Traditional & Indigenous Healing Systems
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Native American Medicine — History & Philosophy

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.

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Content last modified on Apr 14, 2003