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Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.

As part of this ongoing series, I have reviewed diverse healing approaches, none of which has been more intriguing yet initially alien to my Western-trained scientific mind than Native-American medicine. As a scientist who uses physical laws to further dissect the microcosm, it was challenging to metaphorically absorb the spiritual, cosmological, and ecological views of the macrocosm that shape Native-American healing.

In The Way of the Scout: A Native American Path to Finding Spiritual Meaning in a Physical World (1995), Tom Brown, Jr. describes how when he was a child an Apache elder taught him to use an “expanded focus,” where the task (i.e., any of life’s pursuits) is but a small part of the whole picture. When we relax an absolute focus, we become more aware of life’s flow around us, and, as a result, assistance in many unanticipated forms becomes available.

For most of us who view the world through the conditioning of Western thought, an expanded focus fosters a greater understanding of Native-American wisdom. In my case, as I relaxed the rigidity of my scientific beliefs, an understanding grew that complemented - not negated - these beliefs. (photo:Thunderbird The author next to a petroglyph of “Thunderbird,” a mythological being who speaks in thunder and lightening and teaches us how to use its power to heal.)


Throughout our nation’s history, Native-American societal contributions have been immense but often unrecognized. A few examples include Benjamin Franklin’s modeling the Articles of Confederation on the Iroquois Nation’s constitution, World War II’s Navajo code breakers, tribal donations of over $200,000 for post-9/11 relief efforts, and, the first servicewoman killed in Iraq being a Hopi Indian.

Such contributions hold true for medicine, also. 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 medicines.

Indigenous Medicine:

Native-American medicine is classified as an indigenous healing tradition. Because 80% of the World’s population cannot afford Western high-tech medicine, indigenous traditions collectively play an important global healthcare role - so much so that the World Health Organization recommended that they be integrated into national healthcare policies and programs.

Although Native-American healing reflects the diversity of the many Native nations or tribes that have inhabited “Turtle Island” (i.e., North America), common themes exist not only between them but with many of the World’s geographically diverse, ancient indigenous traditions.

Role of Spirit & Connection:

A major difference between Native-American and conventional medicine concerns the role of spirit and connection. Although spirituality has been a key component of healing through most of mankind’s history, modern medicine eschews it, embracing a mechanistic view of the body fixable pursuant to physical laws of science.

In contrast, Native-American medicine considers spirit, whose life-force manifestation in humans is called, ni by the Lakota and nilch’i by the Navajo, 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 universal spirit.

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. Specifically, we are all connected at some level to each other, Mother Earth (i.e., nature), Father Sky, and all of life through the Creator (Iroquois), Great Spirit (Lakota), Great Mystery (Ojibway), or Maker of All Things Above (Crow).

This sense of wholeness and connection is implied by the concluding phrase of healing prayers and chants “All my Relations,” which dedicates these invocations to all physical and spiritual relations that are a part of the Great Spirit. To metaphorically describe our universal connection, the Lakota use the phrase mitakuye oyasin – “We are all related,” while Southwest pueblo tribes, who consider corn as a life symbol, state “We are all kernels on the same corncob.”

In Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (2000), Dr. Gregory Cajete uses modern science’s chaos theory to support the Native-American concept of connection. Sometimes called the “butterfly effect,” this theory postulates that a butterfly’s wing flap may initiate a disturbance that ultimately leads to a hurricane or another phenomenon across the world. Whether it is this flap, a prayer for healing, or one’s stand against oppression, chaos theory, as well as Native American philosophy, implies that everything is related and has an influence no matter how small.

Moreover, we all have “butterfly power” to create from the inherent chaos of our universe, which Cajete describes as “not simply a collection of objects, but rather a dynamic, ever-flowing river of creation inseparable from our own perceptions.”

Cultural Rebirth:

Although you cannot appreciate Native-American medicine without its spiritual dynamics, surprisingly, the practice of Native-American spirituality was banned in the land of religious freedom until the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. For example, in Coyote Medicine: Lessons from Native American Healing (1997), Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona tells how he risked jail for attending an early 1970’s healing ceremony.

Because of this ban, which forbid congregating and keeping sacred objects, much of Native-American healing was driven underground or to extinction. It is the equivalent of telling physicians they can’t practice medicine if they do surgeries or prescribe drugs. Since the prohibition’s lifting, however, world-wide interest in Native-American wisdom has soared, in part, because it is perceived as an antidote to modern society’s soul-depleting and environment-damaging aspects.


The idea of wholeness is paramount in understanding Native-American perception of disability. 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.

Overall, in treating physical disability, Native-American healers emphasize quality of life, getting more in touch with and honoring  inherent gifts, adjusting one’s mindset, and learning new tools. By so doing, the individual’s humanity is optimized.

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 (2003), selected as the National MS Society Wellness Book of the Year, Kenneth “Bear Hawk” Cohen summarizes some of them in a table (p 307):



Focus on pathology & curing disease. Focus on health & healing the person & community.
Reductionistic: Diseases are biological, & treatment should produce measurable outcomes. Complex: Diseases do not have a simple explanation, & outcomes are not always measurable.
Adversarial medicine: “How can I destroy the disease?” Teleological medicine: “What can the disease teach the patient? Is there a message or story in the disease?”
Investigate disease with a “divide-and-conquer” strategy, looking for microscopic cause. Looks at the “big picture”: the causes & effects of disease in the physical, emotional, environmental, social, & spiritual realms.
Intellect is primary. Medical practice is based on scientific theory. Intuition is primary. Healing is based on spiritual truths learned from, nature, elders, & spiritual vision.
Physician is an authority. Healer is a health counselor & advisor.
Fosters dependence on medication, technology, etc. Empowers patients with confidence, awareness, & tools to help them take charge of their own health.
Health history focuses on patient & family: “Did your mother have cancer?” Health history includes the environment: “Are the salmon in your rivers ill?”
Intervention should result in rapid cure or management of disease. Intervention should result in rapid cure or management of disease.

Part 2 will summarize specific Native-American healing modalities and their application to individuals with physical disability.

Acknowledgement: The assistance and training provided by Kenneth Cohen is especially acknowledged.

Adapted from article appearing in Paraplegia News, June, 2004 (For subscriptions, go to