Culture and Cures: Native American Views of Health and Wellness
BY MICHEAL RIOS
Photos by Micheal Rios
Since time immemorial, Native American concepts of health and healing have sustained a diverse people that make up 574 federally recognized tribes. Various exhibitions, textbooks and medical journals have attempted to rationalize and explain Native peoples’ view on health and healing in a current western paradigm, but that’s where they go awry.
In order to properly understand how the tenets of mainstream holistic and naturopathic remedies are deeply rooted in Native teachings that were passed down from our ancestors, from one generation to the next, one must first accept that our medicines, healing ceremonies, and connection with the natural world are all one and the same.
That is the common thread that weaves a culture of 574 tribes together.
Let’s explore some of these truly remarkable healing modalities practiced by Native peoples today.
Many traditional healers say most of the healing is done by the patient and that every person has a responsibility for his or her proper behavior and health. This is a serious, lifelong responsibility. Healers serve as facilitators and counselors to help patients heal themselves.
Healers use stories, humor, music, tobacco, smudging, and ceremonies to bring healing energies into the healing space and focus their effects.
The healing process also goes beyond the individual patient. Traditional healers consider not only the patient’s immediate family and community, but future generations as well.
Native people of all groups are often faced with the question of whether to rely on traditional Native healing methods or to seek western medical treatment. Today, Native Americans can access a continuum of health care. Many traditional healers still practice independently within tribal communities. Other healers may work with western-trained primary care physicians to coordinate care for Native American patients. Some healthcare institutions even offer both traditional and western medicine, often at the same location.
ROLE OF CEREMONY
Ceremony is an essential part of traditional Native healing. Because physical and spiritual health are intimately connected, the body and spirit must heal together.
Traditional healing ceremonies promote wellness by reflecting Native conceptions of Spirit, Creator, and the Universe.
They can include prayer, chants, drumming, songs, stories, and the use of a variety of sacred objects.
Healers may conduct ceremonies anywhere a sick person needs healing, but ceremonies are often held in sacred places. Special structures for healing are often referred to as Medicine Lodges. Wherever they take place, traditional healing ceremonies are considered sacred, and are only conducted by Native healers and Native spiritual facilitators. Non-Natives may participate by invitation only.
THE MEDICINE WHEEL AND FOUR DIRECTIONS
The Medicine Wheel, sometimes known as the Sacred Hoop, is widely used by tribes across the nation for health and healing. It embodies the Four Directions, as well as Father Sky, Mother Earth, and Spirit Tree – all of which symbolize dimensions of health and the cycles of life.
The Medicine Wheel can take many different forms. It can be an artwork such as an artifact or painting, or it can be a physical construction on the land. Thousands of Medicine Wheels have been built on Native lands in North America over the last several centuries.
Movement in the Medicine Wheel and in Native American ceremonies is circular, and typically in a clockwise, or “sun-wise” direction. This helps to align with the forces of Nature, such as gravity and the rising and the setting of the Sun.
Different tribes interpret the Medicine Wheel differently. Each of the Four Directions (East, South, West, and North) is typically represented by a distinctive color, such as black, red, yellow, and white, which for some stands for the human races. The Directions can also represent:
Stages of life: birth, youth, adult (or elder), death
Seasons of the year: spring, summer, winter, fall
Aspects of life: spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical
Elements of nature: fire (or sun), air, water, and earth
NATURE AS A SOURCE OF STRENGTH AND HEALING
A deep respect for and connection with nature is common among all Native peoples. Unlike modern society, which erects barriers between itself and the natural world, Native cultures derive strength and healing from the land and water. Individual wellness cannot be achieved when the connection to nature is missing or contaminated.
“The environment shapes the culture of the people,” explained Roger Fernandez, tribal elder from the Lower Elwha Band of Klallam.
“Anywhere in the world, the environment they live in shapes that culture. You have the mountain people, and the lake people, and ocean people, and island people. That environment shapes the culture, and then the stories explain the people and their relationship with that environment, and the art becomes, to me, a visual manifestation of that whole process.”
PLANTS ARE MEDICINE
Indigenous healers (from the Americas, Hawaii and New Zealand) share a long history of using indigenous plants for a wide variety of medicinal purposes. Medicinal plants and their applications are as diverse as the tribes who use them. Beyond the medicinal benefits, indigenous plants were a staple of Native peoples’ diet before European contact. Today, indigenous plants are central to efforts to improve dietary health for current generations.
In Hawaii, the “Waianae Diet” and “Pre-Captain Cook Diet” aim to reduce empty calories, fat, and additives and promote a healthier, more balanced diet by restoring the role of indigenous foods.
Various Native tribes have similar projects emphasizing traditional foods. In this very real sense, food is medicine.
Dandelion is a generous source of Vitamins A, B, C and D and various minerals. It is also used for liver issues like hepatitis and jaundice and is a natural diuretic. All of the plant parts can be used: the root as medicine, food, or coffee substitute; the leaves as a poultice or salad; and the flowers as food or medicine.
Willow leaves are used in a poultice or bath for skin infections or irritations and the leaves can be chewed and placed on insect bites for pain relief. Willow ash can be sprinkled on severe burns or to prevent infections in cuts. Willow is used in some forms of over-the-counter aspirin. Willow aspirin compounds are organic and less volatile than their chemically made counterparts.
Aloe is used for healing burns, as a tea to detoxify the body, and as a skin moisturizer.
The National Library of Medicine’s healing pole was commissioned and created by Lummi Nation’s House of Tears carvers in 2011. Its purpose is to promote good health, in keeping with the mission of the modern-day healers who work diligently to advance our knowledge of health and medicine.
“The figures in this pole are based on [our people’s] stories,” explained Master Carver Jewell James.
“At the pole’s base is depicted a woman with a gathering basket, symbolizing the role of women in collecting traditional herbs and medicinal plants. Above her rises the Tree of Life, with its branches reaching for the sky and its roots deep in the Earth, symbolizing how all life on Earth is related. The Tree represents the forest from which medicines are gathered. Capping the pole is Medicine Woman in the Moon, looking to the Great Spirit to reveal new knowledge.”