1) Native American
2) Curanderismo -
Traditional Mexican-American Healing
3) African Indigenous Healing
Introduction: Because 80% of the World’s
population cannot afford Western high-tech medicine, indigenous traditions
still collectively play an important global health-care role - so much so
that the World Health Organization recommended that they be integrated
into national health-care policies and programs (WHO Traditional
Medicine Strategy 2002-2005. World Health Organization, 2002).
Based on his international Red Cross experience
helping impoverished populations, Dr. Anba Soopramanien (UK) emphasized
this theme at the 2001 WHO SCI conference in Reykjavik. He underscored the
huge disparity in health-care resources between poor and rich nations, for
example, Somalia’s $11 per-capita health-care compared to the US’s $5,000
($1,800 in Iceland). If we are going to be good World citizens truly
concerned about our fellow man, we need to consider these
economic-health-care disparities when developing policies for treating
A variety of traditional healing disciplines have
already been discussed in this report, such as Traditional Chinese and
Ayurvedic Medicine. This section will briefly consider three indigenous
healing traditions: 1) Native American medicine, 2) Mexican-American
curanderismo healing, and 3) African indigenous healing.
themes, such as spirituality and nature’s key roles, often exist in many
of the World’s geographically diverse traditions, especially among those
with more ancient origins. Ancient wisdom often has much contemporary
Native American Medicine: Much of the world’s foods and
medicines have Native-American origins. For example, more than 200
Native-American herbal medicines have been listed at one time or another
in the US Pharmacopoeia; many modern drugs have botanical origins in these
Spiritual Connections: A major difference
between Native-American and conventional medicine concerns the role of
spirit and connection. Native-American medicine considers spirit an
inseparable element of healing. Not only is the patient’s spirit important
but the spirit of the healer, the patient’s family, community, and
environment, and the medicine, itself. More importantly, healing must take
in account the dynamics between these spiritual forces as a part of the
Instead of modern medicine’s view of separation that
focuses on fixing unique body parts in distinct individuals separate from
each other and the environment, Native Americans believe we are all
synergistically part of a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts;
healing must be consider within this context.
Basically, the fundamental goal of all
Native-American healing is to establish a better spiritual equilibrium
between patients and their universe, which, in turn, translates into
physical and mental health. In the case of a traumatic injury such as SCI,
re-establishing this spiritual equilibrium is often much more challenging.
Disability: The idea of wholeness is paramount
in understanding Native-American perception of disability, such as SCI.
Unlike many cultures that shun people with disabilities, Native Americans
honor and respect them. They believe that a person weak in body is often
blessed by the Creator as being especially strong in mind and spirit. By
reducing our emphasis on the physical, which promotes our view of
separation from our fellow man and all that is, a greater sense of
connection with the whole is created, the ultimate source of strength.
Distinguishing Features: In addition to these
overarching philosophical differences, there are many other features that
distinguish Native-American from Western medicine. In Honoring the
Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing, recently
selected as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Wellness Book of the
Year, Kenneth “Bear Hawk” Cohen summarizes some
of theses features.
Plants: Because of Native Americans’ intimate
relationship with nature, many therapies emphasize plants, including
1) many herbal remedies; 2) tobacco, the herb of prayer used to
communicate with the spiritual world and nature; and 3) smudge, a
purification procedure in which a plant’s aromatic smoke cleanses an area
of negative energies, thoughts, feelings, and spirits.
Prayer: Native-American prayer concentrates
the mind on healing, promotes health-enhancing emotions and feelings, and
connects people to sacred healing forces. Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona
(Cherokee), an emergency-room physician and author of the book Coyote
Medicine, told me that prayer should be incorporated into overall
therapy after any major injury: “At the time of acute injury, enroll
everyone - patient, family members, friends, doctors, and nurses - in a
prayer circle with the expectation of the best outcome.”
