Call him Shotpouch. That’s not his name, but I don’t have his permission to write this and the Shotpouch outfit is big enough that no individual is likely to be mistakenly identified. He’ll be as safe as I’d be among the Teehees, another big Cherokee outfit.
I first met Shotpouch at a little mom and pop in Jay, Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma.It was breakfast time, and we got scrunched into the same table because there were more bodies than tables and it was that kind of place.
I had had some bureaucratic problems with the BIA, and I was whining about it. Shotpouch appeared to be full blood, which turned out to be true, and of an age that his face no longer reflected any particular age, but you could tell that guy was old.
He chuckled at my rendition, but then launched into his own BIA story. His complications with the BIA one-upped mine considerably and even though he spoke softly in that cadence of people still thinking Cherokee-to-English, by the time he finished the hilarious saga of bureaucratic ineptitude you could hear a pin drop in that greasy spoon.
There was a moment of silence when he finished followed by a collective roar of belly laughs, and I knew I had just been taken to school in the art of storytelling by a master. He also made me feel better, because my hassle was so trivial by comparison.
We wound up leaving at the same time and, as I got into my red Karmann Ghia convertible with the top down (don’t ask—it’s a long story), he started walking in a direction where I didn’t think there was much destination. But one look at his gimpy stride led me to offer the old man a ride, which he accepted.
Turned out, Shotpouch lived up in the hills, without electricity. He had a spring for water and an outhouse prudently downhill from it. The entire cabin was surrounded by what looked like an amazing vegetable garden…except that I did not recognize some of the plants, and he appeared to be cultivating others I thought were weeds. He had chickens and several piglets to whom he spoke in Cherokee.
He was a fascinating man, and that tale at the eatery was just a tiny example of what he could do in English. I had the thought: he must be incredible in Cherokee; when a middle-aged couple showed up in a Chevrolet that looked older than they were, and started an animated conversation that I had no hope of following.
I excused myself and strolled through his garden for a while. By and by, he came out and went directly to a particular row and oh-so-carefully removed a couple of green plants, roots and all. He sandwiched the plants between two damp paper napkins and handed them to the woman.
The man reached for his wallet and the conversation smoked me again, but some sum did change hands. My experiences that day led me to look the old man up when I visited Jay, usually more than once a year. I learned that he had spent his whole life studying traditional medicine, but he was not teaching a young person to replace him.
“The kids nowadays, they all want to know how many years it would take. How would I know? What kind of a question is that?”
There came a time when I drove up that gravel path to his house and found his garden in terrible disarray. I drove over to the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Jay where my R.N. aunt worked, and asked after him. The medical community was small enough in Jay everybody would know.
Shotpouch had walked on some months before.
Medicine people are an endangered species in Indian country. In some cases, the people who remember the ceremonies have already walked on, but it’s more problematic that the young are not willing to devote their lives to learning the practices.
An ordinary doctor graduates college and then graduates medical school, completes an internship/residency, acquires a state license, and is then finally allowed to see patients without supervision.
Getting a medical license in less than eight years is unlikely, and would require being pretty creative. The dominant culture considers medical training a lot of education and it certainly is at the prices they charge. Most tribal traditions assume starting as a child and not treating anybody without supervision until middle age. I hesitate to make general statements with limited knowledge, but I know of no tribal tradition in the U.S. that could qualify a medicine person in eight years or eighteen.
The lack of new blood is not about money. The failed social experiment that was the old Soviet Union proved that when they pegged physician wages to what a steelworker would make without years of study. The result was not a doctor shortage, although lots more women entered medical education. People are willing to do the hard work because they want to heal, and our medicine has proven insufficient shield against foreign diseases. The ceremonial aspects of traditional medicine may be dying out, but the herbal remedies that filled the traditional tool kit live on.
Herbal remedies have been successfully patented a few times, but patents are the exception. The other way to coin money in the dominant culture is by filling the shelves of health food stores. These “supplements” are not allowed to make overt medical claims, but that is not necessary, since there are so many herbs that have uses “everybody knows.”
When the dosages are based on “everybody knows” and the purity is in the hands of a corporate person rather than a human person, a lot could go wrong. This month, I was reminded of old Shotpouch when the news feed suggested that what could go wrong, has.
First in Canada, and then in New York, authorities are being pressured to crack down, no matter if the evidence shows poor quality control or fraud. If herbal medicines are to be seriously considered alongside mainstream medicines they should meet the same standards of purity and correct labeling.
Purity and correct labeling could be a matter of life and death to you and your loved ones, because in the 21st century you are on your own. Shotpouch is dead.