How It Works

Native American medicine works by returning the individual to a state of harmonious balance both within himself and in relationship to the outer world. This holistic approach seeks to create a change not only in pathology, but also in the patient's understanding, a change towards healthier self-concept and greater appreciation of the world around him. Such growth supports the patient in necessary behavior modifications. The healer's intention is that the person be not simply cured of a disease, but transformed through the experience of disease.


When To Use It

Native medicine recognizes that true healing often requires technology as well as spirit. Although the spirit of native medicine survives, most of its healing technology has been lost with the decimation of the tribal culture over the last 500 years, the same period in which modern science was created. In recent history, conventional medicine has made astounding technical strides. Since Native medicine engages and prepares the patient for healing and the maintenance of health, it is useful in all situations, even when it alone may not be sufficient. Although herbal interventions must be used conservatively when pharmaceuticals are part of the treatment, spiritual interventions are never contraindicated.

The following two patient stories illustrate a traditional Native American Medicine approach to healing and the impact this type of intervention can have in shifting experience and opening up new possibilities of thought.

We sat in the hot, steamy darkness of the sweat lodge -- Barb, her husband, the medicine man, and his helpers. Barb had come to explore why her breast cancer continued to spread, despite "doing everything right." On surface examination, she was. She attended yoga, fellow church members prayed for her regularly, she had the most famous oncologist in her region and the newest therapies. She had regular acupuncture, received intravenous vitamins, had healing massages, and ate a vegan diet. Nevertheless, her cancer continued to spread. We had traveled to South Dakota to visit a Native American healer. I was making my regular pilgrimage, and Barb had asked to join me. She thought a traditional healer might be able to turn things around for her.

We were at the point in the sweat lodge where the door opened and the steam poured out. We cooled off while water made its slow passage, dipper by dipper full, around the assembled circle. Sonny, the medicine man, spoke quietly enough so that everyone listened. "Big nose says to ask you what hasn't changed," he said. "He doesn't care what you have been doing. He wants me to ask you what hasn't changed."

Barb began to sob, spilling water from the battered, aluminum dipper that had just reached her. "I'm still a failure," she said. "Not only am I a failure as a wife, a mother, and a lawyer," she said, "but I'm now a failure at healing myself as well."

Big Nose was Sonny's main spirit helper. In life, Big Nose had been Sonny's grandfather. Now Sonny relied upon him for instructions on how to heal. Sonny liked to kid us that he was a slow learner, saying that it had taken him thirteen years of vision quests before Big Nose had finally come to him to teach him about how he was to heal. For thirteen years, Sonny made the journey to the top of Bear Butte to sit for four days and nights, "crying for a vision." Finally Big Nose came.

Through Sonny, Big Nose told Barbara that she was not a failure. Her problem lay in the bad things that she said to herself in a continual dialogue. Barbara agreed. Later we talked about what psychologists call "negative self talk." Big Nose wanted that to stop. He said he didn't know if Barbara could get well or not, though he would ask. Nevertheless, he said, she was not a failure.

As a result of the sweat lodge, Barbara stopped many of her healing activities that kept her busy all day long and actually distracted from her need to feel good about herself. Sonny collected herbs that Big Nose told him might help. We prayed that Barb would be present with us in the sweat lodge in South Dakota at this same time next year. Sonny explained to her that it would be arrogant to pray for complete healing. That was up to God. We little people should consent ourselves with asking for another year of life.

Later, Sonny took Barb to see Joe, who helped Sonny during times of trouble. Joe did a shaking tent ceremony for Barb, and told her that she needed to live the next year as if it were her last. If you do that, he said, the spirits might give you another year.

What were the herbs? Burdock root, golden seal, echinacea, bear root, and sage. All collected in the wild where they naturally grew. Joe did the sucking cure, where he symbolically sucked the cancer out of her body. He knew he didn't get it all, but thought that he had given her a head start in living fully for that next year. Considering these words, Barb decided to take her kids out of school and take a trip around the world. Live or die, she said, her kids would have something they would always remember. We'll visit every great beach in the world.

Or consider another woman who came to Arizona to work with a medicine man for healing. We went into the sweat lodge, and the medicine man asked her why she didn't like bakers. She was clueless about what he meant. "Haven't you been to 20 different healers?" he asked her. Sure she said. This lodge was constructed of twisted palo verde branches, smaller than could be built with the willow that grow naturally in South Dakota. We sat on desert sand, so different from the rich, black earth of South Dakota. The ceremony remained consistent, however, and we sat with the door open, taking a break from the heat and the nasal singing.

"It's like going to bakers and throwing away their bread because it's not what you want," the medicine man said. "Each of those bakers has made something wonderful for you," he said. "All of it is good, all of it is different. Some bake whole wheat, others sour dough, yet others pumpernickel," he said. "Any one of those breads could sustain you. Yet you throw their bread in the sand. You keep looking for the perfect bread, and you'll never find it. Just insult a lot of bakers.

This conversation led the woman, who suffered from serious arthritis, to an understanding of the futility of her search. Ed, the medicine man, asked her to pick a healer, and stick with him. Then he went into the desert and collected herbs for her. He asked her to bring her whole family, which she did. He performed a kind of intense massage, natural to his desert ancestors. He suggested foods she should eat, including corn, bean, and squash. He brought her special teas to drink.

Medicine men understand that dramatic change is sometimes necessary to facilitate healing. In both cases, treatment was individualized to what was needed to facilitate that change. The change is considered primary. The herbs, the massage, and the prayers are secondary, to support that change.

Right relationships is a frequent Cherokee slogan for healing. Correcting relationships to self, family, community members, and the spiritual world. Illness is seen as a consequence of relationship disturbance.


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