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Medicine Ways: Traditional Healers and Healing

Healing Plants

Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian healers all have a long history of using indigenous, or native, plants for a wide variety of medicinal purposes. Medicinal plants and their applications are as diverse as the tribes who use them.

Beyond their medicinal benefits, indigenous plants were a staple of Native people’s diet before Western contact. Today, indigenous plants are central to efforts to improve dietary health for current generations. In Hawai‘i, the “Waianae Diet” and “Pre-Captain Cook Diet” aim to reduce empty calories, fat, and additives and promote a healthier, more balanced diet by restoring the role of indigenous foods. Alaska Natives and various Indian tribes have similar projects emphasizing traditional foods. In this very real sense, food is medicine.

Native Hawaiian Medicinal Plants

Hawaiian medicinal plants grow in many areas, including in the vicinity of heiaus or temples, sites that are considered sacred. In ancient times, Hawaiian traditional healers would practice La‘au Lapa‘au, medicinal healing, at some of the heiaus, using plants from around the heiau and in neighboring forests.

Most Hawaiian medicinal plants are foods that have additional curative properties. Healers view food as medicine, along with fresh, clean air and water. In all cases, healers offer a prayer to ask permission and give thanks for the medicines before harvesting and preparing them, and ask permission to facilitate medicinal healing on behalf of the Creator.

Southwest Indian Medicinal Plants

Upper Plains Indians Medicinal Plants

Alaska Native Medicinal Plants


We highlight in this exhibition a sampling of medicinal plants used by Hawaiian, Alaskan, and Southwest and Upper Plains Indians medicinal experts. Our Native contributors have selected specific plants in each region to illustrate the breadth and depth of Native medicinal knowledge and application.

Contributors include:

  • Native Hawaiian: Kauila Clark, Traditional Healer, Waianae, Oahu
  • Alaska Native: Gary Ferguson, Naturopathic Doctor, Rita Blumenstein, Tribal Doctor, with assistance from Meda Schleifman and Karen Sandberg, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Anchorage, and Peggy Hunt, Alaska Plant Materials Center.
  • Upper Plains Indians: Linda S. Different Cloud-Jones, Sitting Bull Tribal College, Ft. Yates, North Dakota, with input from Calvin Grinnell, Tribal Historian/Archivist, MHA Nation, New Town
  • Southwest Indians: Mary O’Connell, Ph.D., New Mexico State University, Southwest Medicinal Plant Project, Las Cruces, New Mexico, with assistance from Luz Hernandez, Mescalero Apache, and Richard D. Richins. Paul Ortega, Mescalero Apache Medicine Man, provided input on plant selection, and details on the Yucca.

We hope you will enjoy learning about the many medicinal uses for plants that are indigenous to these selected Native regions.