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Gullah Geechee Herbal Medicines and Cultural Customs

Module 1: Gullah Geechee Herbal Medicines and Cultural Customs

The Gullah Geechee people are located primarily on the Sea Islands that run between lower North Carolina and the top of Florida. They are direct descendants of several African tribes namely the Wolof, Malinke, Mandinka, Bambara, Fula, Mende, Vai, Twi, Fante, Ga, Ewe, Fon, Yoruba, Bini, Hausa, Ibo, Ibibio, Efik, Kongo, Umbundu, and Kimbundu. “Gullah” and “Geechee” are terms to describe the culture, customs, and language which emerged from the blending of these tribes amidst the backdrop of one of the biggest crimes against humanity, better known as the Transatlantic Slave Trade. They were able to preserve many of the customs because they were isolated by distance and water. While enslaved Africans, who lived inland were forbidden from communicating in their language or celebrating their culture, the Gullah Geechee were able to do this freely.

The earliest Gullah Geechee people learned much needed skills from the local native indigenous tribes in regards to the terrain. The Gullah Geechee had a vast herbal knowledge which contributed to their new way of survival. Many of the enslaved were already familiar with the day to day tasks because they did the same in their homeland. Much of this was growing rice, cotton, and other valuable crops as well as taking care of livestock. Note: the cotton found in these areas is related to a strain also gown in Egypt.

They had an intimate relationship with the land in which it was viewed as a relative or a “living ancestor.” Not only did they come with much needed skills, they came with a significant, intact belief system. A common belief amongst the Gullah Geechee was the relationship between humans, plants, animals, and the spirit world. It was common to go into the woods alone three times a day to connect and convene with nature.

During this time, 1670-1930, the population of the Sea Islands was comprised of mostly enslaved African people. This meant that they, the Gullah Geechee, were solely dependent upon and responsible for maintaining each other’s health. There were many cure-able illnesses, but first, the person or practitioner had to determine the origin of the disease. They were divided into three categories.

The first and easiest to cure was natural illness. This was “cured with roots, herbs, barks, and teas by an herbalist.” Specific herbs are listed towards the end.

The second was occult illness also known as hoodoo, conjure, or ju-ju. The person was hexed by another. The hexed person would display strange behavior or experience bad luck. A conjurer or root doctor, who had herbal knowledge and spell breaking abilities would be called upon for a cure. A “hoodoo amulet would protect the wearer

financially and occupationally, as well as medically.”

The third and most difficult to cure was spiritual illness. This encompassed all three categories which would happen in a frequent manner. This was curable by the spiritual leaders within the community. “Healing techniques involved laying on of hands, anointment, or a verbal blessing.” It is easy to derive that although plant medicine was primarily used for common ailments, they were also included and sometimes excluded depending on the origin of the illness.

As the Sea Islands became more accessible, the Gullah still chose to use plant and spiritual medicine. “There were many accounts where (the enslaved) were treated for minor illnesses and later ended up dying or were given the wrong medication.” They did not want to be the subject of experiments, especially when they were already familiar with the land. An elder was quoted saying “all these trees are medicine. Molasses, white root, big girl, red oak.” They knew what to do.

Common ailments of the day were snake bites, cold or flu, fever, sores, and general pain. “Sea Islands herbal remedies are composed of a few plants, brewed generally with water.” They would use one to three herbs. “Perhaps this is indicative of a more exact knowledge of the nature and function of each plant.” The Gullah Geechee had knowledge of over sixty recorded herbs, however there were many, many more. My own mother, who is from Savannah, Georgia, can attest to her grandmother boiling the herb called life everlasting to treat asthma. This is an undeniable link between the Gullah Geechee and the surrounding population. They would use this to treat inflammation and as a general tonic.

“Home remedies were made mostly from dried plants and other materials that could be gathered from yards and the woods, such asafetida, Spanish moss, and milkweed. Many of these remedies have proven to be medically valid. Dogwood tea was good for a fever. Sassafrass was dug and dried during the winter but could not be drunk during certain summer months. Bitter-bush made another good tea. For bad neck ache, pine-top tea was good.”

Other examples of herbs used are as follows:

  • Backache: red oak bark and sassafrass root.
  • High blood pressure: galax and green moss.
  • Colic: American aloe.
  • Sprains: blue clay, camphor, red clay, swamp grass.

Currently, the Gullah Geechee are fighting to keep the culture alive. Tourists now view the Sea Islands as a tourist attraction with lush beaches. The skyrocketing property taxes and low ball offers for the land or living ancestor is a daily reality. But the link will never be broken.

Cited Works

Cross, Wilbur. Gullah Culture in America. John F. Blair 2012. Print

Mitchell, Faith. Hoodoo Medicine, Gullah Herbal Remedies. Summerhouse Press 1999. Print

Turner, Lorenzo Dow. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. University of Michigan Press, 1974.

Mitchem, Stephanie. African American Folk Healing. New York University Press, 2007.