Indigenous Concepts of Healing
Native American wellness embodies the world of the
spirit as much if not more, than the world of the
physical body. Not only is wellness a mostly
metaphysical construct, the restoration of health
usually incorporates an element of spirit into healing
modalities. Native American wellness reflects a
relational view of well-being that considers the
delicate balance between body, mind, spirit, and
emotions, harmonious relationships with self, others,
the Creator, and the environment, and the moral,
spiritual, and physical repercussions of disease-causing
behavior and activity (Alvarado, 2005; Cohen, 1998;
Garrett & Garrett, 1994; Locust, 1988).
The indigenous concepts of
healing described below reflect this worldview.
The Healing Powers of Water
According to Gene Thin Elk,
a Lakota spiritual leader, the first medicine for Indian
people is the sacred water or mni wakan (G. Thin
Elk, personal communication, 1994). Indeed, the healing powers
of water are reflected in many Native American stories
and legends. According to the Kiowa, healing powers come
from deep underwater and are a gift of the Spirit
(Baines, 1993). Seawater has been used by the Tlingits
to purge impurities from inside one’s body, and many
tribes use water to carry the healing properties of
certain plants into the body in the form of teas. Water
also plays a crucial role in many ceremonies, most
notably, the sweat lodge ceremony (Baines).
Additionally, some medicine people have the ability to
instill healing powers into an ordinary glass of water
through prayer, and the patient is healed by drinking
the blessed water. For example, the Navajos share a
belief that an ordinary glass of water can become holy
and medicinal if placed in an east window where it is
touched by the rising sun (H. Davidson, personal
The sweat lodge ceremony is
a purification ceremony designed to cleanse one’s mind,
body, heart, and spirit through structured ritual,
prayer, and the use of water. This ceremony is probably
one of the most widely recognized forms of Native
healing. Healing occurs by embracing the natural healing
powers of the Universal Circle, which utilizes the gifts
of the four sacred directions in a powerful and
transformative experience. The person crawls into the
lodge, referred to as the womb of Mother Earth,
is engulfed in the steam of the medicinal water and
through ceremony is purged of physical, emotional, and
spiritual impurities. When the ceremony is complete, the
person crawls out of the womb as if they are reborn.
Indigenous Knowledges: Healing through Creative Arts and
The use of Native American art forms in the delivery of
wellness services to Native American populations has been
suggested as a viable and effective means of
intervention. Herring (1997) cited four specific reasons
for integrating the use of Native American art forms in
The first and most obvious reason is that Native
American healing and spiritual concepts have
historically been enmeshed in the process of creative
art forms. Second, the cultural practice of the use of
silence in personal and social interactions,
particularly in the presence of authority figures, would provide
Native clients with a means of nonverbal expression.
Third, healing in the Native American context
should include ritual, and because ritual incorporates a
variety of expressive art forms and
encompasses the whole life process, it is an integral
aspect of wellness. Finally, art is fully
integrated with the manner in which cultural knowledge
is transmitted through the generations. The use of
metaphor and symbolism is involved in the natural
language of Native people, and thus, makes for
an effective means of communication
in the helping process
(Morrissey, 1996; 1997).
Many years ago, the investigator sat with a Navajo elder
prior to participating in a sweat lodge ceremony
designed for healing and purification. During a
discussion about healing, the elder drew a simple
diagram on a piece of paper, handed it to the
investigator and stated “Everything you ever need to
know about healing is in the creation story. If you
don’t know the creation story, you will never know
healing” (Anonymous, personal communication, 1993).
The preceding is a prime example of how indigenous
knowledge is scripted in the hearts of
American Indians and burned
in the collective memories to be shared with each other
and future generations. Indigenous
knowledge means knowing the creation stories and legends
completely, because they contain the
sacred teachings and cosmological foundations of
indigenous cultures (Solomon, 1990).
Relationships with self, others, and the environment are
maintained through the stories, balance can be
restored through knowledge of the legends, and ways of
healing and wellness are embodied in the
stories as living, three dimensional texts (Solomon).
According to Solomon and Wane (2005):
The songs, dances, ceremonies, sacred medicines, and
traditional languages serve as
vehicle and tools of the healer. Consequently, it is
with certainty and caution that
Elders and spiritual teachers remind us not to write or
record the ceremonies: To do
would take the
life out of them. (Solomon & Wane, 2005).
Narrative art in the form of traditional storytelling
has been utilized to promote wellness in Native American
communities. Hodge, Pasqua, Marquez, and
Geishirt-Cantrell (2002) utilized storytelling as a
research intervention to help motivate tribal members to
adopt traditional, healthier lifestyles. The researchers
suggested that Native American stories are effective
because they present information in an entertaining,
often metaphorical fashion. Further, traditional
storytelling is constructed in a manner in which morals
are illustrated or taught through demonstrating the
consequences of certain characters’ behaviors; thus,
listeners arrive at their own conclusions after personal
Balance, the Good Medicine
According to Native American traditions, balance is a
state of being in harmony with the universe (Garret &
Portman, 2006). Walking in balance is walking in
accordance with the natural way of things, where there
is harmony among human, natural, and spiritual systems.
Balance is often referred to as Good Medicine. On
the other hand, Bad Medicine is the result of
being in a state of dis-ease or disequilibrium. When one
is not living harmoniously with self, others, the
environment and spirit, illness happens (Baines, 1993;
Garrett & Portman). Thus, healing involves the
restoration of balance.
