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Miwok Material Culture: Indian Life of the Yosemite Region (1933) by S. A. Barrett and E. W. Gifford


When ill, the Miwok depended greatly on ceremonial and shamanistic curative practices. Scarification and prolonged suction were the staple methods. There were regular “doctors” who sang and sucked. Set ceremonies were sometimes performed over the sick. These acts were believed to have great curative value, combating the evil causes of sickness. With these were used many herb medicines, called hūkī'ku (C). The ailments thus treated were numerous, and for some, informants mentioned several cures. Certain of the remedies have modern features, such as the use of brandy, and certain plants used were introduced by Caucasians. Stomachic affections and severe travail were treated with a plaster of hot ashes and moist earth.34

Sixty-seven plants medicinally used by the Miwok were identified. Six of these were also used medicinally by the Pomo and Yuki: Achillaea millefolium L.,35 Artemisia vulgaris L. var. heterophylla36 Jepson, Eriodictyon californicum37 (H. & A.) Greene, Quercus lobata38 Neé, Sambucus glauca39 Nutt., Umbellularia californica40 Nutt. Six species used medicinally by the Miwok were not so used by the Wailaki, Yuki, and (or) Pomo; Datisca glomerata41 Brew. & Wats., used by the Miwok as a medicine, was employed by the Pomo as a fish poison. Daucus pusillus42 Michx., used by the Miwok for snake bite, was employed by the Wailaki as a gambling talisman and by them its use for snake bite was attributed to the Spaniards. The use of Gymnogramma triangularis Kaulf. as a medicine was also attributed by the Pomo at Ukiah to the Spaniards.43 Rosa californica44 C. & S. was not used as a medicine by the Yuki and only rarely as food. Sanicula menziesii45 H. & A. was not used medicinally by the Wailaki, nor was Solanum nigrum46 L.

The comparison of the Miwok list of medicinal plants with the Pomo, Yuki, and Wailaki list published by Chesnut seems to point to virtually independent development of the two pharmacopoeias, especially in view of the fact that less than ten per cent. of the Miwok plants are used by the above groups. No doubt this condition is in part attributable to certain of the Miwok species not occurring in Mendocino county, the habitat of these groups, and vice versa.

Accounts of the sixty-seven identified and fifteen unidentified plants, used medicinally by the Miwok, follow:

Lowland Fir (Abies grandis Lindl.). In case of colds and rheumatism, this is applied externally and internally, according to Powers.47 This is presumably an introduced species, as it is native only to the coast region from Sonoma county northward.48

Yarrow (Achillaea millefolium L. var.). Kamya (C), kama'iya (S), sepesepa (C). The leaves and flowers of this introduced plant were steeped and the resulting infusion drunk or applied externally. It was drunk for bad colds and, during the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, was externally used. The mashed leaves, either green or dry, bound to a wound, are said to stop pain.

Giant Hyssop (Agastache urticifolia [Benth.] Ktze.). Lokotokoyi (C). Boiled and drunk for measles. Sitī'la (C). A decoction of the leaves was drunk as a cure for rheumatism.

Angelica (Angelica breweri Gray.) The root was chewed as, a headache cure and as a remedy for colds. To ward off snakes angelica was chewed and rubbed on the body, and a decoction of it drunk.

Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia californica Torr.) Okise (C). This plant was steeped and the decoction drunk to cure colds.

Wormwood (Artemisia vulgaris L. var.). Kītci'ñu (N), kitciño (C). A decoction of the leaves of this plant was drunk to cure rheumatism. The leaves were worn in the nostrils by mourners when crying, the pungent odor clearing the head. The leaves were inserted in one nostril to cure headache and rubbed on the body to keep ghosts (sulesko, C) away. Small balls containing wormwood and other “medicine” plants was attached at intervals on a string and worn as a necklace to prevent dreaming of the dead. Also with such a necklace one might venture forth at night without fear of ghosts. For a month following a death, this wormwood necklace49 (poko, C) was worn by the close relatives of the decedent, who also abstained from salt and meat. Wormwood was called the special plant of malevolent shamans or “poisoners” (tuyuku), because such were reputed to carry poison in wormwood leaves to avoid personal injury. Corpse handlers rubbed themselves with wormwood, otherwise they would be haunted by the ghost of the deceased.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris L. var. heterophylla Jepson). Used like A. vulgaris.

