What Came First, the Indian Chicken or the Hoodoo Egg? Exploring Native American Influences on Southern Conjure
A long time ago the Cherokees went to war against a giant monster. They killed him, brought his head home in triumph, and placed it upon the top of a cedar pole in front of the townhouse. The blood trickling down along the trunk colored the pole red and so the wood of the cedar is red to this day.
In traditional Native American medicine, there are four primary herbs found across most tribes: cedar, sage, sweetgrass and tobacco. If these were the only herbs you had access to, it is more than enough. However, in the context of Hoodoo and rootwork, there are numerous plants, roots and herbs utilized that are believed to be the result of the cross-pollination of African and indigenous cultures. Native American tribes such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole, Houma, and Choctaw were in close proximity to African slaves and as a result, the natural blending of traditions occurred.
In addition, both Native Americans and African cultures routinely used animal parts—teeth, feet, tails, skins, innards—in both medicine and conjure. It comes as no surprise that some of the local Indian uses of animal parts became incorporated into Hoodoo, acquiring a broader meaning and purpose as a result. In the Native way, if you want to know the meaning of a particular animal part, look to the animal’s nature and you will find your answer.
Both African American and Native American folk medicine and magic relied heavily on the laws of similarity to guide the use of their medzin/medicine. James Mooney, a famous anthropologist noted for his work among the Cherokee observed this phenomenon and likened it to the idea of fetichism:
Cherokee medicine is an empiric development of the fetich idea. For a disease caused by the rabbit the antidote must be a plant called “rabbit’s food,” “rabbit’s ear,” or “rabbit’s tail;” for snake dreams the plant used is “snake’s tooth;” for worms a plant resembling a worm in appearance, and for inflamed eyes a flower having the appearance and name of “deer’s eye.” A yellow root must be good when the patient vomits yellow bile, and a black one when dark circles come about his eyes, and in each case the disease and the plant alike are named from the color. A decoction of burs must be a cure for forgetfulness, for there is nothing else that will stick like a bur; and a decoction of the wiry roots of the “devil’s shoestrings” must be an efficacious wash to toughen the ballplayer’s muscles, for they are almost strong enough to stop the plowshare in the furrow. It must be evident that under such a system the failures must far outnumber the cures, yet it is not so long since half our own medical practice was based upon the same idea of correspondences, for the mediæval physicians taught that and have we not all heard that “the hair of the dog will cure the bite?” ~ James Mooney, 1891
To the Native American, every living thing is a source of spiritual power and as such should be revered. This is similar to the African concept of aché. From the native worldview, however, all living things are also our relations—our relatives—aunt, uncle, sister, brother, and cousin. We look to our plant, animal and mineral relations as Bird people or Winged Ones, Fish people, Snake people, Four-leggeds, Animal people, and Tree people. The rocks and minerals are our grandfathers and grandmothers. The elements Lightening and Thunder, Wind and Rain, Earthquake and Fire—all are powers of nature with the ability to transform and teach, as well as to destroy and put us, the two-leggeds, in our place when necessary.
There are many supernatural meanings associated with the various animals and plants from the native worldview. Some of the meanings remain consistent in the context of Hoodoo and others have changed. Some animals play a significant role in a person’s life and make a regular appearance in a variety of situations, including the dreamtime. When one specific animal seems to figure prominently through a person’s entire lifetime, it is often considered an animal totem or spirit guide. Animal totems bring messages as well as medicine. In fact, whenever a person encounters an animal, the Indian will consider the medicine it brings with it. The medicine of these animals is reflected in the animals’ nature and skills, calling to mind the concept of fetichism as described by Mooney (1891).
The French settlers in Louisiana respected the herbal knowledge and healing skills of the Native peoples, who freely shared their techniques. The Indians made poultices, baths, teas, compounded herbs, and used steam and smoke in a curative fashion. Not surprisingly, the reputation of “Indian as healer” reached its height in popularity in the nineteenth century. Out of this popularity emerged the white Indian doctor, who claimed to have learned botanical curative powers from the local Indians. Some claimed to have acquired the knowledge while held captive. Many of these white Indian doctors took out ads in newspapers to advertise their healing abilities and expertise and as a result, this class of practitioner became known nationwide.
