Formularies, or books of prescriptions, have been in circulation since the very onset of recorded history. A large part of Egyptian papyri and Assyrian-Babylonian cuneiform tablets, for example, consist of collections of medical prescriptions. This genre of literature awakened the attention of European scholars, together with the rise of philology in the nineteenth century, to gain momentum starting in the early decades of the following century. To our surprise, during research for another project, we fell upon a study of a formulary that antedates by several decades the earliest known ones. This is noteworthy not only for its temporal precedence but also because this study was carried out in the “New,” rather than in the “Old,” World and within a context entirely foreign to both philology and historical studies. Here, we are referring to James Mooney’s The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891).

Mooney is merely known in the present time as the first Westerner to have ever been invited to participate in a peyote ritual. Yet even as such, he is becoming all but forgotten. Among scholars, a timid interest in Mooney awakened together with the recent reappraisal of the overall history of anthropology in the United States. Rather than viewing this period as a complete break between two distinct learning traditions—referred to as “museum anthropology” and the modern discipline as we now recognize it—scholars are increasingly depicting it as a phase of transition and (dis)continuity, spanning from the late nineteenth century through the early decades of the twentieth century (Hinsley 1981; Darnell 2000). Within this transitional context, Mooney’s career is seen as one of the exemplary cases.

Even though the Cherokee are some of the most studied North American native peoples (Raymond 1978), scholarly studies of Cherokee medicine are scarce. Following initial studies by Mooney and Charles C. Royce in the late 1880s and 1890s, cultural studies of the Cherokee had a “golden age” in the 1960s and 1970s with the work of James and Anna Kilpatrick, William H. Gilbert, and Raymond D. Fogelson (1978). However, we were able to locate very few later studies that dealt with Cherokee medical knowledge (Irwin 1992). The most remarkable one was performed 30 years after Mooney’s—and fully based on it—by Frans Olbrechts, a Belgian university-trained philologist, who pursued a doctorate in anthropology under the personal supervision of Franz Boas. Indeed, it was Boas himself who pointed Olbrechts to Mooney’s manuscript as a basis for his thesis.

Formularies are a particular genre of writing, as they usually comprise a purpose or use, a list of ingredients, and instructions to compound them and apply them to practice. As a rule, they do not bring theoretical explanations or any context whatsoever. They are meant for initiates, or individuals deeply acquainted with their meaning and intent. Such works may be seen as a kind of aide-memoire: bare-bone notes of the main aspects of prescriptions, which users compiled for some purpose of their own. Philologists, historians, archaeologists, Assyriologists, Egyptologists, Arabists, Orientalists and scholars of the medieval and early modern periods developed sophisticated methods to make sense of pharmacological knowledge in different times and places (Turner 2014; Geller 2015; Creager et al. 2020). Achieving an understanding of plain medical prescriptions is the last step in a long journey through the culture, environment, society, ethos, worldview, knowledge, beliefs, and practices of different peoples.

The scope of research of formularies in the history of science, technology, and medicine (HSTM) also goes further. We may shift our focus to inquire about how scholars approach their subject of study. This is to say, what are their fundamental assumptions as to the nature of science, of technology, of theory, of practice, of knowledge as such? And in the case of past or unfamiliar cultures, what is their view regarding otherness?

Based on more than ten years of research about a ninth-century Arabic formulary, Ana Alfonso-Goldfarb summarized answers to these questions as three overlapping spheres of analysis (Alfonso-Goldfarb 2008; Alfonso-Goldfarb et al. 2013). One sphere focuses on the epistemic aspects of scientific theories and practices, the second on the historical and social conditions that circumscribe the construction of epistemic objects, and the third on the theoretical and methodological assumptions underlying HSTM studies. These three spheres, therefore, guide our present reflection. Our subject is not the Cherokee or their medicine, but how Western scholars first approached the medical knowledge and practices of Native American people. Thus, we hope to contribute to ongoing discussions on what transpires in cross-cultural encounters as concerns incommensurable systems of knowledge and the histories of ethnosciences.

How to Approach Cultural Otherness

The British first, then American-born whites, settled and expanded their presence across the United States as if it were terra nullius, i.e. a land without people. According to the historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, the white conquest of the country is best understood from the perspective of settler colonialism (2014). The focus of that variety of imperialism and colonialism is on land ownership. As such, it is intimately intertwined with the relocation and destruction of prior landowners. This often occurs with genocide, or the termination of peoples as political entities. Native Americans were subjected to the expropriation of their land, relocated, deported, and destroyed. Along that process, they were erased as nations and their history was not fully integrated into  the history of the United States. Exiled to a region to the west known as the Indian Territories, they were deprived of both a national past and a national future (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014).

