I am a scientist focused on disability research and
health education. While investigating Native-American healing relative to
disability, I started to reflect on why my professional purpose had so
naturally evolved around disability. I thought about the many close
friends with disabilities I’ve had throughout my life and realized how
blessed I had been for their countless contributions that molded who I
They were my mentors; they showed me the heart and
soul behind disability that seems so often lost by detached policymakers
more concerned, for example, with a grant’s sample size; and, most
importantly, they taught me that spirit is always whole and powerful
regardless of physical limitations.
One of these mentors was Don, a strong soul born with
osteogenesis imperfecta, a disorder characterized by weak, easily
breakable bones. Don and I became friends as toddlers and remained so
until he died in the late 1990s. Throughout our long friendship, we
developed a connection that even influenced each other’s vocation.
Native Americans believe that such connections are
how the world works; collectively, our mind-body-and-spirit
interconnections create our reality at all levels.
Unlike prevailing Western thought that views every
individual as a distinct entity separated from each other and our
environment, Native-American philosophy stresses an oneness in which we
are all connected at some level to every person, animal, and plant. If you
don’t honor our universal connection – as in polluting our environment -
you will ultimately end up hurting yourself and everything that is a part
of your greater oneness. This is why Native Americans traditionally
considered the impact of their actions on the welfare of the seventh
generation to come.
Our interconnections are especially relevant when it
comes to healing and disability. As discussed in Honoring the Medicine,
(2003) by Kenneth
“Bear Hawk” Cohen, selected as the National MS Society’s Wellness Book of
the Year, Native Americans believe that spiritual connections are
paramount in healing, including the spiritual dynamics between the
patient, healer, family, community, environment, and medicine within the
context of the universal spirit.
Unlike conventional medicine’s mechanistic
orientation that attempts to fix unique body parts – whether they are
organs, cells, or molecules - in patients separated from each other and
the environment, Native Americans believe we are all holistically
connected to each other, Mother Earth (i.e., nature), Father Sky, and all
of life through the Creator (Iroquois), Great Spirit
(Lakota), Great Mystery (Ojibway), or Maker of All Things Above
(Crow). Essentially, the goal of Native-American healing is to establish a
better spiritual equilibrium between the patient and his universe, which,
in turn, translates into physical and mental health.
Native-American prayers and chants are concluded not
with an “amen” but with the phrase “All my Relations,” a dedication to all
physical and spiritual relations that are a part of the Great Spirit. In
addition, the Lakota say “mitakuye oyasin” – “we are all related,” while
Southwest pueblo tribes, who consider corn as a life symbol, simply state
“We are all kernels on the same corncob.”
Author Gregory Cajete explains the important role of
our ubiquitous connections using chaos theory in Native Science:
of Interdependence (2000). This theory suggests, for example, that the
air movement created by a butterfly’s wing flap in Africa can trigger a
catalytic sequence of disturbances that eventually culminate in a
Caribbean hurricane. Numerous movies, such as Jurassic Park and
Butterfly Effect, have been based on this concept.
Whether it is a butterfly flap, a prayer for healing,
or one’s stand against oppression, both chaos and Native-American theory
indicates that everything is related and has an influence no matter how
small. Moreover, we all have “butterfly power” to create from the
universe’s inherent chaos, which Cajete describes as “not simply a
collection of objects, but rather a dynamic, ever-flowing river of
creation inseparable from our own perceptions.”
The concept of interconnected wholeness is critical
in understanding the Native-American view of physical disability. Native
Americans honor and respect those with physical disabilities because they
believe that a person weak in body is often blessed by the Creator as
being especially strong in mind and spirit. By reducing our focus on the
physical, which fosters a feeling of separation from the rest of humanity
and nature, a greater sense of connection with the whole is created, the
ultimate source of anyone’s power.
Don’s Butterfly Power
As shown by his sense of humanity, humor, and
awareness of life’s inherent richness even in the most challenging of
circumstances, Don was always connected to this ultimate strength. Through
our long friendship, he indirectly sensitized me to many disability
issues, which later enabled me to assume professional positions with an
in-depth appreciation of such issues not always evident in able-bodied
My sensitivity training came in many forms. For
example, I would carry him up stairways of inaccessible public places by
brute-force, lifting him under his arm pits. Long before the Americans
with Disabilities Act heightened our accessibility consciousness, this
made me aware of architectural barriers.