Purple Milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia [Benth.] Jepson). The root was used as a medicine.

Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa Torr.). Sū'kennu (C). A decoction of the root was taken in small doses to cure venereal diseases and was said to effect a cure quickly. For two days the discharge was greatly increased; then it gradually decreased until in four or five days a cure was effected. The milk was also applied to warts.

Balsam Root (Balsamorrhiza sagittata Nutt.). Ho'tcōtca (C). The root of this plant was ground, boiled, cooled, and drunk for rheumatism, headache, or other pain. For rheumatism a small cupful was drunk and the patient covered, because of the profuse perspiration which followed.

California Barberry (Berberis pinnata Lag.). Holo'metu (C). A decoction made from the root was drunk for heartburn, ague, consumption, and rheumatism; and the leaves were chewed as a preventive of ague, etc.

For cuts, wounds, and abrasions a small piece of the root was chewed and the resultant liquid placed in the injury. If put well down into a wound it prevented swelling. Cuts and bruises were washed with a decoction of the root. Each warrior carried a piece of this root. While travelling the root was chewed to ward off ague and other diseases.

Canchalagua (Centaurium exaltatum [Griseb.] Wight). A decoction of the stems and leaves of this plant was drunk for toothache, stomachache, other internal pains, and consumption.

Canchalagua (Centaurium venustum [Gray] Rob.). A decoction, made with brandy, of the flowers and leaves was drunk in modern times for pneumonia. A decoction made with water was drunk to abate fever and ague.

Mountain Misery (Chamaebatia foliolosa Benth.). Kitkitī'su (N, C). Its leaves were steeped in hot water and the resulting tea drunk hot. It was used for rheumatism and for diseases manifested by skin eruptions. These are denoted by the generic term molazii and include chicken pox, measles, and smallpox. Such diseases were never treated by a shaman. The leaves of this plant were also used as an ingredient in medicines for the treatment of venereal diseases. For coughs and colds a decoction, sometimes with other herbs mixed, was drunk.

Mexican Tea (Chenopodium ambrosioides L.). Tistisu (C). This plant, either boiled or raw, was applied as a poultice to reduce swelling. It was also used in the mouth for toothache or an ulcerated tooth. For gonorrhea it was used as a wash and was injected into the affected parts. It was also used as a wash for rheumatic parts.

Pipe-Stem (Clematis lasiantha Nutt.). Wakilwakilu (C). Pulverized charcoal made from this plant was dusted on running sores and burns.

Cypress (Cupressus sp.). A decoction of the stems was drunk as a remedy for colds and rheumatism.

Durango Root (Datisca glomerata Brew. & Wats.). Isiñotayi (C). The root was pulverized and a decoction made. This was used as a wash for sores and rheumatism.

Tolguacha (Datura meteloides DC). Monayu (C), mō'nūya (S). Shamans sometimes ate the root or drank a decoction of this plant to induce a delirium, during which they ran about wildly and saw strange visions. It was supposed to give them supernatural power and the ability to look into the future. Although in general use among the Yokuts, the adjacent Miwok seem never to have adopted its use, except as mentioned above.

Rattlesnake Weed (Daucus pusillus Michx.). Yotcitayu (C). This plant was chewed and placed on a snake bite. Perhaps this use was after Spanish example.50

Scouring-rush (Equisetum sp.). The stems were used for medicine.

Fleabane (Erigeron foliosus Nutt. var. stenophyllus Gray). We'ne (C). A boiled and cooled decoction of the washed and pounded root was drunk to abate fever and ague. In case of toothache a bit of the root was chewed and placed in the cavity. Fleabane came from the north (“Klamath River”) by trade, and was paid for in beads, shells, and baskets.

Yerba Santa, Mountain Balm (Eriodictyon californicum [H. & A.] Greene). Pa'ssalu (C). The leaves and flowers were steeped in hot water and the resulting tea drunk to abate coughs, colds, stomach ache, and rheumatism. Sometimes the leaves were chewed for the same purpose. Also they were warmed and used as plasters on aching or sore spots, the natural stickiness of the leaves making them adhere readily. In the form of a cigarette the leaves were smoked to relieve coughs and colds. Mashed leaves of the mountain balm were applied to cuts, wounds, and abrasions; and also over fractured bones, in order to keep down the swelling, aid the knitting, and relieve pain.