Within such context, how is one to understand the true mania for collecting objects representing Indigenous cultures that gained momentum, especially after the end of the Civil War in 1865? Collecting is, indeed, one keyword to understand the earliest institutional programs of scientific research on the nature and human population of the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. 

One answer may be found in the assumptions that grounded the creation of the Bureau of Ethnology (after 1894, Bureau of American Ethnology–BAE) by the all-influential John Wesley Powell (1834–1902). Powell, a former head of one of the four major surveys of the West funded by the federal government, in the 1870s, was a staunch believer in social evolutionism (Powell 1888). According to that white supremacist ideology, culture (or civilization) evolved over time along three stages, to wit, savagery, barbarism, and civilization (Stocking 1968; Haller 1971; Carneiro 2003). Powell’s intention, therefore, was to retrace the entire evolutionary history of mankind.

There were no professional ethnologists/anthropologists at that time, so Powell recruited individuals for his BAE who had been trained on the job, i.e., in the major West surveys. Many were not attracted to the BAE for Powell’s beliefs, but instead as a function of the freedom that financial and institutional support gave them to pursue their own interests. Former participants in land survey expeditions, the wife of one of them, a 24-year-old aficionado with a penchant to make lists: such were some of the members of the first generation of BAE ethnologists (Hinsley 1981). Years of fieldwork, living with the Indigenous communities they studied, soon confronted them with a most unexpected reality: contrary to any preconceived notions, Native American peoples had cultivated remarkably intricate systems of thought and belief.

A Transitional Reappraisal of the “Production of the Indian Mind”

Not too much is known about Mooney before he joined the BAE. A scion of a family of Irish immigrants, he had basic education in public schools and at a local church. After graduation, he tried his luck as a journalist in a local newspaper. When Charles S. Parnell’s (1846–1891) spirit of reform reached the Irish community in the United States, Mooney was one of the first to join the movement. However, he soon became disappointed with internal rivalry and shifted his interests to another cause. 

Since childhood, Mooney developed a true mania for making inventories of countless subjects. One list, which he started at age twelve, cataloged every single Native tribe in the Americas. The close-by Quaker Earlham College afforded him access to ethnological literature and contact with people active in Indian affairs and education, including a few Cherokees (Smithers 2015). By now, Mooney had invested ten years in his Native American list project and was ready to make his “avocation become a vocation.” (Moses 1984, 7). The ideal setting for his ambitions was obviously the BAE. Starting in 1882, Mooney wrote again to Powell to ask him for a position, which he finally secured in 1885.

Mooney arrived on the Eastern Cherokee reservation in 1887. One should remember that most of the Cherokee had been forcibly displaced westward in the 1830s along the extremely violent “Trail of Tears.”  In fact, Mooney is currently acknowledged as the main source reporting on this tragedy, after interviewing survivors, which he described as “the cruelest work I ever saw” (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014, 115-118). In any case, the population remaining in their ancestral Eastern lands was allegedly the most representative of the original Cherokee people (Moses 1984).

This was also the occasion in which Mooney first came upon their “sacred formulas.” He spent two further seasons in North Carolina, in 1888 and 1889, when he collected more such formulas and published his earliest observations (see Mooney 1888; 1890). Like the majority of the initial generation of ethnologists and anthropologists in the United States, firsthand exposure to life on the reservation fostered the belief that Native cultures were rapidly vanishing. More and more, these scholars chose to spend their time in the field, living with the Native Americans, seeking to record and gather all they could. The practice referred to as “salvage ethnography,” involving the documentation of vanishing cultures and traditions (Brantlinger 2003), served as both a colonial instrument and a cornerstone for numerous ethnoscience projects. This undertaking absorbed all their time and effort.

Considering the Cherokee formulary, Mooney collected hundreds of samples, including herbarium specimens of most of the plants mentioned in the formulas. However, he never had time to organize his notes and publish the results. At the age of 26, without any formal or informal training in ethnological/anthropological research, Mooney arrived at the Cherokee reservation allegedly to contribute to Powell’s main projects. He also intended to collect plants the Cherokee used for food and medicines, including their indigenous names, uses, and modes of preparation. 

For his research, he had access  to local informants. One such informant was a man called A‘yûn´inĭ (“Swimmer”). Mooney found out that Swimmer kept a notebook of about 240 pages, written in Cherokee characters comprising prayers, songs, charms, and prescriptions for all sorts of everyday purposes, shortly, an entire “Indian ritual and pharmacopoeia” (Mooney 1891, 312). 

