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First Nations Medicine

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Where does learning end and stealing begin? That's the hard question non-Natives interested in exploring traditional Native North American medicine are forced to ask themselves.

Where does learning end and stealing begin? That's the hard question non-Natives interested in exploring traditional Native North American medicine are forced to ask themselves. Many First Nations healers see whites' use of elements of traditional medicine as a distortion and, worse, an expropriation of Native cultural knowledge.

Yet interest in traditional Native medicine is on the rise, and current clinical studies are being used to validate centuries-old ways of healing.

The term "Native North American medicine" encompasses a vast range of practices, ceremonies, remedies, and beliefs of Native peoples from the Inuit in ice-bound northern Canada to the Seminole of near-tropical Florida. Local ecologies and histories have shaped a great variety of traditional ways of healing. The cultures of a few nations or tribes especially the Plains Indians of the US - have been studied extensively; however, little is known about most.

Above all differences, however, Native healing is characterized by a paradigm of holism. Physical well-being is not separated from mental, spiritual, and emotional health to the degree we see in Western medicine. The patient's relationships to not only other humans but also to animals, plants, and the spirit world play an integral role in the healing process.

Healing as a Vocation

Native healers (the terms "medicine man" or "shaman" are sometimes considered derogatory or inappropriate) are called to their vocation, often by a crisis of health. Healing knowledge is passed from healer to healer in an oral tradition spanning generations. Native healers acknowledge and give thanks for help in their healing work from the spirit world.

During diagnosis healing, the native healer may spend an extended period of time with the ill person; time itself is an essential element in the healing process. Time is also needed to allow the healer to consider each patient's unique social and spiritual context.

Purification Rituals

Throughout North America, a variety of purification rituals may be performed as part of the healing process; these include the use of sweat lodges, smudging, pipe smoking, cupping, sucking, or sweeping.

Other ceremonies serve to right the balance between the sick person and the community (which includes the natural community) or perhaps with a spirit who has been offended through the violation of taboo. Such ceremonies include sun dances, the use of the medicine wheel (a wheel-shaped arrangement of stones where rituals are performed), singing or chanting, dancing, drumming, and sand painting.

Plants as Spirit Healers

Herbs, shrubs, and trees are used as spirit healers. Cedar, sweetgrass, and sage, for example, are plants used in smudging; when burnt, their smoke purifies both patient and healer. Plants are also used as remedies for a range of illnesses.

Today, seven of the 10 most commonly used herbal remedies sold in the US are plants traditionally used by First Nations people, including echinacea, goldenseal, St. John's wort, and evening primrose.

Despite controversy over the ownership and application of traditional healing knowledge, First Nations medicine has much to teach us, if we approach our studies with respect and open minds.

Recommended Reading

  • Turtle Island Native Network: Healing and Wellness turtleisland.org/healing/healing-wellness.htm.
  • Daniel Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany (Timber Press, 1998) and online at herb.umd.umich.edu.
  • Anthony J. Cichoke, Secrets of Native American Herbal Remedies (Avery, 2001).
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