Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Kickapoo joy juice

One of the great characters of Exuma is Christine Rolle, who for some years has been giving minibus tourist tours of the island on which she shares her knowledge of bush medicine. It has not been so long ago that doctors, nurses and scientific drugs were unknown here, especially in the more remote of the scattered settlements. Nature was the medicine chest.

Bay geranium for lost appetite. Big sage for measles and chicken pox. Cough vine is self-defining, as is fever bush. Bread fruit leaf for high blood pressure. Broom bush for dizziness. Hard head for toothache. The eponymous love vine will cure your man of a "weak spine," says Christine, which is her euphemism for what the TV commercials call ED. The leaves of featherback had no medicinal value but made perfect spoons for administering remedies.

Some bush cures may "work" through the power of suggestion; the placebo effect is well established scientifically. And many a sick person in the islands may have been made worse by being fed a strong bush tea.

Still, pharmaceutical and dietary supplement companies are busily prospecting for bush medicines that in fact contain an active ingredient that effects the reputed cure. Nature has whipped up many more potentially useful chemical compounds than can be expeditiously contrived in the laboratory. Drugs and supplements are big business, and it's always possible that some local remedy might be a gold mine.

Which raises the question of whether and how indigenous peoples should be compensated for bush lore when the bucks start rolling in. Is "bush medicine" protected by intellectual property rights? Do pharmaceutical and dietary supplement companies have an ethical obligation to recognize these rights? Who gets the compensation? How is it distributed?

No matter. Christine just loves to share her knowledge with the likes of me. We had another bush doctor here on Exuma, my neighbor Joe Romer. He made me a couple of strong brews for one thing or the other which I politely tasted. Old age caught up with Joe. A year or two ago he returned to the US where he had spent a good part of his working life and had some benefits. Bush meds don't come with Medicare.

We now have a private pharmacy on the island, a 6x6 foot enclosure in a back corner of Smitty's variety store. When Joe and Christine leave the stage, a body of traditional lore will depart with them.