Mooney not only made a point of copying Swimmer’s notebook, but also found out that other medicine men had notebooks of this kind, which he successfully located.  As was mentioned above, formularies are bare-bone prescriptions without context whatsoever. Therefore, the first task Mooney set for himself was to devise an overall epistemic framework for the Cherokee formulas. This he did through careful collection, compilation, and analysis of myths—a work that remains to this day as an essential reading for anyone interested in the Cherokee (Fogelson 1978). When he looked at what he had thus gathered, he felt utterly astonished: far from “disjointed fragments of a system long since extinct,” the formulas were the “the revelation of a living faith.” (Mooney 1891, 309). 

Shortly, his first experience with Indigenous American culture taught Mooney that Natives were very far from “savages,” but that such “genuine production of the Indian mind” (Mooney 1891, 316) was of the highest level of “mentations,” in the words of his boss, Powell. Indeed, Mooney expressed utter respect for Amerindian religions until the end of his life, to the point that in time his defense of the peyote ceremony cost him his privileges to conduct research in reservations and thus ended his career.

The same, however, did not apply to the Cherokee knowledge of nature. From the beginning to the end of his career, Mooney draws a line between Indigenous religion and Indigenous science, technology, and medicine: if the former was theoretically consistent and comparable to all elaborate religions in the world, the latter was entirely worthless, “about on a level with that of the ordinary farmer’s wife.” (Mooney 1890, 44). According to Mooney, their doctors could not be compared to the university-trained white physicians, their knowledge of plants was infimal and “very defective” compared to that of the modern botanists (Mooney 1890, 46).

The transitional nature of Mooney’s work manifests further. To begin with, the “production of the Indian mind” had, in truth, resulted in tremendously vast corpora. During his seasons in North Carolina, Mooney gathered more than 600 formulas from the medicine men’s notebooks, to which he appended explanations he obtained from their authors whenever it was possible. He sent this material back to Washington, DC to be deposited in the BAE archives. For his initial paper, Mooney prepared an assortment of about 30 formulas, possibly to illustrate the range of topics they covered and their overall style. He  placed together formulas obtained from different authors, grouped under general headings with a balanced representation—while the vast majority of formulas concerned health issues. The final product, therefore, is a patchwork of formulas obtained from different sources and detached from their original contexts. 

Another aspect worth attention is the approach Mooney chose to evaluate—actually, underrate—the accuracy and effectiveness of Cherokee medicine. From the hundreds of plants listed in the formulas, he made a list of a mere twenty he could botanically identify and that were not used for food. These twenty plants he checked against the Dispensatory of the United States (Mooney 1891, 327–8.). A comparison to a Western formulary could only help draw conclusions about how the native pharmacopoeia could enlarge the repertoire of medicines used by Westerners according to the assumptions of Western medicine.

Mooney’s perspective on science and medicine aligns with the prevailing ideology that emerged in Western thought during the 19th century. This ideology was heavily influenced by the concepts of cultural evolutionism and the “salvage ethnography” practices, both of which played pivotal roles in shaping the collecting practices and scientific inquiries of the 19th century. Consequently, these two principles exhibit numerous attributes that would later become defining features of the ethnosciences as they evolved into a distinct field of study between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries.

Mooney occupies a unique position in this historical context, marking a transition from an era dominated by physical anthropology. It dismissed the possibility of a nuanced understanding of Indigenous cultures and practices, as exemplified by figures such as the physician Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), well-known for his physicalist and reductionist approach to civilization and race. To understand Mooney’s significance, we must contextualize his work within a period when Indigenous knowledge and mythical systems began to be acknowledged for their epistemological value, albeit still within a framework that often compared it to Western civilization and regarded it as inferior to modern scientific knowledge (Uchôa 2022). Arguably, this context was pivotal for the emergence of the ethnosciences.

Finally, it’s crucial to clarify that when we discuss ethnosciences, we are not directly equating it with Indigenous knowledge itself but rather with Western interpretations and constructions of Indigenous knowledge. This distinction makes evident the power asymmetry inherent in this relationship, even when individuals like Mooney approach Indigenous cultures with some empathy.


Raphael Uchôa, one of the authors, extends gratitude for the invaluable support received from Darwin College, University of Cambridge; the ECO Project, Universidade de Coimbra, funded under Horizon 2020 (grant agreement no. 101002359), and the Centre for Global Knowledge Studies (gloknos).

Read another piece in this series.

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Raphael Uchôa: contributions / / University of Cambridge
Silvia Waisse: contributions / / Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo