Blends of traditional and modern treatments are used to improve health


By William Kates -- Associated Press

ONEIDA, N.Y. (AP) - Joellene Adams is nearing 70 and sees her doctor on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation regularly for her diabetes medicine.

She also is a faithful follower of the tribe's traditional healers and sees no conflict with turning to them for treatment of other ills.

''The medicine is the only way to treat the diabetes in my body, but the old ways also help the mind and the spirit. Life requires balance,'' said Adams, one of 150 Iroquois elders at a recent health conference for American Indian senior citizens at the Oneida Indian Nation in central New York, member of the powerful Iroquois Confederacy.

American Indians have long experienced more health problems compared to other groups of Americans. Inadequate education, disproportionate poverty, discrimination in the delivery of health services and cultural differences are among the factors contributing to their poor health, according to the IHS.

''We have more access to doctors and drugs now than we've ever had. We need to find different ways to heal,'' said Dr. Marilyn Cook, a Cree who practices on the Canadian side of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation.

''Western medicine is good. We can't do without it,'' Cook said. ''But we have our own ways of healing. We have our own ways of looking after ourselves. We sometimes forget that.''

At St. Regis, which straddles the U.S./Canadian border, traditional healers no longer work in secrecy but instead work out of the reservation clinics, alongside western-trained doctors like Cook.

''We consider our traditional medicine man an integral part of our health services,'' said Debbie Terrance, health director of the clinic on the New York side of the reservation, which serves more than 8,000 Mohawks.

At St. Regis, traditional healer Richard Cook - who is not related to Marilyn Cook - works in the clinic's mental health department, Terrance said.

''There's not enough of him. We could keep four more of him busy,'' said Terrance, who has proposed building a new wing for just traditional treatments, which include pipe ceremonies, sweat lodges, herbal remedies and retreats with elders.

While Richard Cook is the only traditional healer on staff at St. Regis, there are others living on the reservation, often with their own specialties, Terrance said. Just like western-trained doctors, he will frequently refer patients to other healers with different expertise.

While they might not work out of a clinic setting, traditional healers can be found among any of the other five Iroquois tribes in New York - the Onondagas, Cayugas, Oneidas, Senecas and Tuscaroras - according to health officials with those tribes.

''Western doctors concentrate on fixing the body. They tend to put these things in separate categories and don't treat them holistically, but existence is a spiritual experience. All these facets needed to be taken as a whole,'' Marilyn Cook said.

According to the IHS, American Indians have a life expectancy that is 2.4 years less than the U.S. average of 76.9 years for all races, and die at a rate nearly 50 percent higher than the national average for people their age. Some of the highest death rates occur from tuberculosis (500 percent higher), alcoholism (350 percent) and diabetes (200 percent), said Dr. Bruce Finke, who serves as the IHS' elder health care consultant.

Many of the ailments afflicting Indians are linked to environmental stresses and poor diet, Marilyn Cook said.

''Diabetes is up because stress is up. When stress is up, blood pressure is up; there's more sugar in the bloodstream. First Peoples have seen their environments polluted; they've seen their fresh food sources replaced by processed and fast foods. Physicians don't know how to deal with these problems except to prescribe drugs. Western medicine focuses on the magic pill,'' she said.

Ceremonies are especially important, she added, because they lend stability to life and provide focus and familiarity, particularly for younger generations concerned about the future.

Moving traditional healers into the mainstream has grown steadily over the last decade, said Dr. Joy Dorscher, director of the University of Minnesota's Center of American Indian and Minority Health. A number of Minnesota's tribes offer both traditional and modern treatments at their clinics, she said.

It wasn't until the 1979 American Indian Freedom of Religion Act that tribes were allowed to legally conduct many of their ceremonies and traditional healing practices, she said.

''It opens up conversation between the healer and the doctor to look at the person as a whole and see all the needs of a patient,'' Dorscher, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota, said.

''But traditional healers also empower the patient to help themselves. They are more of a conduit to help the patient find a way to do that appropriately,'' Dorscher said.

The center was established in 1987 to help recruit American Indian students for the university's medical schools. While American Indians make up 2.8 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for only 0.3 percent of students in the nation's medical schools, according to the 2000 Census.

Besides producing Indian doctors, the center also tries to sensitize western-trained doctors about the value of traditional treatments, Dorscher said.

''One traditional healer once told me that for indigenous people, western medicine is the alternative medicine,'' she said.