A short book I wrote on a healing subject.

Potawatomi Aromatherapy – The Traditional Use of Inhalants as Herbal Medicine, and their Value in Modern Medicine.

Donald and Dolores Perrot, August 21,  2015


In our modern world, there are many methods of introducing a medicine to the human body.  Medicines can be ingested through the mouth, inhaled through the nose or mouth into the lungs, rubbed into the skin, injected into the muscles or veins, dropped directly into the eyes or ears.  To a traditional Potawatomi, any time a food or medicine is consumed, that is a sacred moment.  Potawatomis do not view the taking of any sort of medicine as a mundane act; Ode Neshnabé considers the taking of medicine very seriously and does so prayerfully and with reverence.

Aromatherapy employs the olfactory system to introduce medicines to the human body through the sense of Smell.  As compared to the methods listed above, aromatherapy is relegated to the sidelines by allopathic practitioners, used as a Complementary Alternative Medicine, and often scorned as “quack medicine.”  However, the nose is a vital part of our human sensory experience, and anyone who has lost their sense of smell is missing the true beauty of flowers, homemade soup, and new babies.  Bodewadmik value all their senses, and use the sense of smell in ways that modern Euro-Americans do not.  This essay shall explore the use of inhalants in traditional Bodewadmi medicinal and spiritual practices, and their modern applications in integrating traditional medicine into the health services that are offered to Native Americans.  Bodewadmik have been using Aromatherapy all this time, and have several methods of doing so.

The Olfactory System and Aromatherapy

The interface of the olfactory system occupies a one square inch space in the top of the nasal cavity of the human skull.  This zone is called the olfactory epithelium, and is strategically placed to receive high concentrations of inhaled air as it is breathed in through the nose.  Here, olfactory receptors respond to air-borne odor molecules and bind to them, creating nerve impulses that relay information about the odor to the brain.

These nerve impulses follow a very specific path through the brain.  They travel first to the olfactory bulb, and branch out to the amygdala (pleasure, fear conditioning, and memory), and hippocampus (learning and memory).  In these two centers, our brain makes a split-second decision as to whether the odor is recorded in the memory as poisonous or not.   Then the impulse goes to the cerebral cortex, where the smell is identified consciously.  This means that our brain has already made up its mind (pun intended) that it likes or dislikes the smell before it has consciously identified its source.  Source:  (Gladstar R. a., 2013)

In Aromatherapy, essential oils are used to introduce specific scents to the olfactory system.  The oil molecules that enter through the nose interact with the olfactory epithelium, and follow one of three paths.  Some are bound to the olfactory receptors, and taken to the brain to be identified.  Some enter the bloodstream through diffusion in the nasal cavity, where they travel throughout the body until being removed by the endocrine system.  And some follow a unique path, diffusing through the covering of the nerves in the olfactory epithelium.  This route takes the essential oils into the subarachnoid space around the brain and spinal cord, allowing it to travel throughout the central nervous system through the cerebrospinal fluid.  Ultimately, the oil molecules diffuse directly into the brain and spinal cord through this route, bypassing the bloodstream altogether for a faster and longer lasting result.  Source:  (Gladstar R. a., 2013)

So is it medicine, or is it a quack job?  Aromatherapy is a relatively new term, not used in medical literature until after 1900 (Deng, 2011).  However, Egyptian and Greek physicians recorded using “odors” effectively, and a Greek physician named Dioscorides developed material medica on essential oils and their properties (Deng, 2011).  Clearly aromatherapy is not new.  According to researchers at University of Minnesota Medical Center, it is difficult to do scientific studies on aromatherapy and essential oils because the oils are not standardized, and a blind study is incredibly difficult to pull off (University of Minnesota, 2013).  According to researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center, the above statements regarding the pathways through the olfactory system that are used in aromatherapy have not been scientifically proven (University of Maryland Medical Center, 2011). 

According to researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, “subjects who were informed that an odor would improve performance achieved better results in a series of math calculations” (Deng, 2011).  The result?  No recordable, measureable physiological changes whatsoever…although, those who reported that they believed the odor would improve their performance, did indeed have improved performance!

Meaning?  Whether the exact meticulous science exists or not, the odors do, and patients who BELIEVE that they will receive results from the scents, DO. 

The Importance of Olfaction to Traditional Potawatomi Practitioners

Traditional Potawatomi practitioners have a strong sense of smell.  While most Euro-Americans rely on their sense of sight, the written word, and evidence seen with the eyes, Potawatomi practitioners find that smell is more “real” (Perrot D. , 2002, 2003, 2005).  Things that cannot be seen can often be smelled.

