The Four Sacred Medicines

The origins of Native American healing practice and ceremony are as diverse and rich as each of the hundreds of American tribes themselves. Nature has provided gifts that have been an important thread between native people and their spirituality. The Four Sacred Medicines (Tobacco, Cedar, Sage & Sweetgrass) have a historical and continuing cultural value to the spirit, physical & emotional well-being of native peoples.

Here is a brief history of The Four Sacred Medicines significance, application and value to Native American culture.



Tobacco is shared as a gift, an offering to elders, healers and creator. Tobacco has a long-standing cultural history among native people, recognized as the first gift the creator bestowed upon the native people. As a ceremony in the sharing of the sacred peace pipe, tobacco symbolizes harmony & peace among those that share it with each other and their creator. Tobacco is an essential sacrament of Native American spiritual ceremony.

However, commercial tobacco used habitually is a carcinogen when consumed as a cigarette. As a result native people have sought to use naturally grown tobacco as part of spiritual sacrament. As the tobacco industry has historically engineered cigarettes to deliver nicotine as an addictive agent, tribes have looked to discourage the consumption of commercial cigarettes and nicotine for it’s addictive properties. “Nicotine has a pharmacological effect that crosses the blood-brain barrier intact.”*

It is believed that the movement to distinguish the use of Nicotiana Tabacum (commercial) versus the use of Nicotiana Rustica (traditional) began when native peoples sought to have traditional ceremonies with traditionally raised tobacco. Before the American Indian Religious Freedom act of 1978 it had been illegal to perform public native ceremonies with tobacco. As the commercial use (and abuse) of tobacco consumption became an abusive habitual culture, the need to appropriate traditional tobacco use in ceremony became greater.†
*Source: Dr. Jeffrey Wigand. †American Indian Community Tobacco Project.


Cedar wood has antioxidant, antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties and can be used to purify your home. It has restorative uses when mixed as a tea, where it can aid in fighting infections. Cedar is used in sweat lodges and is often used in smudging. Western Red Cedar leaves have long been a popular internal and external medicine for painful joints among Coastal Native Peoples. They have also been infused for cough medicine, tuberculosis and fevers. The leaves make wonderful incense and are used in smudging for purification.

Cedar is a powerful antimicrobial. Reflect on where it lives: cool wet forests where fungi and molds thrive. When you scratch cedar leaves or cut the wood, strong essential oils are released. These oils are cedar’s medicine to repel insects, molds, fungi, bacteria and viruses. Our ancestors discovered this long ago and used cedar’s medicine in and on themselves to ward off external forces.

Cedar leaf is a useful anti-fungal for skin and nail fungus. The tincture, infused oil or salve can be used topically and should be applied 2-3 times a day until a week after the fungus disappears. Fungal infections are pernicious and need to be treated aggressively. You can also soak your feet in cedar tea by steeping a cup of dried cedar leaves in about 10 cups of hot water. Let the tea steep until it is warm, and then place it in a bowl or basin large enough for your feet. Soak your feet for 10-15 minutes – a nice activity when you are reading or watching television.

Cedar promotes immune function through helping white blood cells to work better. By stimulating our immune cells to fight infection, clean up debris and denature cancer cells, we are keeping our tissues healthy. Doing several cedar steams a day can help to clear respiratory infections. You can also drink cedar tea by steeping a tablespoon of fresh or dried chopped cedar leaf per cup of water. Many herbalists prefer to steep cedar in cold water and let it sit for several hours or overnight. You only need to drink 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup twice a day to get a medicinal effect.††


Sweetgrass is the sacred hair of mother earth. It can be used as a purifying herb, as incense in smudging. Herbal tea made from the leaves has been used to treat coughs, sore throat & fever. Sweetgrass is a perennial that grows in the northern hemisphere of North American, Asia & Europe. The dried leaves are also used medicinally in herbal teas and essential oil can be distilled from the plant which is then used as a seasoning in foods and alcoholic beverages.

Sweetgrass has a vanilla scented aroma and contains coumarin, which gives the plant its characteristic scent. Coumarin has blood-thinning properties and some research has shown that coumarin and related compounds can be effective in reducing high-protein edemas, especially lymphedema. Though Coumarin in high doses is considered a carcinogen and is used as a flavoring agent in pipe tobacco, but is banned by the FDA as an additive to cigarettes.***

It is said that the sweet-smelling smoke cleanses the spirit and brings sacred messages to the higher planes of existence. It is said that “Wakan Tanka” (Great Spirit) understood messages better if delivered by smoke than those said with words.**
*****The Herbal Resource (


Sage is a plant that is native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean region but has been naturalized to other warmer temperate climates, including North America. Sage is often used for smudging and as a preparation for ceremony.

Traditionally, the leaves have been made into a poultice and used externally to treat sprains, swelling, ulcers and bleeding. It was also commonly used in tea form to treat sore and it is also considered one of the good herbs for the coughs. Sage is considered by many herbalists to be a useful medicinal herb for treating eczema, canker sores, halitosis, gingivitis.

Garden Sage (Salvia Officinalis) has shown anti-fungal, antiviral, anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial properties that make it a useful weapon in combating many illnesses. Garden sage may be helpful in Type II diabetes for lowering blood sugar levels through Insulin support (although only a mild effect). Garden sage may be taken in tea form, added to foods while cooking, added raw to salads and sandwiches.

The herb can be found in tablet/capsule form. The recommended dosage is usually 400 mg taken one to three times daily. For all commercial products containing sage, the manufacturer’s instructions should be followed. The herb has also its uses in aromatherapy.
√ The Herbal Resource (