At the time of the settlement of California by the whites, every Indian tribe had its professional doctors or medicine men, who also acted as religious leaders. They were the confidential counselors of the chiefs and head-men of the tribes, and had great influence and control over the people. They claimed to be spiritual mediums, and to have communication with the departed spirits of some of their old and most revered chieftains and dear friends, now in a much more happy condition than when here in earthly life. They were thought to be endowed with supernatural powers, not only in curing all diseases (except those due to old age), but also in making a well person sick at their pleasure, even at a distance; but when their sorcery failed to work on their white enemies and exterminate them, they lost the confidence of their followers to a large extent.With the invasion of the white settlers came forced changes in their old customs and manner of living, and a new variety of epidemic and other diseases. When a doctor failed to cure these diseases, and several deaths occurred in quick succession in a camp, they believed the doctor was under the control of some evil spirit, and killed him.
After the Indians were given their freedom from the reservations in 1855, the old ones, subdued and broken-hearted, sickened and died very fast, and most of the men doctors were killed off in a few years. There are none known who now attempt to act in that capacity.
There are still some women doctors who continue to practice the magic art, but as there are now but very few Indians, there is not so much sickness, and very few deaths in a year, so that the doctors very rarely forfeit their lives by many of their patients dying in quick succession.
Their most common mode of treatment in cases of sickness was to scarify the painful locality with the sharp edge of a piece of obsidian, and suck out the blood with the mouth. In cases of headache, the forehead was operated on; in a case of colic the abdomen was treated in the same way, as were also all painful swellings on any part of the body.
The grand object of the doctor was to make the patient and family firmly believe that his course of treatment was removing the cause of the sickness. To aid in strengthening this belief, after diagnosing the case, and before commencing operations, he would quietly retire for a short time, ostensibly to get under the influence of the divine healing spirit, but in reality to fill his mouth with several small articles, such as bits of wood or stone; he was then ready to commence treatment. After sucking and spitting pure blood a few times, he began to spit out with the blood, one after another, the things he had in his mouth, at the sight of which all the attendants would join in a chorus of grunts of astonishment, and the doctor would pretend to be very much nauseated. In most ordinary cases two or three treatments effected a cure.
The doctors also made use of certain rare medicinal plants in treating some diseases. The Indian women have great faith in charms made of the pungent roots of some rare plants from the high mountain ranges, which they wear on strings around their necks, or on a string of beads, to protect them from sickness.
In cases of malignant sores or ulcers on any part of the body, the doctors treated them by applying dirt or earth, and in warm weather would excavate a place in the ground and put the patient in it, either in a sitting or recumbent position, as the nature of the case required, and cover the affected part with earth for several hours, daily. Sometimes, by this mode of treatment, wonderful cures were made.
In all cases, if a doctor failed to cure a disease, and the patient died, he was obliged to refund to the relatives any fee which he had received for his services.