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Katsi Cook: Safeguarding our healers

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Editor's note: "Women's Dance," an occasional column by Mohawk midwife Katsi Cook, will explore the world of medicinal practices in Native America.

Among the various activities conducted by Iewerokwas (Mohawk for mid-wife), our midwifery and women's health program, we are most proud of our Healers in Residence project. Over the years, we have gotten to know many excellent practitioners of the ancient healing arts of the Americas.

In my own practice of midwifery, the connection to the many families has provided opportunities and experiences with elders and individuals of great knowledge and abilities. There are not too many, but there are some still, who are genuinely trained from within our Native cultures and who are constant fountains of learning. The older practitioners, especially, are not prejudiced in their treatment of other human beings, while most prefer to cater to their own clans and tribal peoples. All the genuine ones are humbled by what they do at the same time that they take great care and pride in the detail and sincerity of their ceremonies and healing ways.

A common thread in indigenous healing practice is the work with dreams. The sharing of a dream is central to the relationship of trust between those who seek healing and those who themselves have experienced healing through dreams. In the same way that traditional healers and midwives maintain their own spiritual disciplines through dream practice, those seeking support in their own healing journey naturally dream.

For example, expectant mothers "in the family way" may have a significant dream or series of dreams that yield information that can inform a midwife and her helpers how to prepare for and guide a birth. Dreams can help straighten out a family discord; they can stave off deeper disharmonies. But the dream healer must be familiar with the rich imagery and language of dreams as well as that of indigenous epistemologies which guide dream interpretation.

Interpretation is everything and those who know these ways, who are few and far between, do travel the directions with much work to do for the people. He or she must know what they are doing. It takes experience to recognize the good-minded one from the weak-minded one.

In following the trails of seeking authentic indigenous midwifery knowledge, I was lucky and gifted to gather trusted teachers from the four directions. There were my grandmother and my mother; also my father and grandfather. All were at ease with natural processes, birth included, because they trusted their common sense and practical knowledge. Then there were elders such as Joe and Hattie, who lived in the bush and with whom I spent very instructive seasons. Later, in my travels, I met healers and medicine teachers from many other relatives and nations - Lakota, Anishnawbe, Navajo, Pomo, Maya, Taino. My practice is continually enriched by these wonderfully gifted people, all of whom are important assets to their communities and who, in the presence of other healers, are mostly generous and good teachers.

Our indigenous healers are a very strong part of my universe of knowledge, at once my consultative group or "think-tank" and my respected prayer leaders. In my work in family and community education and Aboriginal midwifery curriculum development, it has been very helpful to consult with these elders, to compare medicines and teachings. In common, we have shared the ceremonial and medicinal use of such medicines as tobacco, copal, peyote, ayahuasca and many others of the family of plant life.

Similarly, the spiritual healing entities of the various traditions, through dream and ceremony, reveal intelligence and power to restore harmony. Of course, these exchanges are infrequent and require notable exertion and sometimes even risk for these elders, including long travel, going into strange surroundings and, as seen in a recent case in Canada, facing alien legal jurisdictions where criminality over function and substance differ from what they have at home.

The news during the past year of two medicine men from Ecuador detained in Canada after a person died during their ceremony was sorrowful. The father and son are healer and helper in a ceremonial team that uses, among other practices, the herbal medicine tea known as "ayahuasca." They were invited into Canada by a First Nations community, whose health program financed the trip. The unfortunate death, however, later judged to be incidental and not caused by the taking of ayahuasca nor by the ritual itself, brought forth criminal charges against the two Ecuadorian healers, who were tried in Ontario court.

Although the case was resolved with some degree of justice recently, the nearly two-year-old ordeal had grave consequences for the two healers, whose families were left behind in South America, while their principal bread-winners were unable to work and were threatened and fighting a situation of long term incarceration.

What happened? I don't need to judge. But the lesson to be extracted is important. In this age of international travel among Native peoples, let's act responsibly with our international guests.

The economic resources of the South and the North are hugely different. Indigenous families in the south, especially, live in marginal economies, enduring political realities that hearken back to even medieval times. It is still possible to buy land in Guatemala and get the Indians that come with it! The cost of a meal or a hotel room in Canada or the U.S. is prohibitive to most Native people from the South. It is among our oldest traditions to think in this way about our guests - how what we are offering them can be detrimental - so we must put ourselves in their shoes.

As we saw in the Ontario case, legal jurisdictions are serious entities and we must be aware of the way international guests will be affected by them.

Since the 1992 Regulated Health Professions Act of Ontario, Aboriginal healers and midwives are exempt from any regulation by the government. This legal exemption is good news, but in its lack of specificity, it is not definitive. We may claim a degree of sovereign immunity from Canadian and American jurisdictions, but this is sometimes tenuous, and can not often offer real protections. While Native members of local tribes and territories, bands and reserves, often can point to a protected status in matters of religion and customary practice, these don't often transfer to your Native guest from another country. You may wish it to be so, but it will not be necessarily so. The result can be catastrophic for your generous guest who graciously accepted your invitation to travel and conduct ceremonies.

It is most important for Native peoples to share knowledge of health and welfare with their relatives across the hemispheres. It can be the stuff of miracles; but it requires very refined and well-informed responsibility. With this in mind, let's protect and respect the spirit of all our ceremonies and tribal lifeways.

Katsi Cook, Mohawk, is a traditional midwife and director of Iewerokwas Program. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today.