Part 1 discussed key characteristics of
Native-American medicine. It focused on the paramount role of spirit,
including not only in the patient but also the healer, family, community,
environment, and medicine, and the dynamics between these forces as a part
of the Universal Spirit.
Part 2 summarizes specific healing modalities, some
of which can be understood, at least superficially, through conventional
biological mechanisms (e.g., herbal remedies) and others that must be
understood, once again, within a greater spiritual context.
fundamental goal of all Native-American healing is to establish a better
spiritual equilibrium between patients and their universe, which, in turn,
translates into physical and mental health. [Photo: Rock art (Utah)
of medicine person with large eyes and snake spirit helper.]
Medicine is Spirit
Marilyn Youngbird (Arikara and Hidatsa Nations), an
international lecturer on native wisdom and former Colorado Commissioner
for Indian Affairs, emphasized Spirit’s overriding role to me: “It is
difficult for the average American, who thinks medicine is merely
swallowing a pill, to understand that medicine does not live outside of
us. Medicine is a part of Spirit that exists in, animates, and connects
all of us. Spirit is life, and its healing energy is available to
us if we learn to know, live, breathe, walk, and speak it.”
Eighteenth-century records suggest that paralysis was
rare among Native Americans before contact with whites. Today, however,
their SCI incidence is two-four times that of whites because they face
more of modern society’s injury-aggravating downside (primarily mediated
through motor vehicle accidents) combined with the historical suppression
of mitigating cultural support systems.
Native Americans traditionally believed that a person
weak in body is strong in mind and spirit. According to The Native
Americans (2001), such conviction is “related to the all-pervasive
regard for differences…the curtailing of some ability, whether physical or
mental, was more than compensated for by some special gift at
storytelling, herbal cures, tool-making, oratory, or putting people at
Traditionally, Native Americans thought that many
inherited disorders are caused by parents’ unhealthy or immoral behavior
(fetal alcohol syndrome would be a good example in today’s world). The
Delaware and other tribes believed paralysis results from a patient or
parent taboo breach, and the Comanche called it a “ghost sickness” created
by negative spirits or sorcery. Because some diseases or disorders are the
result of the patient’s behavior, treatment may interfere with important
Because it is difficult to succinctly summarize a
subject as involved as Native-American medicine and do it justice,
interested readers are encouraged to review Honoring the Medicine
(2003) by Kenneth “Bear Hawk” Cohen (adopted Cree Nation), selected as the
National MS Society Wellness Book of the Year.
Because of Native Americans’ intimate relationship
with nature, many therapies emphasize plants’ mind-body-spirit healing
Herbs: Native-American herbalism is much more
complex than herbs merely serving as a plant matrix to deliver
physiologically active chemicals. First, because numerous plant components
affect bodily functions and bioavailability, the entire remedy is
considered the active agent. Second, because plants are believed to
possess spirit and intelligence, they are consulted to determine their
best healing relationship with patients, and permission is obtained before
and gratitude expressed after harvesting them. Third, intricate
procedures are used to harvest herbs, considering factors such as plant
part (e.g., flower, stem, root, etc), time or season of harvesting, sun
exposure, and much more obscure factors. Fourth, native herbalists use
plants that appear in dreams, a form of communication by which the plant’s
spirit can guide the healer. Finally, the plant’s healing potential is
empowered by ritual ceremony, prayer, song, or chants. Cohen notes that
although herbs can treat symptoms without such empowerment, they will not
reach the deeper causes of illness.
Tobacco: Ironically, the most spiritually
powerful plant is tobacco, modern society’s substance of greatest abuse.
Tobacco is the herb of prayer, placed on earth by spirits to help us
communicate with them and nature. All tobacco use, ranging from ceremonial
to cigarettes, should be treated with respect and awareness. Specifically,
the famous elder Rolling Thunder (Cherokee) taught Cohen: “After you light
tobacco, with your first puff, you should think a good thought or make a
prayer. With your second, quiet your mind; rest in stillness. With your
third puff, you can receive insight related to your prayer – perhaps an
image, words spoken by spirit, or an intuitive feeling.”
