Two Healing Traditions Meet on the Plains

[imgbelt img=mastudioclose530.jpg]The National Library of Medicine plans an exhibit of Native American healing practices this fall. In preparation, its physician-director met and questioned nine renowned Indian medicine men in Bismark, ND, a rare encounter.


Lindberg’s team of videographers transformed the modest hotel suite into a professional television studio as they filmed interviews with each healer.  Although the researchers were sincerely looking to understand and learn from these men, Lindberg’s demeanor and dark blue suit said it all; this was his show.

Lindberg’s questions revealed the conviction and implied superiority of Western medicine. He asked how the men treated specific diseases and wondered if they went into trances when they conducted healings. The healers demurred at this direct line of questioning and instead spoke of the central role of prayer and humility in their work. They alluded to a power beyond words, the spiritual connection between humans and the earth. “We first ask permission from the Creator to heal people,” said Albert Red Bear.

It began to seem like Lindberg and the healers were speaking in completely different languages. It was hot and close in that hotel room, and I started to wonder where all this was going.

I recalled that Indians have been put under the microscope of Western medicine in countless ways, few of which have benefitted us: the 19th century Smithsonian cranial studies which offered rewards for Indian skulls, the forced sterilization of our women in the 1970s, and the misuse of our DNA in the 21st century, and many more violations of Indian bodies and health.

Western medicine got an old time Indian style bawling out from Chief Leonard Crow Dog who refused to answer questions about what sort of healing was his best work.

“We have everything we need in the universe right here to keep us healthy. Medical science has drugged us. Although we have been treated like handicapped people by the white man, we have survived,” he stated.

“We must be a pretty strong people to have survived so long, right?” he demanded. 

“White people are directly responsible for our genocide. Repent! Come clean!

Lindberg appeared chastened and a bit taken aback.  Clearly he had not anticipated being taken to task for his race’s depredations upon the Indians.

New York Times reported that at least 10 studies about the impact of prayer on disease had been conducted in the previous six years.

“The essence of native spirituality is the belief that everything on earth has life and value. Prayer is a means to acknowledge that value and acknowledge a power greater than ourselves. We have always known this,” said Lindquist.

In the past, she noted, the U.S. government and society condemned Indian people for their beliefs.

“Our prophecies told us that they (mainstream society) would come to us for answers,” she noted.

Galen Drapeau observed, “In today’s society, we don’t take time to tend to our minds, hearts of spirits.”

The healers agreed that people are suffering due to this negligence of themselves and the earth.

“Polluting our water and land insults the gifts given to us by the creator,” said Red Bear. But he also spoke of hope. “We have a second chance. The land is still here and our culture is alive!

In October, a special Healing Pole will stand at the door of the Native Voices exhibit in Bethesda. The Library commissioned Jewel James, an artist of the Lummi Nation in Bellingham, Washington, to create the massive carving which tells a symbolic story of the intangible power of prayer. It will be a reminder of Chief Crow Dog’s words that the sacred way of life is the most important and his instructions for a good life:

“You must see with the eye of the heart of your mind.”