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Articles    H2'ed 4/22/10

Learning from Native North America for Health Care

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Of less prominence on the internet is the discussion that I have been having at conferences and meetings about revising contemporary medicine based upon the insights of traditional healing. That means exploring the concept of relational mind, or mind that exists between people in relationships inside of inside people. It also means involving the community in treatment and embracing the concept that the sick person is doing a service for the community by showing that dysharmony and imbalance exist. In order to help the individual, his or her entire community needs to embrace the search for imbalance and the restoration of order and harmony. I also think the wisdom of traditional healing shows us the power of energy medicine. So much of what healers do falls under the contemporary category of energy medicine and is being seriously researched now in academic centers. Prayer and its power is also receiving serious attention as well as the power of belief.

We did find an interesting trend on the internet discussion groups we visited, to view any CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) as "New Age." We found a dichotomy between traditional North American healing and "everything else" on some websites. My students believed that our health care system needs to make room for traditional medicines of all kinds Oriental, Ayurvedic, African, and North American. They felt that North American traditional healing should be showcased more than it is in North America. We noticed that Chinese Medicine gets much more internet time than North American healing.

We found critics of everything. I certainly fall into doing things to which some would object. I use drama therapy techniques to help people understand things as diverse as the inner workings of the minds of a person diagnosed with schizophrenia to understanding the interactions of the beings of the Lakota cosmology. Fundamentalists could object to this. I have also led a class to re-enact the winter buffalo hunt ceremony, which has not been done for over 100 years. I think this ceremony deserves to make a comeback and we did have an amazing experience reading ethnological accounts of the ceremony, praying for guidance on how to re-enact it, and then performing the ceremony. I plan to do this again next winter and hope more people will join me. Of interest was our discussion before doing the ceremony of what "buffalo" as a symbol means in our modern lives. As a marker of abundance, buffalo can mean education, social capital, income, and more.

I have also let my study of traditional North American healing inform my healing work with people. Currently I live a sort of dichotomy between my medical work and my healing work. When someone comes for healing, I ask them to contribute to me whatever makes their heart glow with generosity but not enough to bring them any resentment. That approach has its ups and downs and I have been paid in rocks, cigarettes, crystals, and other things that don't may my rent. Since I became a sundancer and picked up the sacred pipe to carry, this has seemed the right way to proceed. I use ceremony, energy medicine, bodywork, and more in my work though I don't call myself a traditional healer. I was not trained as a traditional healer. I did not grow up on a reservation, though some people have humerously referred to my homeland of Eastern Kentucky as a reservation created by coal mining. Our town still has 60% of its households earning less than $10,000 per year. I actually don't know what to call myself, so I humorously call what I do coyote healing because it's an amalgamation of everything I've ever learned. My medical work is influenced by this also, but in more circumspect ways. One must behave more conventionally in medic al settings and the relationships formed there are more tightly scripted. If I start seeing someone as a psychiatrist, I would not move them into my healing work, because too many people could object to saying that now I was engaged in boundary violations. If we start medical, we stay medical, but, hopefully,in a more enlightened and informed way.

I do think we need to bring all the world's traditional healing into our medical practice, but this will be slow going. It will not happen overnight or be acceptable. Until that happens, perhaps some of us doing healing on the side and not as physicians will be a bridge between the traditional healing that happens on reservations and in small bedrooms in urban areas and the activities of the modern medical clinic. Time will tell what directions all this things will take.

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)
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