Medicine: A Gift from Plants to Man

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In response to the harsh punishments inflicted upon man by the Council of Animals, plants came together and bestowed a most precious gift–medicine.

Animal councils play a key role in the creation mythology of many American Indian tribes. Among the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, there is a story that tells how illness was brought to mankind and how an unforeseen ally emerged to save the day. It began when e-lo-hi (the world) was new. This was a time when natural laws assured that any animal killed would be thanked through an offering of tso-la (tobacco). As long as man kept this delicate balance, e-lo-hi would stand in harmony. However, as man spread throughout the world, he abandoned the old ways. He began to hunt the animals for sport, taking more than what he needed to survive. Man became greedy. He refused to offer tso-la and saw his animal brothers as lesser creatures. The animals met in secret to decide upon a course of action.

Collective Action

Gathering in their own separate conclaves, the animals debated the problems presented by man. The first to come together were yo-nv (the bears), but they were unable to arrive at a solution. The next to meet were a-wi (deer). Clever and cunning, a-wi elected to plague man with rheumatism as punishment for not obeying the laws. A-tsa-di (fish) and wa-la-si (frogs) gathered in a joint meeting and agreed to plague man with terrible dreams of foul-smelling snakes. Finally, tsi-squa (birds) and tsv-sgo-yi (insects) came together, and in the course of their deliberations, it was decided that a council of animals should be held.

The Council Convenes

The purpose of this assemblage of animals was to devise punitive measures in response to man’s abuses. Lead by the smallest of creatures, the council was swift in its condemnation of man. Representing all those insects that man had so casually squashed underfoot, the grub worm urged extreme action. The members of the council vented their collective frustrations and pronounced man guilty of violating the natural laws that governed e-lo-hi. Taking their cue from a-wi (deer) and the joint deliberations of a-tsa-di (fish) and wa-la-si (frogs), the council decided that plague and illness would be a suitable punishment for man.

Man’s Fate

For his abuses, man was judged by his animal brothers. For every animal killed in the name of sport, a new plague would descend upon man. For every animal killed through neglect or ignorance, terrible dreams would serve as just recompense. The animals left the council secure in the knowledge that man would either adhere to the natural laws; or face the dire consequences. Unaware of the cause of their illnesses and disturbing dreams, man cried out for relief. Enter man’s deliverer—a-wi-sga (the plants).

An Unlikely Ally

While a-wi-sga had also suffered at the indiscriminate hand of man, they did not agree with the decision reached by the council of animals. To the plants, punishing man with illness was not an appropriate response. Such a course of action threatened to worsen the imbalance in the natural flow. As a result, the plants agreed that the only solution was to use their own energy to counteract the plagues created by the animals. This allocation of healing energies is known as medicine. The plants felt that man was flawed, but could be corrected to once more walk the same path as his animal brothers.

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