Turn of the century ethnobotanist Huron Smith noted in his fieldwork among the Forest County Potawatomi that “They often immediately mix the various ingredients of the medicine together.  Such a medicine is then tied up in a bit of calico and placed away for winter use.  One might suppose that a great chance for error would arise in identifying these various mixtures, but the acute sense of smell or taste always indicates the particular remedy in hand.” (Smith, 1933, p. 28)

Through training with his grandfathers, Frank Young and Star Amos Perrot, and his grandmother Susan Crow Perrot, as well as the many other elders he learned from in his youth, Donald Perrot has developed an acute sense of smell.  He has been personally observed smelling the effects of fire, mold, illicit drug use, certain animals, and medicinal plants growing in the wild, with an acuity that baffles the mind.  He simply smells what others do not smell. 

In observing him make tobacco blends for his pipe on many occasions, one will note that he does not use measuring instruments of any kind.  His tools are simple…a curved bowl, a curved knife.  He cuts and blends and cuts and blends, stopping frequently to smell.  The method is simple…cut, blend, toss, smell, cut, blend, toss, smell, cut, blend, toss, smell.  He continuously smells the mixture until a smile breaks out on his face, and he passes the mixture around to his observers, exhorting them, “SMELL THIS.  This is what tobacco should SMELL like!  If it doesn’t smell like this, it’s not right!” (Perrot D. , 2002, 2003, 2005).

The message is clear:  IT MUST SMELL RIGHT, a message drilled into him by the practitioners who taught him many years ago (Perrot D. , 2002, 2003, 2005).

Before administering any herb, before making any medicine, he smells the ingredients.  If something has a smell that he describes as “beshknen,” he does not use it, as the smell indicates the ingredient has gone bad.  If something has a weak smell, he will use more of it to compensate, or not use it at all, finding a substitute or a way to gather a fresh specimen (Perrot D. , 2002, 2003, 2005).

The sense of smell is incredibly underrated by Euro-Americans, and very few ethnobotanists, very few anthropologists, very few observers have noted this reliance by practitioners on their sense of smell.  Huron Smith noted it, and also noted certain medicines that were used in the past because of their odor, most of which are still in use today by modern practitioners such as Donald Perrot.

Aromatherapy as Practiced by Traditional Potawatomi Practitioners, from Ancient Times to Today

There are two main application methods for aromatherapy applications within traditional Potawatomi medicine, and these are simply Dry and Wet.  Dry applications are divided into two categories, Smudging and Pipe-Filling. 

Dry Methods

Smudging is the practice of creating an aromatic smoke from the smoldering of specific herbs.  This can be done by lighting the herb on fire and then quickly blowing it out, creating a smoldering effect.  It can also be accomplished by heating stones and placing the herb on the hot stones, where it smokes but does not flame up.  It can also be accomplished by taking coals from a fire, and placing the fresh or dried herb on the coals, which causes them to smolder and smoke but not flame up.  Among practitioners, there are 2 main categories of smudging medicines: Nokwesgen and Bkwenesgen.  Nokwesgen are perfume aromatics that are used to revive a patient, and bkwenesgen are stronger aromatics that are used to cleanse and purify.

Pipe-Filling is the practice of filling a sacred pipe with a particular blend of “tobacco.”  Please note that “tobacco” is not a noun, but is an adjective describing a category of plants that are used in pipe-smoking blends.  Many plants have been described as “tobacco” by Mr. Perrot (Perrot D. , 2002, 2003, 2005).  The recipes will not be listed here, as the specific blends are known by their smell, and not a specific measurement of ingredients.  The learning of these blends require a long-term teacher/mentor, as well as a relationship with the Creator and an anointing to do such things.

When one fills a pipe, there is a ceremonial sacred way of praying, and then the practitioner lights the pipe.  In the process of smoking, he does not take deep lung filling draughts, but takes short puffs, releasing the smoke almost instantly until there is a great cloud of aromatic smoke that ultimately fills the area where the ceremony is performed.  The practitioner, the patient, and any observers thus become beneficiaries of this very aromatic experience.  Many participants have indicated an instant sense of calm and well-being immediately following these ceremonies. 

Huron Smith noted the following plants were used as “Smudging Medicine,” or medicines that were mixed with tobacco for smoking in a pipe, not realizing that the smoke and smell from these medicines were being infused into the body of the patient through the process of olfaction:

  1. Yarrow Achillea millefolium (Nokwesgen or Kishkatoa’soanek) – “The Forest Potawatomi place the flowers upon a plate of live coals to create a smudge which is used for two purposes.  First it is to keep any evil spirits away from the patient, and second is to give the proper sort of scent to revive the patient who may be in a state of coma.” (Smith, 1933, p. 43)
  2. Pearly Everlasting Anaphalis margaritacea (Wewébichkenakek, Bkwénésgen) – “The Forest Potawatomi dry the flowers of this species and smoke it in a pipe or smudge it on coals to drive or keep evil spirits out of the room, which might prevent a patient from recovering.  They also call attention to the fact that it smells like acorns…” (Smith, 1933, p. 44)
  3. Wormwood Artemesia frigida (Nokwesgen) – “They use it as a fumigator to revive a patient who is in coma.  The foliage and flowers are fumed upon a pan of live coals and often a cone of paper is made to direct the smoke into the nostrils of the patient.” (Smith, 1933, p. 45)
  4. Umbelled Aster Aster umbellatus (Bkwénésgen)  – “The Potawatomi used the flowers of this species as a smudge to drive away the evil spirits working against a patient’s recovery.” (Smith, 1933, p. 46)
  5. Indian Spikenard Smilacina racemose (Agongosiminagawesh, seksiminagéons) – “The smoke or smudge from the burning root, placed upon a pan of live coals, was used to revive a patient who had sunk into a coma.  It was fanned toward the nostrils and a paper cone was placed over the nose to make sure the fumes reached them.” (Smith, 1933, p. 60)
  6. Jack Pine Pinus banksiana (begiwesh shingwak) “The leaves of the Jack Pine are used as a fumigant, nokwesgen, to revive patients who are in a coma and to clear the lungs where there is congestion” (Smith, 1933, p. 68)
  7. Norway Pine Pinus resinosa (bagkwenagamesh) – “The Forest Potawatomi use the leaves of this pine also as a reviver or “nokwesgen” in the same manner as they use others of this same class.” (Smith, 1933, p. 68)
  8. Common Mullein Verbascum Thapsus (Waboyanbeg) – “The Forest Potawatomi smoke the dried leaves in a pipe to get relief from asthma…They smudge the leaves and inhale them for curing catarrh (stuffy nose).  The leaves are also smudged to revive one who has lost consciousness.” (Smith, 1933, p. 83)
  9. Staghorn Sumac Rhus typhna (seksiankeniwesh)– Used to mix with tobacco for smoking in a pipe. (Smith, 1933, p. 118)
  10. Red Osier Dogwood Cornus stolonifera (Mskwabmesh) – “Sometimes it is used as prepared, and at other times as an addition to smoking tobacco to render the tobacco more mild.” (Smith, 1933, p. 120)
  11. Bearberry Arctostaphylos Uva-ursi  (mkominen)– Used to mix with tobacco, and smoked in the summer. (Smith, 1933, p. 121)
  12. Sweetgrass Anthoxanthum odoratum – Ezhechkmeyagwek – Smith mentions this on page 123, but does not mention that it is used as nokwesgen.
  13. Arbor Vitae Thuja occidentalis (Gichigantek, Gishki) – “leaves are preserved by the Forest Potawatomi, or may also be used fresh, to create a smudge to exorcise evil spirits and to purify sacred objects.  A pan of fresh coals from the sacred fire is sprinkled with fresh or dried Cedar leaves.  A fragrant smoke arises and is fanned with the hands upon sacred objects and upon the persons or participants to purify them for the ceremony.” (Smith, 1933, p. 125)
  14. Purple Meadow Rue Thalictrum dasycarpum Akwaticiwek – Seeds dried for smoking while hunting.  “In other circumstances, the seeds are mixed with tobacco and are the mark of a dandy.  The young man will smoke this mixture when he is going to call upon some favorite lady friend.” (Smith, 1933, p. 126)

Most modern Potawatomis are aware of the uses of White Sage, Sweetgrass, and Cedar as smudging medicines, and these are often used in the home by both Native Americans and Euro-Americans who have come to enjoy their fragrances and their effects on the body and mind.

Wet Method

The wet method involves the use of a sweat lodge, wherein the medicine is prepared through decoction or infusion, and applied in a very small and sealed space to hot stones, which release the aromatic qualities into the air as steam.  The resulting heated steam is very hot, and the lungs react by tightening up, causing breathing to become very shallow.  This reaction causes the smell to be drawn up into the nose as opposed to deep in the lungs, which are protecting themselves from the heat.  This concentrated aromatic action is further enhanced by the heat in the lodge, which causes the heart rate to swell.  It is supposed that the quick moving bloodstream moves the diffused medicine through the body very quickly.  After becoming adjusted to the heat, the lungs loosen, and normal breathing resumes.  (Perrot D. , 2005, 2007, 2012)  

By this time, based on the 3 pathways of aromatherapy, the medicine has diffused through the olfactory epithelium into the olfactory bulb through nerve impulses; through the bloodstream; and into the cerebrospinal fluid around the brain and spinal cord.  This makes the medicine triple acting, especially on the nervous system.  The medicine is also further absorbed into the skin, and later into the bloodstream through the lungs.  During this ceremony, no injections take place, the skin is not broken anywhere, no instruments are inserted into the body at any time, thus making it a non-invasive way of administering traditional medicine.

