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Articles    H2'ed 6/16/10

More Indian Than Thou

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Finding my father was more difficult. He was in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean Conflict. During those days, the USO paid local women to dance with airmen. He and my mother met at such a dance during a time when there was an Air Force Base near our home. They obviously had a deeper relationship than just dancing, but he wouldn't marry her. He wouldn't believe that he was my father. I suspect my mother was frantic to find someone to marry her, because being a single parent in Kentucky in 1953 was not acceptable. She had three other quick relationships, and one was my father's buddy, who married her and named me after him. I think he actually loved my mother, but apparently she didn't love him, and they split up before I was nine months old, before he even got out of the Air Force.

I know all this thanks to private detectives and paternal DNA testing, which cost me a lot back in the days when I was earning more money. I tracked down three of the four potential candidates, interviewed them, arranged paternity testing, and got the results. My father's buddy, who was then living in Florida, told me about my father and his Lakota and French-Canadian heritage. He wouldn't give me a name, because he'd promised my father not to tell anyone. Nevertheless, he told me when and how my father died, and I was able to track down who he probably was. He became the candidate through process of elimination.

This was a long, painful process, and one that I was glad to close the book on. I realized through doing this, that I am what I am. I realize I could have pushed further on both fronts to establish proof of parentage and to get enrolled, but I was tired of it all, and it no longer seemed to matter. I continue to feel that way, though my facebook critic feels differently.

Of course, like many of us who suffer from feeling "Less Than", I did many things to compensate, which turned out to be wonderful for me. I studied Cherokee bodywork with practitioners of that art. I learned as much as I could from a variety of healers, starting in medical school. In fact, I credit a Cherokee elder, Kidla, from Ukiah, California, and another Cherokee elder, Grandfather Roberts, from Eureka, California, for getting me through medical school. I was lucky enough to go to Stanford University because I knew how to run the world's largest carbon-13 nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer while in college. I was shocked when I got to medical school and discovered that there was no course on healing. I wanted to learn healing the way my great-grandmother did it, but the medicine I was learning was so different from the views of my grandparents and great-grandparents that I was in a quandry. I went to the Stanford Indian Center to explain my dllemna and was referred to Kidla who I visited the very next weekend. The support of running a parallel track of participating in Native American ceremonies and receiving Kidla's and Grandfather Robert's teachings kept me sane and able to complete medical school.

I have continued to attend ceremonies since then and have averaged a sweat lodge probably once per week. This will be my 11th year of sundancing and I now attend two dances each summer. I have worked with Native people throughout my career and written scientific papers about bringing elders into health care and working with elders to improve outcomes. I refer people to elders for healing. Some of this is compensation for feeling inferior in the MITT syndrome, but I'm glad I did all these things because they are also high points of my life. The teaching that I do, workshops and the like-is and always has been intended to show other people, mostly health practitioners, the rich resources for healing offered by indigenous peoples. I like to give credit where credit is due, and I am concerned that if we don't take credit the world will not know that osteopathy most likely came from the Pawhnee, that Milton Erickson's hypnotic storytelling most likely came frok the Chippewa, that according to documents in the Smithsonian, (check out James Mooney) the Cherokee used porcupine quills as acupuncture needles.We had a hand in chiropractic doctoring too. Our ideas of community, of the interconnectedness of everything are of themselves healing. I woud feel wrong if I didn't credit the people with the being the source of much of this knowledge.

With more and more evidence for the effectiveness of energy medicines like Reiki (see the studies on the effects of reiki on the growth of bone cells), and other forms of healing, the world is going to run off with these modalities without giveing credit to indigenous people, unless people like me speak up. I like it when the world shows a little respect. I teach to anyone who will listen. I don't turn anyone away from any workshop I give, nor anyone who wants help, whatever their heritage. I understand that as my responsibility in the world. I have lived a break-even life. Much of my work has been free or for small salary, and I have not accumulated possessions. Today, my assets consist of a 2001 Dodge Pick-up truck and a $200 computer and whatever is left in a storage locker in Montana.. My study of Native American healing and my work with Native American people has not made me rich. I work a regular day job.

So what do I tell my critic who wants papers in order to grant me an authentic life? Who says that I can't have learned what I did. Can I say that I don't care? Can I say that I don't need papers? A friend suggested I go get papers to silence such critics, but I confess ambivalence. I don't like being told that I don't exist unless I have papers. I have a stubborn streak which compells me to do the opposite of what I am told to do.

I also have a problem with the pure blood concept. This concept is European and comes from Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. The Native people of North America did not have a "pure blood", genetic transmission model. For example, the head chief of the Cherokee during the Trail of Tears and Death, John Ross, was technically, by European standards, 7/8s Scottish. Yet, by Cherokee standards, he was 100% Cherokee. Similarly, the Cherokee, before leaving Tennessee for Oklahoma, frequently bought slaves and freed them or married them into the tribe. Once a member of the tribe, they were also 100% Cherokee. This is why so many African-Americans in the South are part-Cherokee. The Lakota had the hunka ceremony in which people became relatives. A hunka bond could be stronger than a genetic bond.

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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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