Healed by an Indian Woman: Disease in Early Idaho

Native American Sweat Lodge

Harry Hicks was a young boy in 1924 when he got scarlet fever. The doctor in Salmon thought it was diphtheria and gave him a shot of a new serum that had just hit the market. The old doctor didn’t know how to give the shot, as it went into Harry’s kidney and laid him up for nearly six months. Shortly after that, the boy contracted what he called, “rheumatic rheumatism.” He was “coated all over with Ergophene Ointment, then wrapped up like a mummy in wax paper to cure the rheumatism.” He was also given “beef iron and wine” along with ‘niter and sugar’ to boost kidney function.

It was soon decided that Harry’s condition was caused by tonsilitis. So, the doctor came by to remove them. According to Harry’s history, “The doctor cut all the left side of my throat out. All the doctor could do was clamp off the bleeding artery with a large horse clamp borrowed from Seth Mathews. My throat was clamped inside to outside with that huge horse clamp, which was hung from the ceiling on a wire.”

To help matters, Harry’s mother Clyta rigged-up a medieval contraption by tying “two bacon cords to each big toe, and when I had too much pain, I would relieve the pain by the simple purpose of creating a greater pain by pulling on the cords to my toes, which had loops in the end for my middle fingers.”  

Some folks today might scoff at the way things were handled a hundred years ago. But life histories, journals, and social studies books are packed full of stories of brutality in dealing with illness and disease before modern medical advancements.

I’ve been intrigued by the history of medicine. I’ve seen some amazing medicinal marvels over the years that I witnessed first-hand. And I’ve read numerous stories and articles of both victories and utter failures regarding treatment of illness. Keep in mind, we’re not too far removed from the era “blood-letting” to cure common maladies.

Yap Culture

I lived in Micronesia back in the early 1980s on the small atoll of Yap. There, the indigenous doctors took care of medical emergencies and illnesses. They were trained in the art of natural remedies. And believe-it-or-not, I’ve seen some miraculous things done at the hands of those indigenous practitioners.

One day, a guy burned his leg on his boat’s engine exhaust. The hot pipe had burned into the man’s flesh and looked horrible and painful. The doctor ran into the jungle and came back moments later with a bunch of leaves and other stuff. He chanted some ancient rhyme while he chewed on the leaves for a few minutes, then took the gooey poultice out of his mouth and applied it to the man’s wound. Then he secured it in place with some coconut fiber twine.

The injured man visited that doctor for the next few days and had the same treatment each time. After five or six days, the man’s leg was completely healed and all that remained was a red spot. At that point, I became a believer in natural remedies.

So, move forward 40 years. The year 2020 will be marked in global history books as the year the COVID-19 pandemic got traction. Yes, the virus was recognized in Wuhan, China in 2019, but at the time, it was little more than a potential epidemic. And yes, people will attempt to investigate the exact place of the virus’ exact origin for at least the next hundred years. Theories abound.

With sickness or the potential for sickness comes numerous ways humans have devised to combat contracting illnesses. Many forms of illness are intentionally contracted to bolster immunity through antibodies. Does anyone remember when mothers would send their kids over to play with other kids that had chicken pox?

I got chicken pox the first day of summer vacation after first grade. It was horrible! I lost a couple weeks of playtime; I was in bed feeling miserable when other kids were out riding bikes. Mumps was a thing in those days, too. My dad and I had mumps at the same time – I was around 10 years-old at the time. Mom put us in the same room where we languished for over a week with swollen neck glands. And that is the time dad introduced me to Louis L’Amour. We read 10 or 15 of his greatest novels and the world of western heroes came alive to me.

Because inoculations have pretty much wiped-out diseases like chicken pox, mumps, measles, and polio – all dreaded illnesses when I was a kid – we don’t worry so much about them anymore. In fact, I’d bet that kids today would not even know what you were talking about if you brought them up. They’re things talked about in history books now.

But how were things before widespread immunities became a thing? Specifically, how did early Idahoans deal with disease? First, we must consider the fact that vaccines for diseases were not as ubiquitous in those days. Yes, scientists were in the labs looking for ways to boost immunities to disease, but the field was relatively new. And remember that antibiotics that battle bacterial infections were not widely available until the mid-1900s. So, all the bacterial infections that invariably become a problem when viruses strike had to be dealt with through home remedies and other medical concoctions.

A couple years after Harry’s tonsils were removed, he contracted Bright’s disease. A lot of kids in Salmon were dying from this malady at the time. According to the research I performed, Bright’s Disease, as it was known in the early 1900’s, is today known as a class of kidney disease described in modern medicine as acute or chronic nephritis. Harry spoke of his experience with Bright’s Disease in his life history. Here is the story in his own words.

“While being farmed out to round up wild horses in the mountains near Challis, I got sick and was once more to feel the worry and fear of sickness, for I swelled all up with Bright’s Disease and Dropsy. Even my eyes swelled up. I became puffy and kind of glazed all over from the water build-up.

My mother came up to get me, and I felt like everything would be alright. I was so relieved, I fell asleep and when I woke up, we were in Salmon. I had to lay in bed propped up because of my heart splashing in the water every time it would beat.

Momma put me in the backroom and told me to be quiet, the doctor was coming with the undertaker, and crying, she told me they were going to take me away.

“Clyta,” said the doctor, “We came for that dead boy. It’s against the law not to bury a body when they die!”

I immediately raised up in my bed and yelled, “You get out of here you son-of-a-bi*ch! You’ve made your last mistake!” I was remembering the other times with my tonsils and kidneys – he about killed me.

Some time after they left, an Indian woman appeared at our door and said over and over, “I can fix the boy; I can fix the boy!” I can never praise my mother enough for the spunk it took and the nerve to turn the doctor from our door and tell him an Indian woman was going to be my doctor. How he cursed my mother and told her she was just inviting death and I would surely die.

After preparations were made, the Indian woman took me down by the river where there were plenty of round wash boulders. She had a fire burning with plenty of big rocks heating. There was a cot set up with a tub of water setting underneath.

The Indian woman, chanting all the while, gave me a cupful of slippery elm bark tea, hot and so slippery and slimy you could not quit drinking once you started. The slime would just slip down your throat by the siphon method. Then laying me on the cot, she threw a horse blanket over me and then began to throw the hot rocks in the tub of water.

I lay and the sweat poured out of me; I reveled in every drop because I felt better all the time, and I drank my slippery elm bark tea every so often. Along about midnight, the swelling went out of my body, and I was able to go pee for the first time in about a week. I was passing dirty looking, old brown water – brown because it was mixed with blood.

The ordeal kept up for about 24 hours until I went down to normal size – just a little puffiness around my face. Not long after that, I was standing on the sidewalk by our house enjoying the summer sun when the doctor drove past. I thumbed my nose at him, but he didn’t recognize me.” (Harry Hicks History)

After reading Harry Hicks’ story about the Indian woman curing his disease when the local doctors could do nothing, I imagine all of Harry’s kids and grandkids and other descendants being thankful for that wonderful woman and her knowledge of the old ways of healing. She saved their dear father and grandfather’s life.

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