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Native Sun News: Navajo doctor blends tradition in practice

The following story was written and reported by Kate Saltzstein. All content © Native Sun News.

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO -- Lori Arviso Alvord, the first Navajo woman surgeon, grew up in a small town on the Navajo reservation and went on to Dartmouth College, Stanford Medical School – and a medical career.

Along the way, she learned to combine traditional with western medicine as she practiced and taught medicine. She realized the healing power of Navajo ceremonies with medicine man, chanters, drums and sand paintings.

She spoke recently at the University of New Mexico where she signed copies of her autobiography The Scalpel and the Silver Bear. (The bear carries medicine in stories from many tribes, she said.)

Alvord told her audience, which included many Native American students, that it wasn’t an easy transition from the small reservation town of Crownpoint, New Mexico to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire when she was just 16-years-old.

“I struggled. I was not well prepared at my small high school for the science classes. I had a rough time coming from a tiny town to college. I did not do well at first. I thought I was too stupid to go into science.”

In fact, her grades were so low at first that she gave up the idea of a medical career and turned to the social sciences.

A few years later, while working in a biology lab at the University of New Mexico, “I fell in love with psychology, “she said. “A mentor talked me into going to medical school. I was older and more mature.”

She enrolled at Stanford Medical School. After graduation, she taught at Stanford and practiced medicine at Stanford University Hospital.

But she returned to the Southwest and practiced medicine at hospitals on or near reservations where she worked with Native American doctors and patients and combined Navajo and Western medicine.

“I studied ceremonies, and sand paintings. I wanted to understand ceremonies and cultural ways to promote healing. Many tribes believe that being out of balance with the universe causes illness. I talked to healers. They had a way to explain how healing occurs in ceremonies. Medicine men knew ways to heal our bodies before Western science did.”

Many of her Native American patients were not comfortable with western medicine. For example, it’s customary for doctors and nurses to ask a lot of questions before performing surgery.

“I looked at our ways. I did not ask a lot of questions. I did not extract too much information from them. We would just talk about who they knew, who I knew. They would tell their story. I would listen. When it was time to go into the operating room I made sure they were ready. A person’s mental state before going into surgery is important. That influences the outcome. In my view, their mind has to be in the right place. We brought in eagle feathers, medicine pouches, and fetishes if it made them feel comfortable. That didn’t meet OSHA requirements (for sanitation) so we put these things in a plastic bag.”

She arranged for medicine men to come into the hospitals. And, she talked to Navajo healers in depth about how healing occurs in ceremonies.

During her talk at UNM, she read a description from her book about a Night Chant ceremony arranged to heal a young girl. There were dancers, drummers and chanters along with friends and family.

The girl sat on a sand painting on the floor in a hogan (traditional Navajo home) while a medicine man said prayers. The medicine man held different colors of sand in his hand letting it sift through his fingers to create figures of holy people, called yeis.

“The sick person sits on the sand painting, and joins the spiritual world for spiritual purification,” Alvord said. “People were there to help the girl get well. She could feel that, and hear the rhythm of the drums and smell wood burning in bonfires. She held corn pollen in her lap. There were dancers with rattles and chants. The girl walked to the dancers and tossed corn pollen on them. She was surrounded by family and friends. She could feel the rhythm of the drums. It had a very positive effect on her condition. These ceremonies are very powerful. They are almost absent in western society. Western society doesn’t come together to help people heal” in that way."

Support groups are important in the healing process for all patients, Alvord said, adding that “a Navajo ceremony is a big support group.”

Navajo traditional healers say that imbalance and disharmony cause illness, Alvord continued.

“We must live our lives with balance and harmony. We must move along the life path with spiritual balance and harmony and live harmoniously with all things.”

If you work too hard, you can have a heart attack, for example. If you eat too much, you get fat.

Navajos also believe in the importance of positive thinking and focusing on good outcomes for the future because “thinking ill thoughts may invite adverse outcomes.”

“When I was pregnant I was not allowed any negativity into my mind. Whatever came into my mind would go into my baby, the Navajo nurses said. Stress can cause premature birth. The nurses were saying the same thing. Depression and stress interfere with the immune system”

And, she said, healers say we should think about the future in a good way.

Alvord also looked at Asian medicine including acupuncture meditation. She compared meditation to Navajo chanting during healing ceremonies.

“The chant is repeated phrases. The drum is linked to the heart beat, which can relax the patient and help healing,” she said.

Alvord also believes that art which appears in Navajo healing ceremonies helps the mind become “relaxed, energized and happy.”

“It may reduce stress and therefore augment the immune system. Music helps people heal. In Navajo ceremonies, there is song, music, rhythm, chants, woven baskets and sand paintings,” she said.

Alvord grew up in a bi-cultural home; her mom was Anglo, her dad Navajo.

“My grandmother was a teacher. She grounded me in traditional ways.”

Alvord also talked about Navajo ceremonies that encourage young people to be strong. For example, when a Navajo girl reaches puberty, there is a ceremony that lasts for several days.

“The puberty ceremony promotes a woman to be strong and powerful. She makes corn cake, gets advice from women on how to live life and is encouraged to be very strong. She runs to meet the dawn for several days. These are images that build self-esteem. Western images for women are unrealistic images. Magazines show skinny women and promote them being dependent on the male. How different Navajo images are from Western images.” Traditional lifestyles were vigorous and healthy, Alvord continued.

“There were no couch potatoes. People hauled water and chopped wood. Traditional diets contained high amounts of vegetables like corn, and squash, berries, nuts, grains, vegetables, fish and a little bit of meat. Now, Frito-Lay is running the show. It’s not rocket science. It’s common sense.”

Today, too many people eat prepared food, and too much meat and they don’t get enough exercise. They’re out of balance, out of harmony with nature, she said.

“Obesity comes from inactivity, heart disease from not using our bodies.”

After years of teaching medicine at Dartmouth College, Alvord moved recently with her husband and two children to Michigan where she is helping set up a medical school at Central Michigan University which “honors native ways of healing.”

(Kate Saltzstein can be

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