As Native American beliefs and traditions blended with African and European beliefs and traditions, they naturally changed. With the added influence of Christianity, the blend of cultures emerged as a unique system of folk magic and medicine that retained elements of all three cultures but also took on new meanings. Hoodoo continues to evolve and change to adapt to the needs of the people who practice it. That is its nature as a practical, simple, and utilitarian tradition.
Following is a short list of animals, herbs and curios posited to have roots in Indian cultures. By no means exhaustive, it will give you a good idea of how the various materia medica are used in Indian medicine and culture, how they have been adapted to African American folk magic, and how they have evolved within the context of folk magic in contemporary society.
Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)
The alligator is an animal of great significance to both Native Americans and traditional African cultures. Hoodoo revolves around veneration of water spirits, and in Louisiana, Papa Gator carries with him the essence of rootwork, and is the keeper of ancient wisdom.
Alligator Foot (Alligator mississippiensis)
Alligator feet have their place in folk magic, particularly of the swamp variety. A small alligator foot can be a powerful protective talisman. On a key chain, it can draw luck for gamblers. To protect money: Place a piece of pyrite and a gold Sacagawea coin in the palm of the gator foot and wrap with green flannel and wear around the neck to keep your money safe and close to you. In the absence of a Sacagawea coin, a buffalo nickel or Indian head penny can be used. For fertility: Make a charm by placing Adam and Eve root in the palm of the alligator foot and wrap with red string. Wear about the waist to boost fertility.
Interestingly, the historical and archaeological evidence suggests African Americans used Native American artifacts for magical and ritual purposes. This theory is based on ethnographic studies of objects such as arrowheads found on the Oakley Plantation in West Feliciana, Louisiana, a tenant house in South Carolina (see Orser, 1985), King’s Bay Plantations in Georgia (see Adams, 1987), and other locations. Indian arrowheads are considered to be lucky charms. Although they are called Indian arrowheads, they are believed to have been made by the Creator. This belief can be traced back to the Akan-speaking people from the African Gold Coast who believed prehistoric stone projectile points had magic powers. They called arrowheads nyame akuma (God’s axes) and believed they formed from lightning bolts that hit the earth (Alvarado, Dean and Pustanio, 2012).
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos Uva-Ursi)
Also called Uva-Ursi and Kinnikinnick, this plant is one of the most widely used among Native tribes. Bearberries are three species of small shrubs with evergreen leaves largely found in the Northern hemisphere. Only the dried leaves are used in medicine. In consequence of the powerful astringency of the leaves, Uva-Ursi has a place not only in all the old herbals, but also in the modern Pharmacopoeias (Grieve, 1931). Indigenous peoples have been reported to use bearberry as an anticonvulsant, to stimulate appetite, and to treat anemia, hemorrhage, tuberculosis, stomach disorders, heart troubles, respiratory infections, earaches, sinus infection and congestion, and other ailments (Moerman 1998). Native Americans still use it as spiritual smoke, used as a psychic and spiritual incense and tea. It is often mixed with other herbs and tobacco. I was taught it is mixed with red willow bark and smoked as Kinnikinnick. The Blackfoot used the plant as a dermatological aid. Infusion of the plant, mixed with grease & boiled hoof was applied as a salve to itching and peeling scalp and to rashes and skin sores. An infusion was also used as a wash for babies’ heads. Infusion of the plant has been used as a mouthwash for cankers and sore gums (Hellson, 1974). Leaves were placed on a piece of wood, roasted to a powder and placed on a cut for rapid healing, and leaves pounded into a paste were applied to boils and pimples (Hocking, 1949). The Cherokee used the plant for kidney disease and urinary problems (Hamel and Chiltoskey, 1975). The Cheyenne made an infusion of stems, leaves and berries for sprained backs (Grinnel, 1972) and the berries were used as an ingredient in medicinal mixtures (Hart, 1981). The Cheyenne make a sacred tobacco by combining it with red willow bark (Grinnel). In fact, many tribes, including the Cree, Clallam, Ojibwa, Inuit, Great Basin Indians, Hesquiot, Hoh, Jemez and Lakota, use bearberry either alone or in combination with other herbs as a sacred tobacco. The Chippewa used bearberry as an analgesic. They pulverized the dried leaves and compounded and smoked for headaches (Densmore, 1928). Among the Kwakiutl and Ojibwa the leaves are smoked as a narcotic (Reagan, 1928; Turner and Bell, 1973). The Black Foot mix the leaves with tobacco, dried cambium or red osier dogwood and use it in religious bundles. The Black Foot also used the dried berries in ceremonial rattles and strung them on necklaces for jewelry (Hellson, 1974). The Ojibwa smoked the roots as a hunting charm to attract game (Densmore). To repel evil: the leaves can be burned to drive away bad spirits for people who are going crazy.