Smudge: Other sacred plants are used for
smudging, a purification procedure in which a plant’s aromatic smoke
cleanses an area of negative energies, thoughts, feelings, and spirits.
Smudging is a key component of healing prayers and ceremonies. The most commonly
used plants are sage (not the food spice) and cedar, which drive out
negative energy, and sweetgrass, which invites in positive, healing
spirits. Cohen believes that all healers should smudge between clients to
prevent the transfer of pathogenic energy. [photo:
Cohen smudging from shell]
Prayer, Chants, and Music
Prayer is pervasive in Native-American healing. As
reviewed previously in this “Healing Option” series, substantial
scientific evidence exists that prayer can affect health. As Cohen notes,
Native-American prayer concentrates the mind on healing, promotes
health-enhancing emotions and feelings, and connects people to sacred
healing forces. In contrast to more familiar whispered prayers, Native
Americans robustly proclaim, chant, or sing prayers. Singing is often
accompanied by drumming or rattles, which, by synchronizing group
consciousness, greatly magnifies healing impact.
Lewis Mehl-Madrona (Cherokee), an emergency-room
physician and author of Coyote Medicine (1997), told me that prayer
should be incorporated into overall therapy after any major injury: “At
the time of acute injury, enroll everyone - patient, family members,
friends, doctors, nurses - in a prayer circle with the expectation of the
Therapeutic Touch & Energy Work
Native-American medicine includes many approaches
with similarities to today’s alternative bodywork or energy-related
techniques, including massage, therapeutic touch, and acupressure-like
stimulation of body points.
Counseling helps patients find a more
health-promoting, mind-body-spirit balance through, for example,
developing a better understanding of a life path and purpose or the role
that the disease or disorder plays. Because the counseling is based on
spiritual wisdom, Cohen likens it more to pastoral counseling than
Native-American ceremonies incorporate a variety of
healing modalities into a ritualized context for seeking spiritual
guidance. According to Cohen, one of the ceremony’s chief goals is
communicating with the spirit of a disease to gather information that can
lead to the release of pathogenic forces.
Mehl-Madrona indicated to me “at one time in their
history, all cultures have had beneficial healing ceremonies;
unfortunately, most modern, white-culture ceremonies have become so
sterile they are not conducive for healing.”
I recently participated in a sweat-lodge ceremony in
the traditional Lakota style. It was held in a dome-like structure covered
by tarps and heated by pouring water over hot stones (the stone people).
Tobacco prayer ties were hung inside, smudging herbs sprinkled on the
stones, and sacred pipes ceremonially smoked. Participants prayed, sang,
and chanted to obtain guidance, wisdom, and healing not only for
themselves but for all who are a part of Mother Earth’s greater unity.
Overall, the sweat-lodge’s
mind-body-spirit-purification, communion-with-spirit process helps people
understand who they are, especially relative to any disease or disorder.
With such empowering understanding, you start reclaiming responsibility
for and taking charge of your own soul rather than relinquishing its
direction to healthcare authorities.
Because the sweat lodge is totally dark except for
the faint glow of hot stones, no one has a disability in the ceremony;
everyone is an equal participant. The ceremony can target underlying
emotional causes of substance abuse, a problem that plagues many with SCI.
It can also promote healing at different levels by generating forgiveness,
releasing bitterness, and busting apart the self-fulfilling belief pattern
that is imprinted onto most patients after injury that they will never
walk again. (Because the sweat lodge is, indeed, hot, it is not
recommended for those with higher level, sweat-inhibiting injuries.)