Ancestral teachings specify ways of healing and
purifying the environment, relationships, and the self
for actions resulting in disequilibrium (Solomon, 1990;
Wane, 2002). Some of the ways used to restore
balance include prayer, fasting, right relationships,
right speech, and herbalism, singing, and dancing
(Perrone, Stickell, & Krueger, 1993). Quartz crystals
also aid in the restoration of balance by acting as
tuning forks, resonating at particularly high
frequencies, transforming and amplifying energy and
vibrations. According to Cherokee Medicine woman Dhani
The healing is to bring again the right resonance, the
right frequencies, to the organ
system, and it is first to make clear the aspects of
consciousness that have caused
the discord. Always, this is a participatory exercise. One
who comes to us for healing
must also take responsibility for their own process. The
person who is being healed is
very much involved in the process. The whole Indian medicine way
is that nothing is done
for you except that which you create. Basically, you help the
person recreate the tones
harmony. (Perrone, Stickell, & Krueger, 1993, p. 74).
According to traditional Navajo beliefs, being in
balance is to be in harmony with the universe (Perrone,
Stickell, & Krueger, 1993). Balance is expressed in the
phrase Walk in Beauty. To Walk in Beauty is to
have faith in healing, and to act in accordance with
natural and spiritual laws. It is doing the right thing
at the right time for the right reason, with the
wellbeing of all as the underlying intention (Perrone,
Stickell, & Krueger, 1993).
Balance is the closest Native American descriptor of the
Western construct of wellness or
holistic health. Wellness is
the expression of the proper balance and harmony of the
mind, body, spirit, emotions, and
natural environment in relation to all things (Garrett &
Portman, 2006). Illness is the result of the
disruption of the natural balance of the relationship
among any of these areas.
The Power of Thought and Voice
According to Dhani Ywahoo, the most important aspect of
wellbeing is the power of thought and voice. All
manifestations of illness and disease “whether they
occur in the individual or the Nation, are seated in the
mind” (Ywahoo, as cited in Perrone, Stickell, & Krueger,
1993, p. 65). Thoughts generate actions, and the way
people think and act, and what they do to the earth, has
a profound impact on the quality of life and wellbeing
of the people, community, and planet (Perrone, Stickell,
& Krueger, 1993).
Just as words can cause illness to manifest, so can the
voice heal. According to Ywahoo, “the voice is our
greatest medicine” (Perrone, Stickell, & Krueger, 1993,
p. 71). The power of voice, song, and prayer has the
ability to draw life force into the body so that a
person can become whole (Perrone, Stickell, &
Recognizing that acculturative stress, internalized
oppression, discrimination, and other phenomenon related to
historical trauma impact entire communities, some tribes
have adopted a means of healing
called community healing (McBride, 2003). The
Sault Sainte Marie Tribe of Chippewa
Indians is one such community that has felt the
disastrous results of genocidal thinking and
actions in the form of a myriad of social ills, loss of
identity, a high degree of assimilation, the impact of
gaming, and a high incidence of violence, child abuse,
alcoholism and family dysfunction (Antone, 2000).
Referred to as ethnostress or loss of joyful
Native identity (Antone et al., 1986, p. 7), these
social ills were addressed by the Sault Sainte Marie
Tribe of Chippewa Indians in a cooperative effort by
community members to restore balance through a Community
Healing Process. The process consisted of, but was not
limited to, three main objectives: (a) assimilation
factors in the Indigenous community, (b) restoration of
clan identity and structure into the community, and (c)
the importance of sense of belonging to healing and
joyful identity. Six months of planning discussions
were held in a traditional talking circle format, where
ceremonial smudging and prayer preceded each meeting.
The community was included in the planning and
implementation stages of the Community Healing Process,
and a training group engaged in a number of cultural
activities such as sharing meals and praying before
meals, while other community members volunteered to
Essentially, the Community Healing Process training was
a combination of group therapy in a traditional Native
American context and education based on circular
concepts, Native thought processes, and theoretical
constructs (McBride, 2003). Among the information
presented was a chart of assimilation factors on
Aboriginal health that was adopted from a Canadian First
Nations training and adapted for use with the Sault
Sainte Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The six factors
identified, within which are indicators of wellness, are
1. Physical health:
aging, body weight, mobility/activity.
2. Mental health:
memory, thinking, learning.
3. Emotional health:
feelings, relating, pride.
4. Spiritual health:
futuring, inner signs, cultural connection.
5. Whole person
health: food, identity, lifestyle, extended family.
6. Health care
systems: health care service, personnel, management,
social health, political health, educational health,
language, economic health, environmental health.
(McBride, 2003, p. 74).
were asked to first assess their personal assimilation
using the factors on the chart, and second, their
perception of community wellness. The findings indicated
that when individuals were highly confident in their
lack of assimilation, they held a lesser degree of
negative perception about their community wellness
(McBride, 2003). Final outcomes of the Community Healing
Process have not been reported, as the healing process
is ongoing with subsequent phases of healing and
Another noteworthy attempt
at community healing of historical trauma was undertaken
by the Lakota, although in a slightly different manner
than the Sault Sainte Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
This community healing model incorporated a communal
memorialization, where community members retraced the
path of the Hunkpapa and the Miniconju massacred at
Wounded Knee (Brave Heart-Jordan, 1989). This
experiential intervention model “includes catharsis,
abreaction, group sharing, testimony, opportunities for
expression of traditional culture and language, ritual,
and communal mourning” (Duran, Duran, &
Yellowhorse-Brave Heart, 1998, p. 72). Brave
Heart-Jordan reported 75% of those who participated
experienced a positive effect on their mental health,
and overcame a sense of cultural shame. Additionally,
97% reported feeling they could make a “constructive
commitment to their ancestors” (1998, p. 72) after
participating in the intervention. Brave Heart-Jordan
further found that education about the historical trauma
increased awareness about the trauma, its
intergenerational effects, and associated grief, thus
reducing the risk of intergenerational transfer of
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