Black Snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria)
Also known as Virginia Snakeroot, Virginia Dutchmanspipe, and Virginia Serpentary. A perennial with somewhat heart-shaped leaves and small white flowers in branched clusters. Blooms July to October. The dried rhizome is a popular herbal tonic. Some old Cherokee Indian remedies consists of a decoction of black snakeroot blown upon patient for fever and feverish headache, and drunk for coughs; root chewed and spit upon wound to cure snake bites; bruised root placed in hollow tooth for toothache, and held against nose made sore by constant blowing in colds (Mooney, 1891). As a tea, “Blacksnake root is good tuh nuse [use] in de homes fo' heart trouble, nerves, broken down systems an' any bad feet dat chew have tuh de body” (Hyatt #3, p. 2195). To keep away thieves and undesirables: Make a powder from dried, pulverized snakeroot and spread about the home to keep undesirables and thieves away. For courage: Chewing a piece of snakeroot is said to give a man courage (Hyatt, #3). To keep a man: Add a piece of black snake root, gunpowder and powdered sugar to a mojo hand and carry it with you to keep the man you desire.
Cedar in its many varieties is one of the most widely used and versatile plants among Native people. Cedar is found to be used as cordage, as fiber for making mats, rugs, blankets, clothing, canoes, boats, decorations, bows and other hunting and fishing items, For example, paper birch and cedar form the two most sacred trees of the Ojibwe (Smith, 1932). Among the Bella Coola, the inner bark of the tree is used as a fiber for weaving mats, blankets and capes (Turner & Bell, 1973). Among the Haisla, the inner bark fiber is used to make clothing for the nobility (Gottesfeld, 1992), and among the Haisla and Hanaksiala, the wood is used to make racing paddles for canoes and boat ribs, while the inner bark is used to make loin cloths (Compton, 1993). Among the Hesquiat, cedar wood is used for making ornamental dishes and headdresses and the bark is softened with special oil for weaving capes and other clothing of head chiefs (Turner and Efrat, 1982).
In certain Native American traditions, cedar is used to carry prayers to the Creator. It is used toconnect heaven and earth. Cedar is burned to banish negative energies from a person and their environment; thus, opening the door for good spirits and energies to enter. It can be used as loose leaf or as a smudge stick and burned in an abalone shell. Cedar is often used in the sweat lodge ceremony (inipi) to bless the lodge and prepare the space for the Spirits to enter. A small amount is thrown onto the red-hot rocks we call Elders which immediately sparks a red glow. This releases the fresh aroma (medicine), and often makes crackling and popping sounds that are said to be the voices of our Ancestors. In folk magic, cedar is used for healing, purification, money and protection. To keep business flowing and to keep renters from skipping out on rent: Wear oil of cedar and place on doorknobs where people pass through and you will always have renters and always have customers. For business success: Get 6 red onions, some garlic and oil of cedar and boil together. Make a broom from cedar branches and mop the floor with the solution for business success. For gambling luck: Rub hands with oil of cedar before gambling for good luck. For purification and blessings: Burn dried cedar leaves and waft the smoke over yourself or any item in need of blessings and purification. Use the smoke to fumigate a room to purify it.