Huron Smith noted that witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana (Bwaodé-et) was used by this method.  “This was one of the remedies that the Forest Potawatomi used in their sweat baths.  They place the twigs in water and with hot rocks create steam which bathes sore muscles” (Smith, 1933, p. 56).  Other herbal infusions personally observed through this method include nettles, wild bergamot, and cedar (Perrot D. , 2005, 2007, 2012).  There are many, many more, known only to trained specialists.

Spiritual Aspects of these Methods

These methods are older than America, and should not be attempted by someone with little knowledge or experience of these methods.  There are spiritual applications for all of these medicines that cannot be measured by modern science.  The traditional Potawatomi practitioner does not just treat the body, but he/she treats the soul and spirit at the same time.  Illness is not just a physical problem, but a mental and spiritual one at the same time, and one can be just as sick in their soul as they can be in their body.  The word Jibamen is used to describe how a spiritual doctor views the patient:  Ji=spirit, bah=soul, men=body.  Thus, these aromatic methods of dispensing physical medicine are coupled with a supernatural ability to relieve the soul and spirit of maladies as well, something that cannot be learned overnight, nor from a book.

Potawatomis do not need modern scientific measurements to determine whether a medicine is effective.  They use their senses, their eyes, ears, feelings, to make a very basic observation:  Did the patient achieve relief from the ailment?  This is followed by a longer observation…did the patient maintain relief from the ailment?  Did the ailment return, or is it resolved?  If it works, then the credit goes to the medicine used and the Creator who made it; and the traditional practitioner may remind the patient that a “thank you” celebration is in order, or some sort of compensation for the time that the traditional practitioner took in preparing the medicine, fasting, praying, learning, meditating, and training.  According to Huron Smith, who observed this early on 100 years ago, “There is no such thing as a free treatment”.  Both the medicine man and the patient believe that the medicines are valueless unless they have been properly paid for…” (Smith, 1933, p. 29)

Modern Applications

Whether or not the modern allopathic doctor believes the above methods of aromatherapy work is irrelevant.  What matters is whether the patient believes it will work (Deng, 2011).  Aromatherapy is something that has been practiced for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years by Native American practitioners, and as such there are specific cultural considerations to be made.

When using aromatherapy in a modern setting, such as in an allopathic facility, the use of essential oils as opposed to live smoke may be more appropriate in circumstances where there is a fire hazard, such as the active use of concentrated oxygen therapy.  However, whenever it is practical and possible, the live burning of aromatics should be used for native patients.  Native patients, especially those who are Potawatomi and profess any sort of traditional knowledge or experience, are culturally drawn to certain smells that they associate with their culture.  It is not just the smell of the herb being used, but also the smell of burning that awakens their central nervous system.  The smell of fire is associated with religious ceremonies and spiritual activities in a very deep and ancient cultural way.  If the patient is to believe that the therapy will bring relief, it must SMELL RIGHT.

Also, modern aromatherapy through essential oils may seem culturally foreign to traditional Potawatomis.  For example, the scent of lavender is touted among many to bring rest and relaxation to the nervous system, and thus a sense of calm.  However, this scent is foreign to the cultural worldview of the Potawatomi, and many Potawatomis personally known to the authors are turned off by the smell.  The smell makes them agitated and anxious, and does not bring the intended result, mostly due to a non-association with the smell.  Remember, the brain makes up its mind whether it likes the smell or not before it identifies its source.  These same Potawatomis who are unaffected by lavender are deeply affected by the smell of sweetgrass, either in burning form or hydrosol form.  The scent of sweetgrass can produce a calming effect in Potawatomis similar to the calming effect lavender has on Euro-Americans, but in a culturally specific way.

Further research on these effects cannot and should not be attempted through the use of scientific measurements or instruments, especially in the context of the sweat lodge or pipe ceremony.  This would violate the sacred nature of these ceremonies, and would be so culturally repugnant to the patient that the data would inherently be skewed.  However, participant observation is encouraged.  If patients believe they are getting relief through these methods, and independent observations of the patients show that they have received relief, then the methods are valid whether they can be measured or not.  We do not need to know the specific molecular hows and whys of the result, anymore than we need to have a degree in electrical engineering to flip on a light switch.  What we need to know is that the methods bring relief, whether physiologically or psychologically.  When they are respectful, culturally appropriate, and administered by a trained and experienced Potawatomi spiritual doctor, they should be allowed, encouraged, and supported by allopathic institutions through cooperation and compensation to the practitioner.

Iw enajmoyak,

Neaseno mine Zagjewekwe. 

Donald and Dolores Perrot    ©   8/21/2015

Author: neaseno

I was born on Powers Bluff in Wood County, Wisconsin, into a traditional community of Neshnabek. I was raised speaking only native languages, and learned to speak English upon entering school at the age of 6. As of this writing, I am one of 5 remaining Heritage Fluent Speakers of Potawatomi.

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