These beliefs are shared by all tribes; however, the methods of diagnosis and treatment vary greatly from tribe to tribe and healer to healer.
The healing traditions of Native Americans have been practiced in North America since at least 12,000 years ago and possibly as early as 40,000 years ago. Although the term Native American medicine implies that there is a standard system of healing, there are approximately 500 nations of indigenous people in North America, each representing a diverse wealth of healing knowledge, rituals, and ceremonies.
Many aspects of Native American healing have been kept secret and are not written down. The traditions are passed down by word of mouth from elders, from the spirits in vision quests, and through initiation. It is believed that sharing healing knowledge too readily or casually will weaken the spiritual power of the medicine.
There are, however, many Native American healers who recognize that writing down their healing practices is a way to preserve these traditions for future generations. Many also believe that sharing their healing ways and values may help all people to come into a healthier balance with nature and all forms of life.
Native American medicine can benefit anyone who sincerely wishes to live a life of wholeness and balance. These benefits may be physical, emotional, or spiritual. There is, however, the understanding that “the diseases of civilization,” or white man’s diseases, often need white man’s medicine.
In those cases, Native American medicine can be an important part of an integrative approach to healing. For example, the most successful programs for treating alcohol addiction in Native communities have combined Western approaches to psychological counseling, social work, and traditional Native American healing practices.
Such inherited conditions as birth defects or retardation are not easily treatable with Native American medicine. Native healers also believe that some illnesses are the result of a patient’s behavior. Sometimes they will not treat a person because they do not want to interfere with the life lessons the patient needs to learn.
Other illnesses are not treated because they are “callings” or initiation diseases. Native healer Medicine Grizzly Bear Lake explains, “The calling comes in the form of a dream, accident, sickness, injury, disease, near-death experience, or even actual death.”
Native American medicine is based upon a spiritual view of life. A healthy person is someone who has a sense of purpose and follows the guidance of the Great Spirit. This guidance is written upon the heart of every person. To be healthy, a person must be committed to a path of beauty, harmony, and balance. Gratitude, respect, and generosity are also considered to be essential for a healthy life.
Ken Cohen writes, “Health means restoring the body, mind, and spirit to balance and wholeness: the balance of life energy in the body; the balance of ethical, reasonable, and just behavior; balanced relations within family and community; and harmonious relationships with nature.”
Theories of disease causation and even the names of diseases vary from tribe to tribe. Diseases may be thought to have internal or external causes or sometimes both. According to Cherokee medicine man Rolling Thunder, negative thinking is the most important internal cause of disease.
Negative thinking includes not only negative thoughts about oneself but also feelings of shame, blame, low self-esteem, greed, despair, worry, depression, anger, jealousy, and self-centeredness. Johnny Moses, a Nootka healer, says “No evil sorcerer can do as much harm to you as you can do to yourself.”
Diseases have external causes too. “Germs are also spirits,” according to Shabari Bird of the Lakota Nation. A person is particularly susceptible to harmful germs if they live an imbalanced life, have a weak constitution, engage in negative thinking, or are under a lot of stress.
Other people or spirits may also be responsible for an illness. Another external source of disease is environmental poisons. These poisons include alcohol, impure air, water, and some types of food.
Native American healers believe that disease can also be caused by physical, emotional, or spiritual trauma. These traumas can lead to mental and emotional distress, loss of soul, or loss of spiritual power.
In these cases the healer must use ritual and other ways to physically return the soul and power to the patient. Some diseases are caused when people break the “rules for living.” These rules may include ways of showing respect for animals, people, places, ritual objects, events, or spirits.
Native American healers have several different techniques for diagnosing an illness. These may include a discussion of one’s symptoms, personal and family history, observation of non-verbal cues like posture or tone of voice, and medical divination. More important than the particular technique is the healer’s intuition, sensitivity, and spiritual power.
There is no typical Native American healing session. Methods of healing include prayer, chanting, music, smudging (burning sage or aromatic woods), herbs, laying-on of hands, massage, counseling, imagery, fasting, harmonizing with nature, dreaming, sweat lodges, taking hallucinogens (e.g., peyote), developing inner silence, going on a shamanic journey, and ceremony. Family and community are also important in many healing sessions. Sometimes healing happens quickly.
Sometimes a long period of time is needed for healing. The intensity of the therapy is considered to be more important than the length of time required. Even if the healing happens quickly, however, a change in life style is usually required in order to make the healing last.
The bundle is a concrete token of the medicine power that the spirits have given the healer, either for healing in general or for healing a particular illness. The bundles vary according to clan, tribe, and individual.
Native American medicine is not covered by insurance unless perhaps the practitioner is a licensed health care provider. Most Native healers do not charge a set fee for their services. Healing is considered to be “a gift from the Great Spirit.” Gifts to the healer are welcomed, however.
The offering of a gift “ensures success of treatment because healing spirits appreciate generosity.” Gifts may include groceries, cloth, money, or another personal expression of respect and appreciation. Frequently the only gift that is required is a pouch of tobacco.
The medicine person tells the patient what preparations are necessary before the healing ceremony.
A medicine person is essential to ensure safe healing through Native American medicine. People with hypertension should watch themselves during a sweat lodge ceremony for a possible increase in blood pressure.
People with asthma may have difficulty when sage or cedar is used in a ceremony. People who are claustrophobic may find the close, hot, dark environment of a sweat lodge overwhelming.
Some herbs may cause vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea. From the Native American point of view these reactions are usually welcomed and considered a form of purging or cleansing of the physical body.
Research and general acceptance
There has been no formal scientific research conducted on Native American healing practices. Medicine people do not write down their practices out of fear that they might be misused by people who are not trained in their sacred ways. The most prominent users of this form of medicine are Native Americans or others who want a spiritually based approach to medicine.