Lightening Struck Wood
Lightning struck wood can be added to any work to increase its power. It is particularly good for commanding spells, sex spells, and spells of destruction, which draw on its fire energy to destroy. Fire also has a dual nature to transform; hence its ability to be used in positive works as well. Add to mojo bags and gris gris to provide a serious boost in power. To use in candle magic: One way to use lightning struck wood in candle magic is to take some splinters and stick it into the candle wax. Another way is to grind some of it down to a powder, and sprinkle the tops of glass encased candles or roll candles in the powder. To enhance sexual nature: Combine with 2 round High John the Conqueror roots and a pair of lodestones in a mojo bag and carry it with you.
According to Gene Thin Elk, a Lakota spiritual leader, the first medicine for Indian people is the sacred water or mni wakan (G. Thin Elk, personal communication, 1994). Indeed, the healing powers of water are reflected in many Native American stories and legends. According to the Kiowa, healing powers come from deep underwater and are a gift of the Spirit (Baines, 1993). Seawater has been used by the Tlingits to purge impurities from inside one’s body, and many tribes use water to carry the healing properties of certain plants into the body in the form of teas. Water also plays a crucial role in many ceremonies, most notably, the sweat lodge ceremony. Additionally, some medicine people have the ability to instill healing powers into an ordinary glass of water through prayer, and the patient is healed by drinking the blessed water.
Likewise, water is an integral component of the medzin in the African traditions. Pouring libations is an ancestral tradition, just as pouring water is an ancestral tradition in the Native American experience. There are differences between cultures, of course. For example, in the African traditions libations can consist of alcohol, as well as water. When and what to pour is determined by an experienced elder in concert with the purpose of the offering. Water is for cooling and healing, while alcohol is for rousing and igniting, or more commonly referred to as firing up in southern conjure.
In Hoodoo, taking spiritual baths to remove hexes, unblock obstacles, remove and transform illness and grief are just some of the conditions for which water is used as a removing agent. For example, a common means of disposing specific types of works is to toss a work or the remaining elements of a work into a moving body of water. A similar practice is found among the Meskwaki. When a medicine person wishes to use water to remove illness from a person, they will go to a running stream or river and scoop up some water, dipping with the current, thereby capturing water that holds the necessary properties of making the illness run freely from the person (Harrington, 1915).
Wolf teeth are carried for protection and function as a buffer between a person and harsh words. In addition, they are believed to assist in discovering the identity of thieves. According to John George Hohman’s Pow Wow or Long Lost Friend, if a person carries a wolf tooth along with a sunflower collected in August, and wrapped with a laurel leaf “will never be addressed harshly by anyone, but all will speak to him kindly and peaceably. And if anything has been stolen from you put this under your head during the night, and you will surely see the whole figure of the thief. This has been found true” (Hohman, 1819, p. 15). Wolf teeth are also carried for fostering family loyalty.
Alvarado, D., Dean, C. and Pustanio, A. (2012). The Hoodoo Almanac 2012. Prescott Valley, AZ: Creole Moon Publications.
Compton, B. D. (1993). Upper North Wakashan and Southern Tsimshian Ethnobotany: The Knowledge and Usage of Plants. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of British Columbia.
Densmore, F. (1928). Uses of Plants by the Chippewa Indians. SI-BAE Annual Report #44:273-379.
Gottesfeld, L. M. J. (1992). The Importance of Bark Products in the Aboriginal Economies of Northwestern British Columbia, Canada. Economic Botany 46(2):148-15.
Grieve, M. (1931). A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with their Modern Scientific Uses. Harcourt, Brace & Company.