Based on Native-American values and beliefs,
Mehl-Madrona developed a ceremony-emphasizing program that targets
non-natives with chronic disease or disorders. In the professional journal
Alternative Therapies (January 1999), Mehl-Madrona reported that
more than 80% of program enrollees accrued significant, persistent
A Case Study:
The following case study illustrates many of the
previously discussed approaches. Specifically, Cohen used Si Si Wiss
healing - an intertribal tradition from the Puget Sound area - to restore
ambulatory function in Jon, an Icelandic man with multiple sclerosis (MS).
Due to chronic knee pain, Jon could not place his full weight on his left
leg and could only walk short distances using a walker. (see American
Indian Healing in the Land of Fire and Ice posted on
Cohen believes that location played a key role in
Jon’s healing. Native Americans believe that certain geographical
locations possess strong healing energy (among Christians, the most
well-known such site is Lourdes, France). Cohen was lecturing near
Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Glacier, a legendary Nordic sacred area that author
Jules Verne chose for his intrepid explorers to start their descent in
Journey to the Center of the Earth.
From his audience, Cohen recruited participants for a
healing circle that surrounded Jon and instructed them to sing a healing
song to a drum beat.
Cohen relates: “I cleansed Jon with a smudge of local
bearberry leaves and juniper. As I waved the smoke around his body with my
hands, I also imagined that Grandmother Ocean (within view) was purifying
him. I then placed my hands on Jon's spine, one palm at his sacrum, the
other above his seventh cervical vertebrae. I rested my palms there for a
few minutes, to both "read" the energy in his spine and to focus healing
and loving power.”
“I then held his knee lightly between my two palms,
focusing with the same intent. After this, I did non-contact treatment,
primarily over Jon's head, focusing on the brain itself. I held my hands a
few inches from his skull, one hand in front, one in back, then one hand
to the left, one to the right. I continued, holding my palms above his
spine, moving them gently up from the sacrum towards the crown and then
down the front mid-line of his body.”
As I continued with non-contact treatment, I prayed
in a soft voice, yet loud enough for Jon to hear me, and with a tone,
rhythm, and intensity that harmonized with the sound of the background
singing and drumming. … "Oh Creator, I ask for healing for this brother.
Let him learn his lessons through your guidance and wisdom, not through
pain. I pray that whether this condition was caused by inner or outside
forces, whether originating from this time or any time in the past,
whether intentionally caused by offended people or spirits or caused by
chance-- let the pain and disability be lifted and released in a good and
At the ceremony’s end, “I helped him to stand and was
about to move his walker over to him, when he said, "No, wait a moment. I
feel something." He began to walk without assistance, slowly but with an
apparently normal gait. He showed no sign of unsteadiness and was able to
use his left leg easily. I walked along side of Jon, expecting him to lose
balance and fall. Instead, he turned towards me, embraced me and said,
tearfully, "Thank God! It's a miracle. I can walk!"
Residents of Jon’s village, who had known him for
many years, later expressed their amazement to Cohen of seeing Jon walking
about town normally.
Cohen’s treatment included therapeutic energy work.
As such, it should be noted that his ability to transfer electromagnetic
energy through intention, with and without direct touch, has been
documented in rigorous experiments at the prestigious Menninger Clinic,
Kansas. Because of his reputation, many of his patients have, in fact,
been referred to him by physicians.
The study of Native-American and other indigenous
healing traditions is important because they have greatly influenced
modern medicine in spite of major philosophical differences; collectively
still play a huge global healthcare role; and offer solutions to modern
society’s ailments that our spiritually-bereft science cannot.
Native Americans believe their actions must consider
the welfare of the seventh generation to come. Perhaps this is why their
ancient wisdom is not just intriguing anthropological residuum pushed
aside by Western civilization but re-emerging in relevance to the present
Acknowledgements: The author expresses
gratitude for all his teachers of native wisdom, especially Kenneth Cohen.
Adapted from article appearing in Paraplegia News,
October 2004 (For subscriptions,
go to www.pn-magazine.com).