Native American medicine refers to the combined health practices of over 500 distinct nations that inhabited the Americas before the European arrival at the end of the fifteenth century. Specific practices varied among tribes, but all native medicine is based on the understanding that man is part of nature and health is a matter of balance. The natural world thrives when its complex web of interrelationships is honored, nurtured and kept in harmony. Native American philosophy recognizes aspects of the natural world that cannot be seen by the eye or by technology, but which can be experienced directly and intuitively. Just as each human has an immeasurable inner life which powerfully influences well-being, so does nature include unseen but compelling forces which must be addressed and integrated for true balance to be achieved.

Native medicine may be as old as 40,000 years. The culture never developed written language, so there was no documentation of Native American medicine until Europeans arrived 500 years ago. Until recently, documentation has been limited to the observations of those outside the culture. Such writing describes the outward appearances of Native American medicine, but cannot capture its rich subtlety, and is therefore incomplete documentation. Native medicine must be embodied in a lifestyle that honors all creation, and cannot be reduced to an academic body of knowledge and technique. Native American elders generally decline opportunities to share knowledge for fear their sacred knowledge would be exploited. Those who carry the teachings outside the culture risk excommunication.

Intrinsically holistic to a degree conventional medicine is only beginning to conceptualize, Native American medicine addresses imbalance on every level of life, from the most personal inner life to the most overt behavior. Disease is not defined by physical pathology, but viewed from an expanded context that includes body, mind, spirit, emotions, social group, and lifestyle.

Without written language, native medicine never crystallized as a formal body of knowledge with standard practices. Native Americans understand that there are endless ways to achieve balance, and that effective treatment is a marriage of a skilled, compassionate practitioner and committed patient. The uniqueness of each healer’s approach is not simply tolerated, it is prized. Of equal importance is the patient’s choice to heal. Patients’ preferences are always honored. To disregard them, or to use even subtle force, could never effectively establish harmony.

Native American medicine historically included many sophisticated interventions that have been lost in whole or in part, such as various forms of bodywork, bone setting, midwifery, naturopathy, hydrotherapy, and botanical and nutritional medicine. Ceremonial and ritual medicine is the largest surviving piece of Native American medicine, but is still only a small part of what was available 500 years ago.

An undocumented living tradition can only survive through living practitioners. As whole tribes died out, much traditional knowledge was lost. And as the number of indigenous Americans drastically decreased, so did native pride. More Native Americans took up European ways, especially the Christian religion. Fewer people took interest in keeping the traditions alive.

There is evidence that some of this decline may be reversing. Native Americans are increasingly interested in preserving their culture, and healers from other perspectives are keen to learn ancient native wisdom traditions. Elder healers view interest from outside their culture with skepticism. Although some elders feel that sharing native medicine across cultures might help preserve it, most do not trust non-native cultures to honor the integrity of the teachings. Perhaps the power of Native American medicine is seen most dramatically in the fact that despite 500 years of tragic decline, it remains as fluid today as ever, a constantly evolving, living response to the needs of its people and the times.



Treatment Approaches

Different types of treatments

Native American medicine is a complete system that addresses both healing and cure. Health requires balance in every sphere of one’s life, from the most personal inner world to lifestyle and social connections. Native medicine places the roots of any imbalance in the world of spirit. Spiritual interventions are thus seen as critical to the success of any treatment plan. There are many ways to restore balance, and it is understood that each healer will have her own perspective drawn from her unique set of skills and life experience. Someone in need of healing looks for a practitioner who has been successful in similar situations.

Native American understanding of harmonious balance is highly sophisticated. It demands that a unique treatment plan be designed to match the uniqueness of each case. From the Native American perspective, standardized practices, including even standardized fees, do not address the individual’s needs and therefore compromise the integrity and power of the treatment. Although it is understood that the healing process is an exchange and involves a fee, native healers are proscribed from ever setting prices for their work. Native healers are aware that treatments are most effective when the patient is a deeply engaged participant. The process of negotiating a fee is often the beginning of the healing process.

The healing elder is the culture’s primary access to healing power. In a system without technology and standardized practice, the responsibility for treatment failure falls squarely on the practitioner. There is simply no one else to blame. A practitioner who has too many failures loses the reputation as a powerful healer. Thus the medicine person is careful to evaluate each situation carefully, only accepting those cases he feels confident he can help. He makes subtle assessments of the patient, knowing that subjective factors such as readiness to heal, value placed on treatment, and strength of will are powerful determiners of outcome.

The client assesses his situation, makes an offer to the medicine practitioner, and waits to see if it is accepted. Negotiations are never carried out face to face. The client might leave an offering outside the healer’s door. If it is still there in the morning, the healer has not accepted the case. The patient can go elsewhere or make another offering. Once the healer and patient come to an agreement, treatment may start with a behavioral prescription to strengthen the client’s commitment, such as performing a selfless act, making amends with an estranged family member, or climbing a sacred mountain. The hierarchy of interventions chosen depends on the healer, the family, and the situation. Native healers choose the simplest interventions judged effective for a specific situation. Techniques commonly recommended include self-inquiry to identify what needs to be changed, lifestyle modification, herbs (echinacea, goldenseal, burdock root, sage, among others), prayer, various types of massage, and ceremonies such as sweat lodge and vision quest.



How it works & when to use it

Different theories on 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.

Conditions it works best for

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.




Native American healers are traditionally trained as apprentices over an indeterminate, extended period of time. Students align themselves with a healing elder whom they trust to supervise their overall growth. The bond between elder and apprentice is profound, and elders do not readily accept students. There may be years of testing the student’s intention and commitment before the dynamic stage of training begins. This preparation period is considered essential, a time in which the prospective apprentice learns patience, respect, and perhaps most importantly, how to receive knowledge.

Although Native Americans have adopted written language, native medicine continues to be an oral tradition. The wisdom of the elders is shared through stories and cannot be learned in an academic setting. That technical knowledge which has survived the last 500 years is never separated from its natural context. Skills such as herbalism require finely tuned senses and the ability to commune with nature. Only through experience can students learn the intuitional skills that are necessary for successful treatment in this system. The chosen elder teacher judges the readiness of an apprentice to begin the practice of medicine.




Mehl-Madrona Lewis E. "Native American Medicine and the treatment of chronic illness: developing an integrated program and evaluating its effectiveness." Alternative Therapies. 5(1): 36-44, 1999.

Avery, Charleen. "Native American Medicine: traditional healing." JAMA. 265(17): 2271-2273, 1991.