, a compound that has fever- and pain-reducing properties but irritates the stomach. In 1898, salicin was converted to acetylsalicylic acid and sold as Aspirin by the Bayer company.

Indigenous Peoples in North America have a long history of using plants to treat ailments — a tradition they share with ancient Greek and Egyptian medicine, traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine. One of the first documented uses of Indigenous medicine in North America was by French explorer Jacques Cartier, whose crew was decimated by scurvy during the winter of 1536 at Stadacona, now Quebec City. A number of the men were cured with a decoction made by boiling the leaves and bark of an evergreen tree Cartier learned about from the Iroquois. Exactly what that tree was remains a mystery, but pine needles are known to contain vitamin C, a deficiency of which is the cause of scurvy.

Numerous other plants, such as black cohosh, echinacea, sarsaparilla, goldenseal, skullcap, witch hazel, mugwort, yarrow, sweetgrass, sage, cranberry, saw palmetto, ginseng and garlic, were used by Indigenous Peoples in North America. Undoubtedly, some of these were useful. Black cohosh contains estrogen-like compounds that can relieve hot flashes, sweetgrass has the blood thinner coumarin, and ginsenosides in ginseng may help with some digestive problems.

Indigenous Peoples held a certain fascination for white American settlers, and were believed by some to possess secrets of healing. It was that belief on which two colourful characters, John Healy and Charles Bigelow, capitalized in the late 1800s. Travelling medicine shows that featured a variety of minstrels, burlesque acts, magicians, jugglers, fire eaters and comedians flourished at the time. The acts drew crowds that were then subjected to a sales pitch for some patent medicine from the “professor” or “doctor,” who was usually neither. Healy and Bigelow had the idea of taking advantage of the mystique surrounding Indigenous Peoples to hype a miracle cure they called Sagwa.

In 1881, they founded the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company and came up with a story to captivate their audience. Bigelow claimed he had been acting as a government scout in Native American territory when he came down with a fever that put him at death’s door. He would not have survived, the story went, had he not been given a remedy by a Kickapoo medicine man. Snatched from the jaws of death by this concoction, he prevailed upon the medicine man to divulge its secret ingredients and Sagwa was born. A picture of a Native American dominated the bottle’s label, underlining the message that the mysteries of natural cures that had armed Indigenous Peoples with an iron constitution were now being revealed to the white man.

Bigelow and Healy hired Native Americans, none of whom were Kickapoo, to perform in their medicine shows. Tepees were set up around the stage, powwows were mimicked, war dances performed, tomahawks waved, and naive versions of “cowboy and Indian” conflicts acted out. Then, to the fierce beating of tom-toms, an elder would be introduced by a name such as Thunder Cloud or Dove Wing to praise the wondrous cures in their own tongue. The pitchman interpreted what was supposedly said, prompting a buying frenzy as assistants circulated in the crowd with bottles of Sagwa, occasionally yelling out: “All sold out, Doctor!”

Sagwa — which was promoted as a “blood, liver, stomach and kidney renovator” — listed capsicum, mandrake, guaiacum, sal soda (sodium carbonate) and alcohol as ingredients. Curiously, none of these were actually Native American remedies, but the inclusion of alcohol undoubtedly increased appeal for buyers.

The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company even secured an endorsement from Buffalo Bill Cody. He had his own Wild West show, a decidedly racist endeavour in which his legendary battles were re-enacted, painting a picture of Native Americans as savages who were conquered by the superior white man. Nevertheless, Cody gave the Native Americans credit for Sagwa, declaring that “Kickapoo Indian Sagwa is the only remedy the Indians ever use, and has been known to them for ages.” He went on: “An Indian would as soon be without his horse, gun or blanket as without Sagwa.” The truth, of course, is that they all were without Sagwa, which was the invention of two white men who had no connection to the Kickapoo and had founded a company with a fabricated history, hyping a concoction that had no evidence of any efficacy.

The success of the Kickapoo medicine show spawned a host of imitators peddling copies such as Awaga and Sagwah, but medicine shows began to lose their oomph with the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act in the U.S., which prevented the sale of “adulterated products.” That category included most patent medicines, since they featured unapproved ingredients such as alcohol and opiates.

Unfortunately, the real history of Indigenous medicine is clouded by the sordid history of medicine shows. Recently, though, the Canadian government has called for a recognition of its contributions, with Environment and Climate Change Canada’s new Indigenous Science Division mandated “to bridge, braid and weave Indigenous science with western science.” That is a noble thought, but science is a matter not of philosophy, but of evidence. There is no western science or Indigenous science. There is only science. Evidence needs to rule.

Incidentally, you can still buy white willow bark powder online, often with references to ancient Native American wisdom. But I think today even Dr. Quinn would prefer Aspirin.


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