Ceremony: Native-American ceremonies
incorporate a variety of healing modalities into a ritualized context for
seeking spiritual guidance. Dr. Mehl-Madrona indicated to the author of
this report “at one time in their history, all cultures have had
beneficial healing ceremonies; unfortunately, most modern, white-culture
ceremonies have become so sterile they are not conducive for healing.”
One of the more well-known ceremonies involves the
sweat lodge. I have participated in several sweat-lodge ceremonies in the
traditional Lakota style, ironically the first one being in Iceland with a
friend with SCI. Overall, the sweat-lodge’s mind-body-spirit-purification,
communion-with-spirit process helps people understand who they are,
especially relative to any disease or disorder. With such empowering
understanding, one starts to reclaim responsibility for and taking charge
of their soul.
Because the sweat lodge is totally dark except for
the faint glow of hot stones, no one has a disability in the ceremony;
everyone is an equal participant. The ceremony can target underlying
emotional causes of substance abuse, a problem that plagues many with SCI.
It can also promote healing at different levels by generating forgiveness,
releasing bitterness, and busting apart the self-fulfilling belief pattern
that is imprinted onto most patients after injury that they will never
Based on Native-American values and beliefs, Dr.
Mehl-Madrona developed a ceremony-emphasizing program that targets
non-natives with chronic disease or disorders. He reported that more than
80% of program enrollees accrued significant, persistent benefits (Mehl-Madrona
L. Alternative Therapies, 1999; 5(1)).
An Icelandic Case Study: The following case
study, involving not SCI but another form of spinal cord dysfunction,
illustrates many of the previously discussed approaches.
Ken Cohen used Si Si Wiss healing - an intertribal tradition from the
Puget Sound area - to restore ambulatory function in Jon, an Icelandic man
with multiple sclerosis (MS). Due to chronic knee pain, Jon could not
place his full weight on his left leg and could only walk short distances
using a walker (see American Indian Healing in the Land of Fire and Ice,
Cohen believes that location played a key role in
Jon’s healing. Native Americans believe that certain geographical
locations possess strong healing energy. In this case, Cohen was lecturing
near Iceland’s legendary Snæfellsnes Glacier.
From his audience, Cohen recruited participants for a
healing circle that surrounded Jon and instructed them to sing a healing
song to a drum beat.
Cohen relates: “I cleansed Jon with a smudge of local
bearberry leaves and juniper. As I waved the smoke around his body with my
hands, I also imagined that Grandmother Ocean (within view) was purifying
him. I then placed my hands on Jon's spine, one palm at his sacrum, the
other above his seventh cervical vertebrae. I rested my palms there for a
few minutes, to both "read" the energy in his spine and to focus healing
and loving power.”
“I then held his knee lightly between my two palms,
focusing with the same intent. After this, I did non-contact treatment,
primarily over Jon's head, focusing on the brain itself. I held my hands a
few inches from his skull, one hand in front, one in back, then one hand
to the left, one to the right. I continued, holding my palms above his
spine, moving them gently up from the sacrum towards the crown and then
down the front mid-line of his body.”
As I continued with non-contact treatment, I prayed
in a soft voice, yet loud enough for Jon to hear me, and with a tone,
rhythm, and intensity that harmonized with the sound of the background
singing and drumming. … "Oh Creator, I ask for healing for this brother.
Let him learn his lessons through your guidance and wisdom, not through
pain. I pray that whether this condition was caused by inner or outside
forces, whether originating from this time or any time in the past,
whether intentionally caused by offended people or spirits or caused by
chance-- let the pain and disability be lifted and released in a good and
At the ceremony’s end, “I helped him to stand and was
about to move his walker over to him, when he said, "No, wait a moment. I
feel something." He began to walk without assistance, slowly but with an
apparently normal gait. He showed no sign of unsteadiness and was able to
use his left leg easily. I walked along side of Jon, expecting him to lose
balance and fall. Instead, he turned towards me, embraced me and said,
tearfully, "Thank God! It's a miracle. I can walk!" Residents of Jon’s
village, who had known him for many years, later expressed their amazement
to Cohen of seeing Jon walking about town normally.
