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Thursday, September 4, 2014

10,000 B.C.-1492: Natives of North America

So what was it like to live with asthma in the early Americas? To answer this question we must first understand the people who lived in the Americas.

Early on in our history, the continents of Asia and North America were connected by a land bridge called Beringia.  It was about 1,000 miles wide.

Many of the tribes and families that migrated across Beringia stayed in North America.  Some continued to hunt and gather as individual tribes and families, and some of these tribes and families banded together to form larger tribes. They must have been at peace with their way of life, and had no reason to change unless nature, or enemy tribes, forced change.

Map of cultural ares of North America at the time of the
European invasion (from Wikepedia)
As with other primitive societies, they worshiped the land, and believed health sickness, peace and strife were the result of the many spirits that lived among them.  For the most part they were at peace, spending their time as hunters and gatherers, and as worshipers of the many spirits.  Some would ultimately become farmers.   

No one knows exactly when the various tribal nations were formed, although some estimated times are given when possible.  That said, here are some of the tribes of North America: 

Natives of North America
Clovis People:  13,500-13000 B.C.
Fluted spear tips (spear tips chipped into shape by stone tools) were found amid Bison bones in Clovis, New Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s, hence the name of the spear tip and the people.  These people are believed to be among one of the first cultures to develop in North America.  “Clovis people” is a generic name for the paleo-indians who came across the Bering Land Bridge and populated the Americas.  They were basically nomads, although from time to time they returned to places they found to be well stocked with vegetation and animals.  There were people who came before them, although some consider them parents many future native American cultures.
Eskimo (Inuit): 10:000 B.C. to current

There are hundreds of other tribal nations of the Subarctic Regions of North America, most of which speak Algonquin or Athapascan languages. Some of these are: Ojibwa, Chippewa, Cree, Innu, Kaska, Yellow Knives, Han, Chipewyan, Ahtna, Oji Cree, Anishinini, Tagish, Tlo Cho, Lower Tanana, Upper Tanana, Southern Tutchone, Northern Tutchone, etc. Click here for more
These are people indigenous to Siberia, Alaska, Greenland, and Canada.  They are considered among the last of the paleo-indians to cross Beringia.  They refer to themselves as the Inuit, or “the people.” Most of them came across over the ice on sleds led by dogs, and they lived in igloos and pit house. (Encyclopedia Britannica) They were fishermen and hunters, hunting reindeer, musk ox, seal, walrus, and whale.  Because they were known to eat both cooked and raw meat, they were called the Eskimo by the English, which is Algonquin for “eaters of raw meat.” The British often used Algonquin when referring to Native Americans, mainly because they were the first Native Americans they came into contact with. (Hakim, page 24, 25, 28)
Cliff Dwellers (Anasazi): 1100-1400 A.D.

Early Pueblo Indians
They are given their name by the large dwellings they built into the cliffs of the Rio Grande, along the Colorado river, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. They also lived in pit houses and pueblos, which were large, rectangular adobe houses made of clay, rock and straw. Some Pueblos had many rooms. They lived off the animals of the area (rabbit, deer, elk, etc.), and crops they planted along the river valleys below their cliff-homes.
Mound Builders:  3,400 B.C. to 1500s

Many mounds were built over a thousand years prior to the great pyramids of Egypt. 
They lived in cities with formal governments east of the Mississippi.  They made and collected gorgeous artistic ornaments, and even had their own businesses.  They also built mounds by carrying baskets of dirt.  The mounds were used as burial sites for the dead, and for temples to worship the spirits.  Some were used as palaces for the leaders of the tribes.  They were traders, collecting artifacts from other tribes from all over the Americas.  They created relay systems as trading routes. They were hunters and gatherers. 
Pueblo Indians
They basically live in the same regions as the Cliff Dwellers, after the cliff dwellers have moved on.  They lived in small villages with homes made of mud-brick, sticks and brush.  Many live around the Rio Grande, in rectangular houses made of sun-dried clay that were called adobe. The roof of one house is the front yard of another house built behind it on the hill or mountainside. To get inside they climb ladders and go through a hole in the roof.  They use rivers to irrigate land to grow crops that they rely on to survive. (Hakim, page 32)
Northwest tribes:

Kwakiuti, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Notka, Chinook, Makah, Haida, Okanagon, Spokane, Quinsault, Kalapuya, Kalispel, Shuswap
They lived in the states of Washington and Oregon.  There was enough food that they had no need to farm (creatures from the ocean, game that roamed the land, fish in the ocean and rivers, berries and plants amid the trees).  They made wooden canoes, houses, and totem poles.  They gathered in circles at night and beat drums, rattled beads, chanted songs, told stories of ancestors, and prayed.  Along with having celebrations, they also owned land and collected material possessions. The went to war only to collect slaves.  Their society was divided among nobles, commoners, and slaves. 
Plains Indians:

Comanche, Sioux, Omaha, Arapaho, Kansa, Iowa, Missouri, Cree, Osae, Cheyenne, Wichita, Crow, Ojibwa, Blackfoot, Mandan