Golden Yarrow (Eriaphyllum caespitosum Dougl.). Lakma, pusukele (C). The leaves were bound on the body over aching parts.

Rattlesnake Weed (Euphorbia ocellata D. & H.). Pē'sippēsa (N), pē'sippesa (C). The leaves were mashed and rubbed into a snake bite. It was stated that the milky juice struck in and prevented swelling. A decoction was drunk as a blood purifier.

Thyme-leaf Spurge (Euphorbia serpyllifolia Pers.). Running sores were washed with a decoction of the leaves of this plant, after which a green powder made from the leaves of Solidago californica Nutt. was dusted on the sores. Euphorbia serpyllifolia was said to cure rattlesnake bites if applied immediately.

Sweet-scented Bedstraw (Galium triftorum Michx.). Tutumkalali (C). This was boiled and drunk as a tea, for dropsy.

Incised Cranesbill (Geranium incisum Nutt.). Olosena (C). The root was pulverized and steeped. The decoction was rubbed on aching joints, but not on open sores.

California Everlasting (Gnaphalium decurrens Ives var. californicum Gray). Hū'semelaiyu. The pungent leaves of this plant were bound on any swelling as a poultice. Yutañyutañü (C). The flowers and leaves were used as a poultice, after heating in a fire to make them sticky. Potokpota (C). A decoction of the leaves was drunk for colds and stomach trouble.

Gum Plant (Grindelia robusta Nutt.). Kalkala (C). The leaves were steeped and the decoction used to wash running sores. The steeped material was also pulverized and applied to sores.

Gold Fern (Gymnogramma triangularis Kaulf.). Pilpilka (C). This was chewed for toothache, care being taken to keep the quid near the troublesome tooth.

Tree Haplopappus (Haplopappus arborescens Hall). Tce'ktceka, susube (C). The boiled decoction of the leaves was drunk hot to cure stomach trouble and applied to rheumatic parts. During menstruation and after parturition women sometimes drank it to relieve pain. It was too strong a remedy to be used during parturition.

The twigs and leaves were bound on rheumatic parts without mashing. The leaves were applied to boils to bring them to a head. They might also he bound over a sore on one’s foot when travelling, being tied with a piece of buckskin or put inside the moccasin.

Hedge-leaved Haplopappus (Haplopappus cuneatus Gray). A decoction of the stems was drunk for colds.

Tarweed (Hemizonia virgata Gray). Kitimpa, tū'mō (C). A bath with a decoction of this plant was used for measles and for fevers in general. It must never be taken internally. From another species of tarweed a decoction was made which was drunk as a headache cure.

Gold-wire (Hypericum concinnum Benth.). Hoyilü (C). Boiled and used as wash for running sores.

Cheese-weed (Malva parviflora L.). Kasani (C). The leaves, soft stems, and flowers were steeped and used as a poultice on running sores, boils, and swellings.

Spearmint (Mentha spicata L.). Sisimela (C). A hot tea of the boiled leaves was drunk to relieve stomach trouble and diarrhoea, and apparently also purely as a beverage.

Buena Mujer (Mentzelia sp.) Matcū' (C). The pulverized seeds were mixed with water, or preferably fox or wild cat grease, and applied as a poultice.

Monkey Flower (Mimulus sp.). The root of a shrubby yellow Mimulus was used to make a tea with astringent properties, used as a cure for diarrhoea.

Mustang Mint (Monardella lanceolata Gray). A decoction of the leaves, upper stems, and flowers was drunk for colds and for headache.

Mountain Pennyroyal (Monardella odoratissima Benth.). Hukume (C). A decoction of the stems and flower heads was drunk for colds and fevers and was also imbibed at times as a beverage.

White Navarretia (Navarretia cotulaefolia [Benth.] H. & A.). Potela (C). Boiled, and decoction applied to swelling.

Snake Root (Osmorrhiza sp.). Kawibe (C). Chewed and put on snake bite.

Bird’s-foot Fern (Pellaea ornithopus Hook.). Pē'sippēsa (N). Steeped in hot water and tea drunk to stop nose-bleed. Also drunk as a spring medicine and blood purifier.

Small-flowered Beard-tongue (Pentstemon breviflorus (Lindl.). Lulusu (C). Steeped and drunk for colds.

Various-leaved Bluebell (Phacelia heterophylla Pursh). Tawimuyu (C). This plant, dried, was pulverized and put in fresh wounds.