Grinnell, G. B. (1972). The Cheyenne Indians - Their History and Ways of Life Vol.2. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Hamel, P. B. and Chiltoskey, M. U. (1975). Cherokee Plants and Their Uses -- A 400 Year History. Sylva, N.C. Herald Publishing Co.
Hart, J. A. (1981). The Ethnobotany of the Northern Cheyenne Indians of Montana. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 4:1-55 (p. 25)
Hellson, J. C. (1974). Ethnobotany of the Blackfoot Indians. Ottawa. National Museums of Canada. Mercury Series.
Hohman, J. G. (1856). Pow Wows or the Long Lost Friend. Harrisburg, Pa.: T.F. Scheffer.
Hyatt, H. M. (1970-78). Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork, 5 vols. Hannibal, MO: Western Publishing.
Moerman, D. E. (1998). Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland.
Mooney, J. (1891). Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. 7th Annual report, Bureau of American Ethnology.
Smith, H. H. (1932). Ethnobotany of the Ojibwe Indians. Bulletin of the Public Museum of Milwaukee 4:327-525
Turner, N. C. and Bell, M. A. (1973). The Ethnobotany of the Southern Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia. Economic Botany 27:257-310
Turner, N. J. and Efrat, B. S. (1982). Ethnobotany of the Hesquiat Indians of Vancouver Island. Victoria. British Columbia Provincial Museum.
Keywords: Black Hawk, Native American, Indian, Indian Spirit Guide, Indian Spirit Hoodoo, Denise Alvarado, medicine, native American medicine, African Americans, James Mooney, alligator foot, arrowheads, kinnikinnick, bearberry, black snakeroot, cedar, lightning struck wood, wolf tooth
Denise Alvarado www.planetvoodoo.com, www.crossroadsuniversity.com, published author, Educated, artist, internet. I`ll endeavor to remove any and all negative comments I`ve made about her and her businesses or work. The truth is that I do admire Denise`s artistic talents, and I`ve always found her to be an intelligent and congenial person. I do not want to feel this kind of anger or pain any longer, and I don`t want to block Denise`s ability to make a living. And so I would urge others to go ahead and order from her. I regret this whole experience and I will do whatever I can to heal the hurt of it.
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Since Mother Leafy Anderson brought him to New Orleans with her Spiritualist Church in the early twentieth century, Black Hawk has played a central and symbolic role in the fight against oppression and discrimination among devotees...Black Hawk is venerated as an ancestral spirit among the Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans Voudouists, as well as rootworkers and conjure doctors. Native Americans consider him a hero, African Americans view him as defender and liberator, and European Americans admire him as the noble savage who despite defeat, fought the good fight. While most of what is written about Black Hawk has either been from a historical perspective or from the perspective of the Spiritualist Church, Black Hawk cannot be confined to a single context. It has become more than evident that he has been adopted by people from many different spiritual traditions as a powerful Indian Spirit to whom devotees believe they can turn to for help and guidance when needed.
There are many mysteries surrounding this legendary figure who has a permanent place in the sacred spiritual environs of New Orleans.
Never before has a book been written about Father Black Hawk from the perspective of a Creole Native who has walked inside the longhouses, sat in the sweat lodges, cried on a hill for a vision, and received the mysteries through a variety of traditional and intertribal Native American ceremonies. The information contained in these pages will blow your mind, burst apart the stereotypes, and give Father Black Hawk the final say in how he should be honored and served. The reader should set aside all expectations for what they think they know and be ready for a true and authentic cultural smorgasbord of Southern Conjure Indian medicine with Black Hawk seated at the top of the Sacred Circle.
This is a preorder. Conjuring Black Hawk is scheduled for release in June 2016. People who preorder the book will be invited to join the Conjuring Black Hawk membership site where you will have access to archived images and articles about Black Hawk and other members-only exclusives.
Preorder your copy of the long-awaited Conjuring Black Hawk today!