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What is a traditional healer?

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Last week I opened the idea of defining traditional healers. One reader was surprised when I said I wasn't a traditional healer and wanted to know why. I wanted to give my answers and to develop the concept of traditional healer more and to introduce a concept of healers who are informed by traditional healing and healers, but are not themselves traditional healers. I would be one of those.

To me, a traditional healer has lived his or her entire life in a reservation setting and is fully immersed in the life of the community. He or she has been a helper to an older healer for years (usually 20) and has come into his or her own recognition upon the death of the healer whom he or she was helping.

Within this view I would not consider myself a traditional healer, because I did not grow up on a reservation (though some have argued that southeastern Kentucky, the land of my childhood, is one big series of reservations, with each town having been run by the coal mining company and its company store until coal mining was no more and the company disappeared to leave abject poverty in its wake). Also, I believe that higher education changes us permanently. Most of the traditional healers I know did not venture past high school, and many did not make it to high school. Higher education makes it harder to believe. It makes it harder to return to the community and function in the role of traditional healer.

However, there is a potential flaw in my thinking. Given my definition, traditional healers will eventually cease to exist as people become more educated. We will all develop into hybrids. Perhaps when that happens, we will have to change our definition of traditional healer to be a hybrid, able to operate in both worlds.

I would consider myself a hybrid. I have spent time with healers my entire life. I grew up around healers, though not on a reservation. My great grandmother was a healer. However, as a child, I wasn't consciously aware of healing. In fact, I took my culture relatively for granted as many children do. It was not until I arrived at Stanford Medical School that I realized that I came from a different world from most of my fellow students. I have been intentionally spending time with healers since 1973. I have learned how to conduct some tradtional ceremonies and have worked alongside traditional healers to assist them throughout those years. I have taken what I observed and have applied it in my own world. I have taken what the healers called "doctoring" and have called it "energy medicine". I have drawn intellectual parallels between Native American healing and chi gong (Chinese energy healing), Reiki (a Japanese form of energy healing), and Therapeutic Touch. I have related the methods of hands-on-the-body osteopathic healing that I learned from Cherokee practitioners of that art, to tui nan, a Chinese form of manipulative medicine, to Thai massage, and to American osteopathic practice (which many Native scholars believe founder A.J. Still learned from the Pawnee Nation with whom he worked for many years before publishing his classic textbook on osteopathy).

I would say that my work is inspired by traditional healing and some of it looks like traditional healing, but that it is a hybrid. I am hopelessly influenced by all the traditions I have studied, including Reiki, traditional Chinese medicine, chi gong, as well as Native American healing. Native American healers have helped me to understand that spirit moves through my hands as I work and influences what I do, increasing both my receptivity and my intuitive abilities. I rely on spirit helpers and when I don't get messages or inspirations, I fall back on technique. The ballet dancer Nureyev once said that technique is what we fall back upon when we lack inspiration. Of course, the word inspiration in English is related to the Latin spiritus, which is spirit, which is related to the word, inspire, or to breath. Breathing and spirit are connected in so many languages.

I also work with groups to help them construct ceremonies which come from everyone's ancestral pasts in a blend of tradition with our contemporary understanding of the elements of ritual. I am often amazed by how powerful and meaningful and healing these ceremonies can be. This is by nature the work of a hybrid person, to bridge multiple cultures in a post-modern context of multiple ethnic origins in the same room asking to work together for a healing purpose.

I agree with the traditionalist that the so-called New Age people should not pretend to do proper Native American ceremonies. One should learn these ceremonies in a traditional manner and only do them as we were taught, to paraphrase a Lakota song. However, we hybrid or bridge people can take what we have learned about ceremony from attending traditional gatherings, and we can help people who have lost their own ceremonies to construct modern ceremonies that use what we know without duplicating existing ceremonies actually being conducted on reservations by elders.

I think this is important because more and more people have lost all connection to ceremony and ritual and wish to find it. Whenever possible, I send them to traditional healers. When not possible, I help them to construct ceremony for their own use that works for them. This is also an important function of hybrid healers.

When I work in medical settings, I do what's expected, though I try to bring the "deep listening" that I associate with traditional healers to my work as well as the narrative perspective, that all we do is storied. I also see the community and the extended family as the unit of healing and not individual, which is also guided by my indigenous learning. Occasionally, when called for, I will pray with people. If they are aboriginal people, I may even sing a song with them. In my healing work, outside of medical settings, I use guided imagery, body work, energy medicine, ceremony everything I have ever seen or learned to help people get well. Like my genetics, I am an amalgam of all the stories I have heard.

What will we do when only hydrids remain? I don't know, but it will be interested to find out.


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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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