Horned Milkwort (Polygala cornuta Kell.). Kitma (C). A strong, very bitter decoction of this plant served as an emetic. In dilute form it was used for coughs, colds, and pains.

Knotweed, Alpine Smartweed (Polygonum bistortoides Pursh). Kaima (C). The root was mashed and used as a poultice on sores and boils.

Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum californicum Torr.). Holoyu (C). This was boiled as a tea for colds.

White Oak (Quercus lobata Neé). The outer bark (masakuta, C), pulverized in a bedrock mortar, was dusted on running sores after thorough cleansing; used particularly for sore umbilicus in babies. A bitter decoction of the bark was drunk as a cough medicine.

Interior Live Oak (Quercus wislizenii A.DC.). Pulverized bark used like that of the Q. lobata.

Cascara51 (Rhamnus rubra Greene). Lo'o (N). A decoction of the bark was drunk as a cathartic.

Wild Rose (Rosa californica C. & S.). Mamute (C). The leaves and berries were steeped and drunk as medicine for pains, colic, etc.

Green Dock (Rumex conglomeratus Murr.). Sapazü (C). The root was pulverized and boiled. The decoction was drunk and the boiled root applied externally, for the cure of boils.

Blue Elderberry (Sambucus glauca Nutt.). For ague a decoction made from the blossoms was drunk, taken as soon as possible after the shaking began. The patient was covered, as profuse perspiration followed.

Poison Sanicle (Sanicula bipinnata H. & A.). Wene (C). This plant was boiled and applied to snake bite.

Purple Sanicle (Sanicula bipinnatifida Dougl.). Wene (C). A cure all. Root boiled and decoction drunk. The steeped leaves were also applied to snake bite.

Gamble Weed (Sanicula menziesii H. & A.). Lawati huzikus (C). Literally (?) “rattlesnake medicine.” The pulverized leaves were placed on rattlesnake bites and other wounds. It was never drunk as a tea, as it caused sickness.

Skullcap (Scutellaria angustifolia Pursh). A decoction was used as a wash for sore eyes.

Skullcap (Scutellaria sp.). Wenene (C). Boiled, and decoction drunk for coughs and colds.

Wild Rye (Sitanion sp.). Pokute (C). Used dry or green by shaman to strike patient with, before and after sucking.

Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum L.). Ma'nmantca (S). A decoction was used as a wash for sore eyes.

Common Goldenrod (Solidago californica Nutt.). Lo'yama (S). A small quantity of a decoction was held in the mouth to alleviate toothache. It was expectorated, never swallowed. A pale green powder was made from the leaves and applied to open sores after washing with a decoction of Euphorbia serpyllifolia.

Pitcher Sage (Sphacele calycina Benth.). Watakka'iyu (C). A decoction of the leaves of this plant was drunk to abate fever, ague, and headache. One cupful was the dose and it was often sufficient to cure. One informant gave the following example: Before the whites came to Tuolumne county an old Indian brought watermelon seeds from Mission San Jose. He planted these near the Tuolumne (?) river, about eight miles west of French Bar. Soon after the Indians ate the melons they had ague, and cured themselves with pitcher sage.

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus [L.] Blake). Yutasena (C). The root was pounded and steeped to make a decoction, which was drunk to alleviate colds and stomachache.

Vinegar Weed, Camphor Weed (Trichostema lanceolatum Benth.). Tcūkū'tcū (C). A decoction of the leaves and flowers was drunk for colds, malaria, headache, ague, general debility, and stricture of the bladder. A bath with this decoction was a preventive measure against ague and smallpox. If the bath was nct employed in time to prevent smallpox, then the patient was bathed with a decoction made from the large, flat leaves of the incense cedar. This cured the pustules and prevented serious eruptions of the skin. With this should be drunk a decoction of the root of Erigeron foliosus stenophyllus. Many people were said to have been saved by this treatment in the epidemic of 1875. Sitting over a steaming decoction of vinegar weed was a cure for uterine trouble. It should not be used during pregnancy. The leaves of vinegar weed were chewed and placed in the cavity of or around an aching tooth.

California Laurel (Umbellularia californica Nutt.). Loko (C). The leaves and twigs were bound on the forehead as a cure for headache.

Nettle (Urtica gracilis Ait. var.). Two rheumatism remedies were obtained from this nettle. A decoction was made of the root and with it the rheumatic part was bathed. The powdered leaves were sometimes rubbed on the affected part and produced a fiery itching. The decoction was the preferred remedy.

