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Health | Opinion
Opinion: Learning from Native views of health treatment

"This weekend, I taught a sociology course on Native American ceremony in which we wondered how traditional healing could be incorporated more into mainstream health care, both as practice, but also as principle. We looked at the range of what is occuring across North American. Perhaps the most integrated and innovative program is at the Aboriginal Health Unit of the University of Manitoba. There, in downtown Winnipeg, a client can ask the receptionist to see either the traditional healer or the conventional physician.

Both the healer and the physician are on salary and the services of both are a covered benefit for clients. As far as I know, anyone can see the traditional healer. One does not have to be a Native American person to use the services of the healers, and, as far as I know, these healers are willing to work with anyone who comes to see them. The healers have a beautiful thunderbird shaped building in which to do ceremony.

Offices ring the outer circle with doors of entry at each of the four directions. A central open space includes a large grate in the middle that can be removed to build fire. Nearby, the City turned a parking lot into an environment for the healers to do sweat lodge and other outdoor ceremonies. Knowing Judy Bartlett,the medical director of this facility, I imagine that the healers and the physicians have some interesting discussions and engage in what has been called explanatory pluralism -- the idea that multiple,ovelapping levels of explanation can exist for any phenomenon, and our inability to see how the levels connect, or to explain one level in terms of another, doesn't invalidate any level.

My favorite example of this comes from the life of James Walker, physician to the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation from the 1880s through the early 1900s and first non-Native person to be taught to be a wicasa wakan, or healer. Early in his career, Walker attempted to convince his later teachers that tuberculosis was caused by a bacillus and not by an evil spirit. To convince them once and for all, he set up a slide in a microscope and urged the healers to look at it. "This is what causes tuberculosis," he proudly announced. The healers looked and got vey excited. "This is what we saw in our vision," they said. "This was our vision of the evil spirit." From then on, Walker was much more accepting of Lakota explanaations.

In our internet searching for other programs, however, my students discovered that not all people of Native North American ancestry agree with programs like Winnipeg's. Some believe that healers should never receive any compensation and should remain completely aloof and apart from the conventional medical system. Others object to healers helping non-Native people. Others believe that only those of "pure blood" should be healers. We found a tremendous argument about what is traditional healing and who should do it."

Get the Story:
Lewis Mehl-Madrona: Learning from Native North America for Health Care (Futurehealth 4/22)