Video Review: Little Medicine and Native American Medicine

Little Medicine: The Wisdom to Avoid Big Medicine
Produced by and featuring Jim Meuninck

Native American Medicine
Produced by Jim Meuninck, featuring Theresa Barnes, Patsy Clark, and Estela Roman

• Media Methods, 24097 North Shore Dr., Edwardsburg, MI 49112.
• VHS, color, 55 minutes, $29.95 plus $2 postage each

Jim Meuninck is the kind of guy I’d love to have with me on a hike or canoe trip through the wilds of Michigan (where he lives) or anywhere else. He’s a friendly, homespun fellow whose love of the outdoors and subtle sense of humor enliven and enrich his passion for field botany and herbal medicine, particularly Native American herbalism. These two productions establish Meuninck as a leader in herbal video.

Little Medicine: The Wisdom to Avoid Big Medicine (1995) takes its name from a distinction Native Americans make among medicinal plants. The “little medicines” are herbs that anyone can learn to use as first-aid treatments for everyday medical problems. The “big medicines” are the plants reserved for more highly trained medicine people.

In the video, Meuninck demonstrates the use of about three dozen plants that qualify as little medicine, including larkspur as an insecticide; elderberry as an insect repellent and athlete’s-foot treatment; yucca root to treat head lice; cedar and juniper to repel snakes; echinacea and jimson weed as treatments for snakebite; cattail as an antiseptic for wounds; bee balm for beestings; and goldenseal and barberry as antibiotics to treat infections.

Much of the information that Meuninck conveys can be gleaned from books, but the video goes a step further by showing the plants growing, being prepared, and being used. It’s one thing to read about using yucca root as a louse treatment but quite another to see Meuninck pull some from the ground, strip off the bark, chop the peeled root with a machete, and pop it into a blender with some water to whip up a foamy shampoo. Then, just in case anyone is unclear on how to use it, Meuninck enthusiastically jumps into a cold stream and demonstrates. He’s a pioneer herbalist, come to life in the 1990s, who shows that the medicines used before there were brand-name drugs still have a great deal to offer us.

This video makes intimate, hands-on connections with all the plants that it considers. The videography, especially the herbs in the wild, is first-rate, and the program makes for enjoyable viewing.

In Native American Medicine (1996), Meuninck yields the stage to three Native American medicine women: Theresa Barnes, Patsy Clark, and Estela Roman. They delve deeply into the spirituality and rituals of Native American healing. Patsy Clark, who lives in Indiana, is the central voice in this video and a wonderful guide. She is a wise woman who seems completely at one with herself, her herbalism, and the cosmos. A deep spirituality infuses her herbalism with a love for plants that would be difficult, if not impossible, to capture on the printed page. It comes through clearly in this video.

Barnes, Clark, and Roman explain how Native American herbalists categorize plants as warrior (male), female, warm, or cold. Warrior plants grow tall and erect and are often woody. They are used in ceremonies to drive bad spirits from a person who is ill or from a troubled home or village. Sage is a warrior plant. Female plants, on the other hand, are soft and pliable. They are used in ceremonies that invite in good spirits and their healing energy. Sweet grass is an important female plant. Warm plants reach for the sun and are often spicy; teas and soups containing warm plants are given to those who feel cold or sluggish or have just returned from the outdoors. Garlic, basil, rosemary, and hot peppers are warm plants. Cold plants grow close to the ground and take their cooling properties from the earth; they are given to those who feel feverish, angry, or agitated. Melons, cucumbers, and squash are cold plants.

Native American Medicine also includes recommendations and demonstrations for using herbs to treat everyday medical problems. Like Little Medicine, this video has an appealing hands-on feel. When Patsy Clark suggests a plantain poultice for scrapes and insect stings, she does not simply lay a leaf on a wound. Instead, she chews it first because chewing releases the juices that contain the plant’s antiseptic constituents.

Neither video is intended to replace herb guides or books about Native American healing. Meuninck’s aim is rather to take American herbal medicine back to its roots, as it were, in the field and in Native American ritual. His approach adds a welcome new dimension to herbal medicine and should provide fascinating viewing for anyone seriously interested in the subject.