Nettle (Urtica gracilis Ait. var. holosericea Jepson). Sosolo'yū. To relieve certain pains the affected part was struck with a branch of nettle.

Mule Ears (Wyethia angustifolia Nutt.). Hū'ssūpu (N), hotcotca (C). A decoction of the leaves was used as a bath for fever patients and produced a profuse perspiration, so that the patient must he covered immediately. It was never taken internally because poisonous.

Mexican Balsamea (Zauschneria californica Presl.). Husi'ku (C). In cases of tuberculosis (“vomit blood”) a decoction of the leaves was drunk; also drunk as a cathartic, and for kidney and bladder trouble. It was used by women after parturition, probably to stop hemorrhages. It was also used for “syphilis”; and one informant described a case in which his treatment of a severely afflicted Mexican resulted in such relief in four days that the patient was able to walk with ease.

The following plants used as remedies have not been identified:

Hokisa (C). A plant imported from the north where it was also smoked to keep the ghost away at a funeral. It was also drunk as a tea. Its root was rubbed on dancers, except those who danced aletu, helkiku, and helkiböksu. The root was also rubbed on the body as a rheumatism cure, to prevent ‘snake bites, and to prevent seeing “devils.”

Hū'kūme (C). For coughs and colds a decoction of the leaves and flowers of this plant was drunk.

Husīku hekapūsuna (C). Literally “medicine wash.” This is a small plant with milky juice. Any sore was washed with a tea made from it, and then sprinkled with powdered leaves of Solidago californica. One informant said it would cure rattlesnake bite if applied immediately. The plant grows in the middle or late summer in a small rosette in dry rocky soil in the foothills. It is said to be killed by rain.

Hū'ssūpu (N, C). A bath in a decoction of the leaves of this plant was a fever remedy which produced a profuse perspiration, so that the patient had to be immediately covered. It was never taken internally, because poisonous. The plant grows about two feet high and has red flowers.

Metmeti (C). A plant obtained by trade and used as medicine.

Pa'kkīlu (C). The charcoal from this tree was dusted on running sores and burns.

Sepesepa (C). This plant was made into a tea which was drunk fbr stomach trouble and also used as an eye wash.

Sokloikine (C). A bulbous plant like an onion, which was rubbed on the body and eaten, to keep rattlesnakes away.

tama' (N, C). The leaves of this plant were pulled from the stems and soaked in cold water. The resultant sour liquid was drunk as a fever remedy. The seeds were pounded, mixed with water, and drunk for an appetizer.

Tasina (C). A plant used to lay on a rattlesnake bite after it had been scratched with obsidian. The doctor sang a little and the patient usually got well.

Wild cucumber. Ta'wûkna (S). A decoction of this plant was drunk to cure venereal diseases.

te'peltēpelu (C). The root of this umbelliferous plant was mashed, boiled, and drunk warm for internal venereal complications, presumably in the bladder. When cool the decoction might be used as a pain killer to bathe any part which was painful. It was used for rheumatism.

Tu'ltulu (N). For stomach trouble and as a “pain killer” a decoction of the root was drunk.

Wakālī (C). The dried root was pulverized and boiled with a little water. The moist, cooled material was then bound on a swelling, which it reduced rapidly. It was never placed on cuts or abrasions, or taken internally, because poisonous.

Wakáliñu hūsī'ku (C). The Miwok name means literally “rattlesnake medicine.” The pulverized seeds were bound or dusted on a snake bite to prevent swelling.

34Powers, 354.
35Chesnut, 391.
36Chesnut, 392.
37Chesnut, 381.
38Chesnut, 343.
39Chesnut, 388.
40Chesnut, 349.
41Chesnut, 370.
42Chesnut, 372.
43Chesnut, 303.
44Chesnut, 354.
45Chesnut, 373.
46Chesnut, 387.
47Powers, 354.
48Jepson, 1910, 120. 49One of these “mourning strings” is shown in plate LXIII, figure 2, though the contents of the balls was not ascertained from the wearer, a widow who was wearing it as a sign of mourning for her late husband who had died nearly a year previously. See section dealing with “mourning necklace.”
50Chesnut, 372.
51It was the use of this bark by the California tribes which first brought this remedy to the attention of physicians with the result that it has been regularly adopted as a remedy and is now in quite general use.

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