The intricate blending of traditional and modern customs with Christian and native religious beliefs, and the understandable secretiveness of the Seminole today, work against an outsider’s gaining a real understanding of their healing traditions. Even the comprehensive discussion of Seminole plant medicine found in Oklahoma Seminoles: Medicine, Magic, and Religion by James H. Howard with Willie Lena is open to question. This lively but scholarly work depends heavily on the knowledge of Lena, a former Seminole town chief and medicine man; yet Jacob Harjo says that no true medicine man would reveal such secrets, and Lena’s grandniece maintains that he wasn’t really a medicine man, though he did some prescribing. Furthermore, both Lena and the book’s author, Howard, died untimely deaths—a result of having revealed sacred knowledge, several have hinted. And so it goes—a fragile tradition as elusive as the smoke of cat’s-foot and cedar.
Linda Ligon is editorial director of Herbs for Health. She spent her teenage years in Wewoka, Oklahoma, capital of the Seminole Nation. Thanks to Betty Lena, Cora Harjo, Lewis Johnson and the staff of the Seminole Tribal Museum, Jacob Harjo, Margaret Jane Norman, and Ted Underwood for their help in gathering information for this story.
Howard, James M., and Willie Lena. Oklahoma Seminoles: Medicine, Magic, and Religion. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.
Wright, J. Leitch, Jr. Creeks and Seminoles. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
Wright, Muriel H. A Guide to the Indian Tribes of Oklahoma. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951.