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Traditional medicine in Indian country

Given the wide diversity among the tribes in Indian country, to try to find the elements in common seems to be an impossible task. This is particularly so when it comes to health practices and traditional medicine.

This attempt is aggravated when we see the superficial observations of anthropologists and other external investigators who have been unable to grasp even the most basic concepts of healing in Indian country. Their limitations have been not so much in the facts that they have collected, but in their inability to see the interconnection of such facts with the community, cultural perspectives and world-view of the indigenous people. The other limitation - and perhaps the most serious one - has been their inability to see traditional healers for what they are - extraordinary healers with a millenary knowledge - and allow them to speak their own word. After all, it has been these traditional healers who have kept their communities healthy for thousands of years and have managed to keep this knowledge alive under very difficult circumstances.

A few years ago, I decided to honor our traditional healers by identifying the common healing elements that I had found among different tribes. I focused on the common characteristics that I found in the Huichol Indians of Mexico and some tribes of California. I figured that if there were some common elements among these tribes; then it was likely that these elements could be found among other tribes. I came up with 10 characteristics. Today the Indian Health Services has found these characteristics in more than 300 tribes.

These common elements don't take away the diversity and uniqueness that we find in each one of our tribes. What they do, is give us an insight into the wisdom of Indianhood, the power which has given the indigenous people extraordinary resiliency.

10 common healing elements in Indian country:

*Life comes from the Great Spirit, and all healing begins with Him.

*Healing is due to the harmony between body, heart, mind, and soul.

*Our relationships are an essential component of our health.

*Death is not our enemy, but a natural phenomenon of life.

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*Disease is not only felt by the individual, but also by the family.

*Spirituality and emotions are just as important as the body and the mind.

*Mother Earth contains numerous remedies for our illnesses.

*Healing practices have been preserved throughout the generations.

*Traditional healers can be either men or women, young or old.

*Illness is an opportunity to purify one's soul.

It is worth noticing that modern physicians are starting to pay attention to some of these characteristics. For instance, specialists in cardiology have concluded that our relations - one of the key areas of ancestral healing - our sense of love and intimacy, is more relevant than any other factor that medical researchers have studied or emphasized in their practice. In the words of Dr. Dean Ornish, leading expert in the field of heart disease:

"I am not aware of any other factor in medicine that has a greater impact on our survival than the healing power of love and intimacy. Not diet, not smoking, not exercises, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery."

It seems that the best of our mainstream physicians are wising up. They are beginning to follow in the footsteps of our Indian healers. Let us hope that they continue in this direction and rather than being technicians of diseases become healers of people.

Roberto Dansie is a clinical psychologist. In 1997 he received the golden medallion from the National Indian Health Board for his contributions to health in Indian country. He lives in northern California.