"When I first learned I had cancer, it was just absolutely devastating." says Jerry Slater, vice president of academic affairs at Salish-Kootenai College and an enrolled tribal member. Diagnosed with bone cancer in July 1994, Slater was told by doctors that the disease would run its course. Slater, who describes himself as a "fix-it" type of person, was suddenly faced with "something that couldn't be faxed."
"Immediately I went into a deep depression," he recalls. "I could wake up and it was like something black was sitting on my chest and face, almost smothering me."
His brother-in-law, a Blackfeet medicine man, approached Slater and offered to help. Slater accepted because he "had nothing to lose." He had not sought out a native healer on his own, he says, because he was not raised practicing tribal traditions. "I'm thankful I found this way, otherwise I would have been treating this one little part of me," he says.
Like an increasing number of American Indians and non-Indians, Slater decided to use both a doctor and a native healer to treat his bone cancer. He regularly consulted with a cancer specialist and received six chemotherapy treatments. With his native healer, he took part in five healing ceremonies that involved medicine bundles, prayer, song and sweats. "Together they seem quite powerful," Slater says of the combined medical practices. "That's why I am working with both."
Modern allopathic medicine focuses on the physical aspects of illness or injury. Using research-based treatments, physicians approach medical conditions by treating symptoms. While native healing varies by tribe, it generally treats illness as a disruption of the mind, body and spirit. Healing seeks to restore balance and harmony, whether the problem is physical, emotional or spiritual.
As soon as Slater began working with a healer, his depression began to lift. "I just seemed to relax, to calm down. I developed a different attitude about myself," he says. He changed to a healthier diet and began to exercise regularly. "I began to take better care of myself. If you truly respect yourself, it's much easier to take care of yourself."
Slater also developed a different attitude about his illness. He has learned to be thankful for what he has. "Everything that happens, there's a reason," he says. "I had to re-examine my life and relationships. My family and health became a higher priority for me than work. There's almost a gift within the illness. My life is so much richer now. My life is this particular day."
He gestures out his office window to the Mission Mountains, lit with a golden autumn light. "I think of the phenomenal beauty of this world. There are cycles of life that are deep and profound. I am just a part of the rhythm and cycle. I am finding that place of harmony."
If modern medicine treated a person's spirit as well as the body, Slater believes it could reduce a patient's anxiety and fear. Slater found native healing eased his fears and helped him become more involved in his own treatment. "You're told by Western medicine there's nothing you can do. There's mechanical intervention," he says. "In Native American medicine, you have to participate. If you don't do anything, nothing's going to happen."
Doctors are kept too busy staying abreast of the latest medical developments to explore alternative types of healing, he says. "In the Western way of medicine, they try so hard to be honest," he says. "They're very careful not to deceive you. What they don't understand is they don't give you enough hope--the kinds of things you need. They're cold and factual. Their vision of us is too narrow."
Native Healing and Hospitals
Bonnie Craig, director of UM Native American Studies, reached the same conclusion during treatment of ovarian cancer. Her experiences as a Blackfeet Indian in a Seattle hospital were the impetus for a conference on American Indian health care issues that was held at UM in April 1995. The conference featured American Indian physicians and practitioners who find traditional healing complements their medical practice.
"When I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt schizophrenic," Craig says. "I felt pulled to my personal roots, yet part of me was pulled to modern technology. I made a personal choice to bring together doctors, nurses and tribal healers." Fear was at the root of her decision to use both modern medicine and traditional healing, she says. "I needed a foot in both worlds in order to feel comfortable."
Unlike modern medicine, native healing treats the mind, body and the spirit, Craig says. "It places you in the middle of your family or your tribal members, who surround you and give you their support and their love. There's a continuum of prayer that goes on constantly."
In the course of her treatment, Craig took part in numerous healing ceremonies. She also had a hysterectomy, follow-up surgery, taxol treatments and high-dose chemotherapy. The chemotherapy took an incredible physical toll. "A couple times I felt near death," she says.
