As a new graduate student in the history of science, technology, and medicine, I was interested in circulations of medical practices and medicinal plants between Ojibwe communities in northern Minnesota and non-native, non-professional medical practitioners in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[1]

Casting about for archival materials, I found many historical documents that directly discuss medicinal plants had been produced by anthropologists, ethnologists, and their forbears. Medicine writ large—medicinal plants, songs, and recipes, ideas and stories about medical practice, and general concerns about sickness and health—figured frequently in the field notes, professional correspondence, and publications of such varied figures as Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943), Frances Densmore (1867-1957), and Sister Mary Inez Hilger (1891-1977). In these documents, medicine and anthropology were deeply enmeshed.

Initially, I sought to disentangle the two, hoping for insight into Ojibwe community medical practices. This quickly proved challenging. The twentieth-century anthropological conversations I studied were built on nineteenth-century settler concerns with Native health and health practices. Settler writings scripted Native practice as superstitious and ineffective, pushed assimilation, and erased the connections between medical practice and political sovereignty.

For example, ethnologist and Indian Agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864) re-configured and critiqued Ojibwe theories of medical action in order to justify federal expansion and Christian assimilation during US colonization of Ojibwe territories. Although later ethnologists tied their work less explicitly to these colonial projects, their work accomplished the same aims, segmenting medical practice into “economy” or “culture.” This process became visible through narratives and taxonomies that ethnologists produced, which, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) has argued, privileged white settler colonial conventions by marginalizing Native epistemological, political, and medical sovereignty.

Frances Densmore, writing some eighty years after Schoolcraft, acknowledged that different Ojibwe healers knew individual medicinal plants by multiple names, some unique to a particular individual. However, in line with a long-standing Enlightenment tradition, Densmore herself tabulated Ojibwe botanical information by Linnean botanical names, cross-checked botanical and medical information with white professionals’ opinions, and provided a single Ojibwe name (and English translation) for each plant. Individual Ojibwe relationships to land and plants were quietly overwritten, and the political roles of healers in communities were never mentioned. Densmore’s observations were entangled with anthropology’s broader involvement with processes of settler colonialism. As a non-native scholar committed to challenging such processes, I wondered whether I could or should extricate Ojibwe histories of medicine from white histories of anthropology, or whether I instead ought to ask how these stories came to be enmeshed in the first place.

I don’t have answers yet, but I believe these entanglements are critical areas for continued scholarly attention. To my knowledge, there are few if any published studies on the reciprocal relationships between anthropological constructions of “Native” medicines or “Native” health and settler medical interventions (or the lack thereof) in American Indian communities. Further, there are few studies on American Indian constructions and/or manipulations of white or Native categories of health (Davies 2001; Kelton 2015). Such scholarship could illuminate the historical suppression of American Indian health practices, the construction and persistence of American Indian health inequities, and American Indian peoples’ navigations of plural medical geographies. As Benoît de l’Estoile has suggested, studies of the anthropological production and medical management of “different” populations can situate medicine and anthropology together in the development and transformation of states, citizenship, and sovereignty.

Historical work on anthropology and Native health comes with serious methodological concerns, and those who embark on it must follow the methodological and ethical leads that Native studies scholars have been advocating for generations. By interrogating the responsibility to survivant communities, I believe scholars can contend with the ways in which medicine has been and continues to be framed by the reality of settler colonialism in the United States, as well as with how the academic work we produce affects the health of those still living. In my work on botanical medicine, I have shifted my focus from Ojibwe medical practices to settlers’ categorizations of white and Native/Ojibwe medicine. The material in the archives suggested a narrative about medicinal plants, whiteness, and Ojibwe-ness, one I suspect holds medical practice and anthropology together within American state-making. There are, of course, other stories in these materials, but those are stories I am choosing not to tell.[2]


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Works Cited:

Davies, Wade. 2001. Healing Ways: Navajo Health Care in the Twentieth Century. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Geniusz, Wendy M. 2009. Our Knowledge Is Not Primitive: Decolonizing Botanical Anishinaabe Teachings. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Kelton, Paul. 2015. Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation’s Fight against Smallpox, 1518–1824. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books and Dunedin, NZ: University of Otago Press.



[1] Ojibwe country extends across southern/central Canada and the northern United States including Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Dakota. Ojibwe people also refer to themselves as Anishinaabeg through which they are related to other nations including Potawatomi and Odawa.

[2] For one study on the decolonization of these materials for contemporary practice, see Geniusz 2009.


Margaret Flood: contributions / / Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, University of Minnesota