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Nineteenth-century patent medicines for fertility control often invoked some sort of (possibly fictitious) Native American origin to lend credence to their claims of efficacy. For example, this McElree’s Wine of Cardui advertisement featured a kneeling but regal-looking Native woman showing plants to a standing white woman; the caption is “take and be healed/ the Great Spirit planted it.” The advertisers of Cherokee Pills, another 19th-century patent medicine that billed itself as a first-trimester abortifacient, similarly alluded to Native American origins for their product with an illustration of a Native woman among plants.

Although the 19th century was a time of pervasive anti-Indian racism, and the U.S. government and Euro-ancestry settlers were engaged in genocidal actions against the indigenous occupants of the land, there was also a widespread belief that so-called “civilized” peoples had lost certain types of knowledge about nature that Native Americans still possessed.

But this illustration, while the white settlers would have viewed it as expressing a positive attitude toward Indians, should be understood as a precursor of the 20th- and 21st-century appropriation of Native American healing arts and spiritual practices by people of European descent. Present-day Native Americans often deeply resent these borrowings and the accompanying patronizing attitudes. For a discussion of this issue, see Chapter 6 (titled “Spiritual Appropriation as Sexual Violence”) of Andrea Smith’s widely acclaimed book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Resentment of cultural appropriation is also a theme of the poem “I Am Not Your Princess” by the Menominee activist and writer Chrystos. Here is an excerpt:

I’m not a means by which you can reach spiritual
understanding or even
learn to do beadwork…
I won’t chant for you
I admit no spirituality to you
I will not sweat with you or ease your guilt with fine
turtle tales
I will not wear dancing clothes to read poetry…
If you tell me one more time that I’m wise I’ll throw
up on you

(from Not Vanishing, Press Gang Publishers, 1988, used with permission)