West Indian Indigenous Healing Traditions

A West Indian today is a native or inhabitant of the West Indies (the Antilles and the Lucayan Archipelago). For more than 100 years the words West Indian specifically described natives of the West Indies, but by 1661 Europeans had begun to use it also to describe the descendants of European colonists who stayed in the West Indies. Today we know:
  • There are at least 28 island nations and more than 7,000 individual islands in the Caribbean, which includes islands off the coasts of South and Central America as well as those in the Leeward and Windward Islands and the major islands of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, and Puerto Rico. Only about only 2% of these islands are inhabited!

  •  The Caribbean is an area populated by a diverse polyglot of peoples in every combination of race, religion, language, and culture coexisting peacefully, dwelling on islands large and small, some poorly endowed with natural resources, others abundantly. Yet, no other region of the world is so richly varied, peaceful, and non-racial.


Popular Caribbean history exerts only a meager picture on its actual vibrant history, yet the reader of this Course can now view the ravages of history and transcend this by reading about this time period in all its suspense and splendor. Respecting prior works but casting a broad prism, not a microscope, on the wonderment of this most unique survival medicine transformed in the colonies, we can begin to appreciate the enormous and complex history that suddenly transformed the medicinal and culinary history of the world.

It is estimated that Amerindians developed 60% of the world’s food crops and there are no food plants native to the Americas that were not first cultivated by Indigenous Peoples of the region. As for our Taíno ancestors, and their close relatives the so-called “Caribs”, were the first peoples in the Western Hemisphere to be called “Indians” by Christopher Columbus. It must also be acknowledged that many of the medicinal plants and food crops that are now staples in Europe, Africa and Asia, were first encountered in the 15th century Caribbean and taken back to Christendom. The Caribbean’s tropical environment was a virtual “pharmacopoeia” of medicinal plants and herbal remedies and the use of these important resources were not only accessed by so-called “Shamans/Medicine Women or Men” but by most members of the West Indian communities.

Many Caribbean indigenous plants now identified solely as food crops were also valued by the West Indians for their medicinal properties. This Course offers a new perspective on the role played by colonial descriptions and translation of Caribbean plants in representations of Caribbean culture. Through thorough examination of Caribbean phytonyms in lexicography, colonization, history, songs and translation studies, the authors argue that the Westernization of vernacular phytonyms, while systematizing the nomenclature, blurred and erased the cultural tradition of Caribbean plants and medicinal herbs.

The means of transmission and preservation of this oral culture was in the plantation songs and herb vendor songs of the islands settled by the British, French and Dutch. Musical creativity was and is a powerful form of resistance, as in the contemporary case of Reggae music and the rise of Rastafarians, and Bob Marley’s ‘untranslatable’ lyrics.

This Course will be of interest to scholars of Caribbean studies and to linguists interested in pursuing a little known subject.
25 clock hours.