Curanderismo - Traditional Mexican American Healing: Used by
many Mexican-Americans to supplement conventional medicine, curanderismo
is a mind-body-spirit approach to healing steeped in tradition and
ceremony (ref). Although meant to enhance wellness at many levels, for
those with disabilities, curanderismo especially targets healing at a soul
Curanderismo believes there are social,
psychological, physical, and spiritual factors that cause disease. An
amalgamation of healing traditions, its taproot is grounded in ancient
Aztec medicine. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in the early 1500’s,
they suppressed this medicine, in part, because it emphasized
non-Christian spirituality. The suppression pushed Aztec healing
traditions underground to be secretly preserved and disseminated.
Over time, Aztec healing traditions were influenced
by Spanish medicine, which, in turn, had been shaped by Arabic medicine
practiced by the Moors, who, at the time of the Spanish conquest of
Mexico, had been only recently expelled from the Iberian Peninsula.
Considered the most advanced medicine at the time, Arabic medicine had
influences dating back to Ancient Greece and Egypt and, given the extent
of the Arabic contact into Asia reflected oriental healing principles.
Finally, African slaves and other Native-American cultures wove their
insights into this culturally rich healing tapestry we now call
Although modern medicine has grudgingly acknowledged
the role of consciousness in health through disciplines such as
psychoneuroimmunology, consciousness has always been a key component of
healing in curanderismo. For example, curanderismo is concerned with susto
or soul loss, in which we become blocked from or lose access to aspects of
our higher self that are needed for healing. Although we have all
experienced degrees of susto due to life’s traumas, susto is especially
relevant to SCI because it is such a major traumatic event. Physical and
mental healing after SCI will be compromised unless susto is addressed.
In her book Woman Who Glows in the Dark, curandera Elena Avila
(photo) states “Curanderismo teaches that it is not enough
to diagnose a physical problem, as so many modern medical doctors do
without looking at what is going on in the heart and soul of the patient.”
She emphasizes that each patient has a unique story. Working with the
patient, the curandera catalyzes the revealing of the story, which, in
turn, opens a door in consciousness that leads to healing at some level.
For example, Avila’s book discusses the “stories” of
several men with severe, mobility-affecting physical disability. In one
case, a double amputee from the Vietnam War felt that his soul died in
Vietnam, a belief which led to substance abuse and attempted suicide. In
another case, an individual who had been disabled from childhood polio had
suppressed long-term resentment, which was adversely affecting current
relationships and employment.
disability have been themes emphasized by Rudolfo Anaya, who was awarded
the 2002 National Medal of Arts from President Bush for his writings.
Anaya recovered from his own spinal cord injury as a teenager due to a
diving accident. Discussing his injury with the author, he stated: “During
that trauma the soul suffered as much as the body. I worked to get my body
back in shape, but it took me years to learn that in order to cure the
trauma (susto) I also had to go back and reintegrate my soul. Teachings
such as curanderismo helped me greatly.”
Indigenous Healing: The author of this report has had a few
interactions with representatives of Ankhkasta Natural Healing, an
organization representing traditional African healers (www.ankhkasta.org).
Ankhkasta’s goal is to promote traditional African herbal remedies for
today’s illnesses, conditions, and problems, including SCI.
As indicated in their website and personal
communications, Ankhkasta claims to have successfully treated Africans
with SCI, as well as a a Chicago woman who sustained a cervical injury 18
months before treatment. After seven weeks of an Ankhkasta herbal regimen,
she supposedly regained some motor control and sensation.
Few specifics have been shared due to Ankhkasta’s
concern with the historic, economic exploitation of indigenous knowledge
by profit-motivated pharmaceutical companies.