In a simple example, Don would use his crutch as a
cue-stick bridge when we shot pool. Seeing a life filled with such
adaptations, big and small, helped me understand assistive-technology’s
key, life-enhancing role.
In addition, he often confided to me his
heart-rending difficulties developing romantic relationships in a world
that emphasizes transient physical attractiveness over the soul’s eternal
perfection. He never got over his love as a young man of that one special
woman who looked beyond his disability before she moved on. I was honored
to be his confidant, and grateful for the insights it provided when I
later managed projects concerning disability relationships or sexuality.
Although he had compromised respiratory function, Don
took singing lessons for years, reflecting, as in so many of his
endeavors, our fundamental soul need for creative expression that exists
in all, regardless of disability. In his later years, I would see him
reach his goal to sing as a part of the church choir.
Finally, he planted a now-germinating seed within me
concerning the historical suppression of Native-American culture.
Specifically, for several years before his death, Don’s passion, which we
discussed extensively, was developing a screenplay about the 1862 Sioux
uprising in Minnesota, which culminated in the largest mass hanging in our
Butterfly Power Returned
In addition to Don’s butterfly power being amplified
throughout my career, my butterfly power influenced his vocation.
Specifically, during our high-school senior year, Don
was badly injured while working on the engine of his 1960 Chevy. Pulling
into the garage driveway, his father accidentally clipped the Chevy’s rear
end, knocking Don down. Don severely fractured his legs and hips. He spent
two years in traction recovering, first in the hospital and then at home.
After returning home, Don enrolled as a freshman at the college I was now
attending as a sophomore.
Still in traction, Don participated in his classes
through intercom speakers, one located by his bed and the other in the
classroom. One day, Professor Thor Lundquist (name changed), Don’s
freshman chemistry teacher, dropped off the assignment that would change
Students had a love-hate relationship with Lundquist.
He gave out homework as if students had no other classes, but
nevertheless, greatly motivated them to succeed.
Lundquist’s modus operandi was to assign
extraordinarily challenging problems. In Don’s case, Lundquist asked him
to program an early Wang computing device for the “Arrhenius formula” for
calculating chemical reaction rates. Chemistry students dependent on slide
rules for these difficult calculations would be elated with such a
program. Lundquist later confessed that he had been unable to program the
formula himself, so he thought it would be a good learning experience for
Don to give it a shot, although he had little expectation of success.
In this case, my butterfly power came to the rescue.
While we were drinking a few beers, Don, shaking his head, showed me
Lundquist’s assignment. With a year of chemistry and advanced math under
my belt combined with the beers’ inhibition-releasing capacity, I said
“let’s do it and show the SOB.” We knocked it off in 10 minutes and went
back to our beers.
Lundquist was so amazed that this putatively
insoluble problem had been solved that he introduced Don as a gifted
programmer to the Wang Computer representative, and, as butterfly power
gained momentum, Don started a programming career that lasted to his
Although my math skills have faded away through the
entropy of time, Don’s butterfly power continues to flourish through my
professional activities. Aristotle stated that to move men to action you
have to move their hearts. Don’s friendship put heart behind my
activities, which, in turn, magnified their impact for so many with
disabilities. It is true butterfly power, personally validating the
important Native-American role of connection.
A Thunderbird Goodbye
Soon after Don’s death, I was driving after a rain
storm on the flat, straight-as-an-arrow Interstate that cuts through the
Salt Lake Flats. As I drove, horizon-to-horizon, luminescent double
rainbows appeared before me, the road disappearing into their center.
Through the rainbows, lightening bolts flashed over distant mountains, and
thunder claps rolled forth to greet me. According to Native-American
mythology, this was “Thunderbird,” who speaks in thunder and lightening
and teaches us how to use its power to heal. The last time I had driven
through the Flats had been with Don many years before. I thought of him,
and, as I did, Thunderbird told me that Don, reunited with Source, was
Adapted from an article appearing in Ability
magazine, Summer 2005