Indigenous Appalachia & Diasporic Medicine

Known traditionally to Abenaki people as Wombanednok; to the Penobscot Nation as Katahdin; to the Lenape as Kittatinny; and to the Tsalagi (Cherokee) Nation as Walasi-Yi, the so called Appalachian Mountains have remained ancient homes and resting places for a number of powerful deities, plant magics, and nature spirits. Over one billion years old, the mountain range is the oldest on Turtle Island, revealing countless stories of spiritual phenomena and Medicine within their rocks, stones, and trees. Many of these stories come from original stewards and ancestors of the land. Others came from African ancestors, and Scotch-Irish and German settlers who found refuge in the mountains throughout the 17-20th centuries, along with their mountain-dwelling descendants.

In his book, the Cherokee Herbal (2003), author J.T. Garrett (Eastern Band of Cherokee) shares a story from a Cherokee elder about their peoples’ origins and connections to these sacred mountains:

The people we now call the Cherokee existed as small bands of humans who came from the Four Directions in the star-filled sky, long before any recorded dates regarding human existence here on Mother Earth. These beings were called no lun see, or the Star People, who came from the land of the North Sky. The Tuskagee River Valley was always their place here on Mother Earth…

Tsalagi Elder

The elder continues to explain how the tuc wa ge were another people who existed on Mother Earth as a mix of human and animal. They were the first to learn how to survive here, and it is said they eventually disappeared deep into the caves of Deep Creek. These are the ones still known today as the Little People. They are shapeshifters and keepers of nature’s secrets. Many stories exist about the Little People across cultures on Turtle Island, and African and Scotch-Irish folks alike were no strangers to these elemental beings, carrying stories of fairies and little folk from their own homelands (have you heard of the Aziza from West Africa?). Nor were these groups strangers to the Medicines and magics of plants. Often healers, Medicine people, and midwives across villages and cultures would exchange their knowledge of different plants’ known uses and properties.

This history and knowledge of Indigenous medicine making is what birthed Southeastern healing traditions such as Hoodoo (rootwork), Appalachian folk magic, the “Lord’s work,” and kitchen witchery. With little access to Western hospitals and medicines, families across Appalachia depended on wise grandparents and midwives for the health and wellbeing of the community. It is important to note though, not only were they depended on as healers, they were usually more trusted than the city doctors who were unknown to the local people.

Sacred Peaks in Turtle Island Cosmologies

The tallest peak in the Appalachians lies in Abenaki homelands, and remains a place of great spiritual significance. Called Agiocochook, “Home of the Great Spirit,” this place along with other white peaked summits were said to be the dwellings of gods and were not permitted to be walked upon. Although the mountain came to be known as Mount Washington to settlers, the nearby Agiocochook Crag still holds the Abenaki name on paper.

Another peak, known as Katahdin, or “The Greatest Mountain,” in Algonquian is a place of sacred importance to the Penobscot Nation. They and other tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy participate in a sacred 100-mile pilgrimage to Katahdin annually, which consists of four days of running, walking, and paddling to honor the journey and traditions of their Wabanaki ancestors. While settlers, visiting travelers, and hikers often do not recognize it – mountains like these are holy grounds to be respected and treated with the utmost care.

Diasporic Medicine: Hoodoo

Not to be confused with voodoo (/vodou), Hoodoo is a healing herbal craft that developed in southeastern Turtle Island from the traditions of many groups of West African ancestors who were forced together during the slave trade. It is said to have come from the synchronization of Traditional African Religions with Protestant Christianity (unlike Santería in the Caribbean, which formed by synchronizing African spirituality with Roman Catholicism). This form of root magic was a means of healing, protection, and survival across the south, and especially within the remote mountains. Today, ancestral hoodoo traditions are passed down orally and operate as closed practices. This is primarily to keep knowledge protected and out of the hands of those who would only seek to commodify it.

Settler Herbal Craft

Like Hoodoo, Irish, Scotch-Irish, and German folk medicine also contained elements of Christianity – and it would be impossible to separate them. By today’s standards, many if not all of these practices weren’t viewed as witchcraft so much as practical ways of life. Christian beliefs and folk superstition went hand in hand. According to herbalist healer and author Phyllis Light, “the duality of Irish and Scotch-Irish folk practices can be seen in the use of moon signs, astrology, and the view that spiritual actions could cause illness, a view also held by Africans…” Appalachian practitioner Ian Allen also states, “They didn’t see it in opposition to their faith. They would believe these (remedies and practices) were handed down to them from the Christian God. The ability to interpret dreams, read fortunes through playing cards or tea leaves, you would have people doing things in the mountains, what we now would definitely term witchcraft, especially the divination as far as fortune telling.” Allen said many Appalachian seers used regular playing cards to read fortunes, as Tarot cards were more difficult to access at the time. Healers, midwives, and grandmothers who were intimately familiar with herbs would often recite Bible verses alongside the plant medicines, especially after delivering children.

Herbs in the Bible

There are about 100-200+ plants mentioned in the Bible, all of which were used for food, cosmetics, medicine, and religious rituals. See the list below for examples:

  • “The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth; and he that is wise will not abhor them.” – Ecclesiasticus 38:4
  • “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” – Matthew 2:11
  • “He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.” – John 19:39
  • “When he has leveled the surface, does he not sow caraway and scatter cumin? Does he not plant wheat in its place, barley in its plot, and spelt in its field?” – Isaiah 28:25
  • “We remember the free fish we ate in Egypt, along with the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic.” – Numbers 11:5
  • “Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus.” – Exodus 30:23

Sources & Further Reading

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