They lived in the center of America from Canada to Texas and from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi, mostly in the open lands where there are few forests and no mountains.  The people are nomads, moving to where the food is (such as following Buffalo herds).  They hunted animals, and tried farming (although it was difficult).  They carry tepees and set them up wherever they are staying.  Sometimes they move daily, sometimes they stay in one spot if the crops are growing well. 
Woodland Indians:
Algonquin Indians:  They spoke a similar language, along the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, and in the forests along the coastline. These are the Indians the Europeans first came into contact with, which is why many other Indian terms are based on Algonquin languages, including the term “Iroquois.” They were hunters and gatherers who did some farming. They live mostly in wigwams that can be easily built as they relocate to where the game is. Although in cold weather they built long houses. They are among the most common Native American tribes of North America, numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Iroquois Indians:  They all spoke a similar language. Five tribes of the eastern woodlands created a League of Indian Nations (Iroquois Confederacy) that formed councils and lived in peace. Each tribe had its own laws, although in times of war they banned together. All council decisions were made unanimously. They mainly lived in long houses, and therefore they called themselves Haudenosaunee, or “people of the long houses.” They were farmers who did some hunting and gathering, moving their villages every few years to grow crops on new land, allowing the old to rest.. They league consisted of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca, although there were many other tribes.. The league later added a sixth tribe: the Tuscarora. joined in 1722.
These are the indigenous people who lived in the Eastern Woodlands amid the vast (and very large) trees between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River, and the Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico.  The men hunted beaver, deer, raccoon, possum and bear with knives and bow and arrows. They also made canoes that they used to set up nets and fish for salmon, sturgeon, trout, smelt, etc. The women staid home and grew crops of corn, beans, squash and pumpkins.  They also pick wild nuts and grapes.   Some are the ancestors of the great mound builders. The forests are thick, so the Indians have to clear fields by scraping off the bark of trees (girdling) and waiting for them to die, before chopping them down with their axes.  They wear weather appropriate and simple clothes, usually made of animal hide and leather, and they decorate their bodies with tattoos, paint, feathers and jewelry. They make homes out of tree limbs called wigwams that could easily be constructed for quick shelter. Some built long houses out of mud and clay that were lived in for longer periods of time. There were hundreds of thousands of tribes across this region, which you can view here.

Long House
So you can see there were hundreds of thousands of tribal nations scattered around North America, some stretching across to more than one region.

There were also hundreds of thousands of languages (as you can see by this map), so you can see how this might cause some confusion when it came to cross tribal communications.

If you had a remedy for dyspnea, for example, you might not be able to share it with the other tribes, even other tribes around you.  So, although some tribes were able to create methods of communicating, and sharing ideas, talents, and even medicine, most did not.  So as new ideas were rarely shared in North America prior to the Spanish, French and British invasions, this prevented the advancement of medicine, let alone any other civilized art.

I have barely scratched the surface in describing these great people, and I have not listed them all here. I simply want you to have an understanding of some of the societies of North America so you can get a feel for what it would be like to live among them.

Chances are if you were sick, it was the result of the unhappiness of the many great spirits, similar to other primitive cultures.  To heal you must find a medicine man, a Shaman.  He or she had great wisdom and would heal you, or at least provide you words, or even a remedy, that will provide you with comfort.

Algonquin Village
Who knows what would have happened to the various cultures that existed in North America had the Spanish, British and French not have invaded the lands, forcing them to adjust to European way of life. Would they have ultimately formed huge civilizations like the Sumerians, Egyptians, Oltec and Maya. We will probably never know.

What we do know is that the various tribal nations of North America had access to an array of herbs and berries, many of which were experimented with over many centuries.  Over time they learned that some of these could be prepared in various concoctions that could be used to treat the various ailments that plagued the Native Americans.

Among these "drugs" was a paralytic that was coated on the tips of spears called curare. Others drugs were used to create ointments to heal wounds.  Others were used to create potions that would cure the various internal ailments.

It's important to note for the sake of our asthma and respiratory history some medicine was inhaled by stuffing it into pipes and inhaling the smoke. Yet while inhaling was a remedy for many ailments, it was rarely a remedy for asthma.

Still, the potential was there, if only the North American Indians were made aware that a medicine, and method, they already possessed was a remedy for an ailment that must have plagued an Indian from time to time.

Although, for the sake of argument, many experts presume asthma was so rare among the North American Indians that there was no urgency to find a remedy for it.

Regardless, most primitive societies believed diseases, asthma or otherwise, were caused by the spirits, and therefore mankind had no control over them.  It is for this reason that the main emphasis was on prevention over cure.

Like the Egyptians and Hebrews so many years before their time, the Americans, therefore, were concerned with cleanliness, perceiving this to be the best method of preventing disease.  

As later Europeans and American Colonists came interacted with native American Indians, they were quite impressed with their cleanliness.  They observed the Indians washing daily in a river, or lake, or stream.

Upon investigation they learned this was because the Indians believed diseases were a result of a disharmony of the soul, and one of the means of maintaining an orderly soul was a daily washing.  (2, page 253-254)

John D. Hunter, in is 1823 book "Memoirs of a Captivity Among the Indians of North America," was one such person to have observed the Indians cleansing in the river:
Shes-ka-ne-shu. — Washing in the river. Bathing.—This, though perhaps not strictly speaking a cure for their diseases, is a very good preventive. It is much practised, constitutes one of their greatest pleasures, and, I am persuaded, contributes very much to strengthen the body and invigorate the constitution. Men, women, and children, from early infancy, are in the daily habit of bathing, during the warm months; and not unfrequently after cold weather has set in. (2, page 403)
North American Indians practiced year round bathing?  Could you imagine bathing in Lake Michigan in the middle of the winter?  Brrrrrrr

Would this have prevented, let alone cured, your asthma? Probably not. Chances are, however, that simply believing it would may have eased your mind enough to take the edge off.

  1. Hakim, Joy, "A History of U.S.: 
  2. Vogel, Virgil J, "American Indian Medicine," 1970, London, university of Oklahoma Press, pages 22-35, 252
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