Craig's hospital experiences varied widely. One of her specialists took an interest in getting to know her and learning about her cultural practices. He urged her to treat her cancer like a boxing match, to strike the first blow and always get back up.
This was in sharp contrast to a later trip Craig made to the same hospital. Each day a team of a dozen specialists entered Craig's room to examine her. There was no conversation. "They didn't know who I am," Craig says. "They were not relating to me as a person." At one point she became so frustrated that she stopped them as they were leaving. "There is more to healing than just putting medicine in a body," she told them. "You are not treating my mind. You are not allowing my spirit to heal."
The hospital also interfered with her praying, Craig says. "My prayer involves smudging"--burning sweetgrasses to ground her spirit and communicate with the Creator. "The fire marshal was called in. I was pointedly asked do not do this.' I couldn't rely on who I am as a spirit person."
A Mohawk physician who spoke at the April conference says, "people really fall back on their traditional ways, particularly in times of stress." Dr. Theresa Maresca works with traditional healers to help her patients and honors such patient requests as allowing an Indian grandmother to witness the birth of her grandson so she could greet him with a gifting ceremony.
Maresca suggests that medical professionals learn to greet Indian patients in their native language and make their medical offices more welcoming. Receptionists need to be understanding about appointment times, she says, because many Indians on reservations lack reliable transportation. She also advises medical professionals to look at the pictures and messages on waiting room walls and ask themselves, "What's there that greets people and says this is a place of healing?"
It is sometimes difficult to translate Western medical terminology into native languages, Maresca says. One of her older patients laughed heartily when the radiologist told him about a diagnosis in his native tongue. When asked, he replied that he had just been told, "You have a large lightning bolt coming out of your face."
"The Indian Health Service is long overdue in utilizing traditional medicine people," says Gordon Belcourt, who organized UM's American Indian health care conference. "In the past, the Indian Health Service has excluded traditional medicine."
Traditional healers provide invaluable counsel and support to people who are sick, says Belcourt, a former executive director of National Indian Health Board and a tribal health director on the Blackfeet Reservation. "I've seen people with heart problems, cancer and tremendous mental problems have miraculous recoveries," he says. "Medicine people also help those who are dying. They come in and clean your body, and sing, and pray with you, encouraging you to leave without fighting."
Currently there are several crises facing traditional healing. One is that medicine bundles used in healing ceremonies are locked in museums. For example, Belcourt says, a Blackfeet beaver bundle that has tremendous power to help alcoholics and drug addicts is locked in a Canadian museum vault. If it is not returned soon, he fears that the elders who know how to use the bundle will be gone.
"Medicine bundles are living entities with powers from the Creator," Belcourt says. "They need to be cared for like a baby. There are songs and rituals that are done to care for the bundle properly and preserve its powers."
Another problem is that native language and ceremonies are dying with tribal elders. In the Blackfeet tribe, there were 300 elders in 1968; today there are sixty-five. Merle Yellow Kidney, a Blackfeet medicine lodge keeper and a drug abuse counselor for the Salish and Kootenai Tribes, says native language is the root of all ceremonies. He is saddened that some of those who lead ceremonies are not fluent in Blackfeet. "When you call an eagle, it has to be called by the correct name," he says. "There are seven different eagles. You can't just say eagle."
Yellow Kidney knows that the Western-trained mind may be skeptical of traditional healing. That's not his concern. "Spiritually, to make everything all right, we have to stop being what everyone else wants us to be," he says.
Healers do not claim to be able to cure every illness every time, he says, nor do they boast of their power. "I observe the spirit world. As much as they allow, I am a guest there," Yellow Kidney says. "If I am in luck, they will come to me in a sweat lodge. They'll tell me this person needs this root. We manipulate the plants and the spirit of the other side. If everything is right, it will work."
To heal the body and heal the spirit, many Indians are combining the power of both medical traditions. "I wouldn't be here without one or the other," Craig says. "I'm here because of the choices I've made to survive."
While one practice offers the latest scientific knowledge and technology, the other provides strength and solace. "Traditional healers never say, We can't help you,'" says Craig. "There's endless hope till the last breath."
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