Jamestown colonist John Smith observed that Powhatan Indians in Virginia followed a daily regime of bathing in waterways each morning before the sun appeared. They would then make an offering to the sun spirit and return home for breakfast. In cleansing every day and eating healthy foods the Native Americans had established a natural skin care routine. One the Pilgrims seemed to have ignored.
When the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, they bathed only a few times a year. They believed the water to be unhealthy. According to Kathleen M Brown, author of Foul Bodies, pilgrims believed the textiles they wore would absorb dirt and body sweat. They wrongly associated moral and spiritual purity with physical cleanliness. Half of the Mayflower occupants died within the first two months of their arrival, mostly to contagious disease while still aboard the ship.
In their villages, Native American tribes built sweat lodges near a waterway. About eight people, one of whom was a healer, would enter the lodge once it was heated. A central hearth was lined with bark and large hot stones. The healer would drip droplets of water on the stones creating steam and then sprinkle water on the people inside the lodge. They would remain in the lodge’s intense heat for as long as they could, then rushed out and plunged their bodies into the waterway nearby. Such rituals were used to heal, give thanks, and purify the mind and body.
Heat increases the blood flow at the surface of the skin and may help with some skin disorders. Today, celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, Selena Gomez, and Demi Moore are reportedly visiting urban sweat lodges that use electric blankets and infrared technology to raise their body temperature to create a radiant skin glow. Doctors will say that sweating detoxifies the skin and body in a natural way. So, the native Americans were definitely on to something. Sweat actually rids the skin of dirt and impurities, much more efficiently than textiles ever will. However, it is important to build up a heat tolerance and drink plenty of water to replenish the body if you want to benefit from a sweat lodge or sauna experience.
Native Americans brushed their teeth with charcoal from the fire, using a finger to rub the teeth, and then rinsed with water. They had no soaps or disinfectants. They turned to plants to moisturize and heal their skin. They ground up corn to cleanse and exfoliate their skin. Berries from evergreen shrubs were used in teas. They found roots’ inner stems could be dried and powdered to act as rubs for the face during cold winter months. Chapped skin was treated with a grass wash. Wild native plants contained essential oils that released scents and soothed skin.
The Wampanoag Indians in Plymouth ate fowl, fish, nuts and cranberries – all organic. Their diet was high in protein with low sodium and no fat. Some tribe members lived to be 100 years old. They believed all living beings are related and that we are all equal. They held celebrations throughout the seasons including New Year in the spring, strawberries and corn in the summer; cranberries in the fall, and the solstice in winter.
In October of 1621 in southeastern Massachusetts, 90 Wampanoag Indians and 53 Pilgrims gathered to celebrate the settlers’ first harvest. Under the candlelight, the good feelings from fellowship were sure to make their skin glow. A modern-day member of the Wampanoag tribe, Randy Joseph, expressed a thought we can all learn from: “The great Creator who created all life gave us all that we needed to live a healthy life. In return, we give thanks every day.”