History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

     The Cherokee tribes, in addition to their "herb treatments," habitually resorted to "sweat baths," along with bleeding, rubbing and cold baths in the nearby running stream. Included in this ritual was the usual wearing of the beads and other ceremonial practices. The sweat bath was utilized most frequently in most all tribes north of Mexico, with the exception of the central and eastern Eskimo. This custom was considered the grand cure-all, which supposedly revitalized their health. Many tribes looked upon this ceremony as a medicinal claim, while the ceremonial purpose was the use of the bath.

     The tribe member who wished to instill within them the virtues of the bath entered a small earth-covered log house simply high enough to allow them to sit down. He quickly disrobed and immediately sat down next to some huge boulders which had been previously been heated by means of a great fire. Over these boulders was poured a concoction of beaten roots of the wild parsnip. The door was then closed disallowing outside air to enter. Results, the patient then sat in the sizzling steam.

     His body quickly was immersed in profuse perspiration by the strong fumes of the mixture. The normal Indian procedure was that he possibly threw himself into the stream before resuming his clothing. However, in later times, this portion of the process was omitted and the patient was saturated with cold water instead. The sweating then took place in his dwelling, the steam being limited under a blanket wrapped around the patient. The smallpox epidemic spread among the Cherokee tribes at the close of the French and Indian War. The sweat bath was then called into demand to ward off the progress of the disease. A complete failure! This resulted in about 300 deaths of the band, while many of the survivors carried the marks of the visitation to the grave.

     The sweat bath, certainly with the accompanying cold water application, was regarded as the great cure-all. This practice seems to have been resorted to by the Indian tribes in all parts of the country whenever contacted by smallpox. The whites introduced this giant epidemic, and consequently, due to this mistaken treatment, many died. One old Indian writer wrote that they died "like rotten sheep" and at times whole tribes were swept away. One of the customs to ward of the miserable disease was to eat the flesh of the buzzard, which was believed to have complete resistance from sickness, due to its polluted smell, which was believed to have kept the disease spirits at a distance.

     The Cherokee's art of bleeding was resorted to in a number of cases, in particular rheumatism and in organizing the ball game. The two methods used in executing the operation were bleeding and scratching, the latter resulting in the preliminary rubbing on the medicine. This procedure consequently brought a direct contact with the blood. The bleeding was performed with a small cupping horn; thus the suction was applied in the ordinary manner, after scarification with a piece of flint or piece of broken glass. Within the drawn blood the shaman declares that he has found a minute pebble, a sharpened stick or other rarities. He repeatedly pretends to suck out such an object that he has asserted has caused the evil within the patient.

     Scratching is a painful procedure that is performed with a brier, a flint arrowhead, a rattlesnake's tooth, or even a piece of glass, according to the nature of the ailment. This practice is performed on the young men for the ball game. The shaman thus uses an implement resembling a comb, having seven teeth made from the sharpened splinters of the leg bone of a turkey. A pattern is utilized in which the scratcher is drawn four times down the upper part of each arm, thus making 28 scratches each about 6 inches in length. This operation is repeated on each arm below the elbow and on each leg above and below the knee. Finally, the implement is drawn across the breast from the two shoulders so as to form a cross; the same pattern is repeated on the back in which the body is thus gashed in nearly 300 places. These scratches did not penetrate deep enough to result in a serious outcome. The blood is allowed to flow freely. The medicine applied appropriately in the wounds is intended to toughen the muscles of the player. The patient then plunges into the stream and washes off the blood. In rheumatism and other local diseases the scratching is restricted to the part infected.

     Rubbing was used generally for pains and swellings of the abdomen. This method was employed with the tip of the finger or the palm of the hand. In one of the formulas for treating snake bites the manipulator is told to rub in a direction contrary to that in which the snake coils itself, the tradition being that this is just the same as uncoiling it. Blowing upon the part infected, as well as upon the head, hands and other parts of the body, is an important characteristic of the ceremonial performance. In one of the formulas it is specified that the doctor must blow first upon the right hand of the patient, then upon the left foot, then upon the left hand, and finally upon the right foot, thus making an imaginary cross.

     Bathing in the running stream, or "going to water," as it is called, is one of their most frequent medicine/religious ceremonies. This practice is performed on a great variety of occasions, such as at each new moon, before eating the new food at the green corn dance.

     The medicine dance and other ceremonial dances before and after the ball play is in connection with the prayers for long life, which in effect counteracts the effects of bad dreams or the evil spells of an enemy, and as a part of the regular treatment in various diseases. The details of the ceremony are very elaborate and vary according to the purpose for which it is performed, but in all cases both shaman and client are fasting from the previous evening, the ceremony being generally performed just at daybreak. The bather usually dips completely under the water four or seven times, but in some cases it are sufficient to pour the water from the hand upon the head and breast. In the ball play the ball sticks are dipped into the water at the same time. While the bather is in the water the shaman is going through with his part of the performance on the bank and draws omens from the motion of the beads between his thumb and finger, or of the fishes in the water. The old customs have expired. However, they have gone down in history and have been recorded for the present generation as well as future generations.

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