Native American Healing
Native American healing is a broad term that includes healing beliefs and practices of hundreds of indigenous tribes of North America. It combines religion, spirituality, herbal medicine, and rituals that are used to treat people with medical and emotional conditions.
There are many tribal differences, so it is not surprising that healing rituals and beliefs vary a great deal. The most sacred traditions are still kept secret, passed along from one healer to the next. Because of these factors, information on healing practices is general and somewhat limited.
There is no scientific evidence that Native American healing can cure cancer or any other disease. However, the communal support provided by this approach to health care can have some worthwhile physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits.
How is it promoted for use?
From the Native American perspective, medicine is more about healing the person than curing a disease. Traditional healers aim to "make whole" by restoring well-being and harmonious relationships with the community and the spirit of nature, which is sometimes called God or the Great Mystery. Native American healing is based on the belief that everyone and everything on earth is interconnected, and every person, animal, and plant has a spirit or essence. Even an object, such as a river or rock, and even the earth itself, may be considered to have this kind of spirit..
Native Americans believe that illness stems from spiritual problems. They also say that diseases are more likely to invade the body of a person who is imbalanced, has negative thinking, and lives an unhealthy lifestyle. Some Native American healers believe that inherited conditions, such as birth defects, are caused by the parents’ immoral lifestyles and are not easily treated. Others believe that such conditions reflect a touch from the Creator, and may consider them a kind of gift. Native American healing practices are supposed to find balance and wholeness in a person to restore one to a healthy and spiritually pure state.
Some people believe Native American medicine can help cure physical diseases, injuries, and emotional problems. Some healers claim to have cured conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, thyroid problems, skin rashes, asthma, and cancer. No scientific studies have been done to support these claims.
Native American healing is promoted in many different ways. Some of the most common aspects of Native American healing include the use of herbal remedies, purifying rituals, shamanism, healing myths, and spiritual healing to treat illnesses of both the body and spirit. Herbal remedies are used to treat many physical conditions. Practitioners use purifying rituals to cleanse the body. These rituals are thought to prepare the person for healing. One kind of Native American healer, a shaman, focuses on using spiritual healing powers to treat people with illness based on the idea that spirits have caused the illness (see Shamanism). Symbolic healing rituals, which can involve family and friends of the sick person, are used to invoke the spirits to help heal the sick person.
Healers may include herbalists, spiritual healers, and medicine men or women. Many Native Americans see their healers for spiritual reasons, for example, to seek guidance, truth, balance, reassurance, self cleansing, and spiritual well being, while still using conventional medicine to deal with "white man’s illness." However, they believe that spirit is an inseparable element of healing, and medicine is part of spirit.
What does it involve?
Native American healing practices vary greatly because there are over 500 Native American Nations (commonly called tribes). However, they do have some basic rituals and healing practices in common. Because of their extensive knowledge of herbs, one of the most common forms of Native American healing involves the use of herbal remedies which can include teas, tinctures, and salves. For example, one remedy for pain uses bark from a willow tree.
Purifying and cleansing the body is also an important technique used in Native American healing. Sweat lodges (a special, darkened enclosure heated with stones from a fire) or special teas that induce vomiting may be used by the healer for this purpose. Smudging (cleansing a place or person with the smoke of sacred plants) can be used to bring about an altered state of consciousness and sensitivity, making a person more open to the healing techniques. Because some illnesses are believed to come from angry spirits, healers may also invoke the healing powers of spirits. They may also use special rituals to try and appease the angered spirits.
Another practice of Native American healing, symbolic healing rituals, can involve whole communities. These rituals use ceremonies which can include chanting, singing, painting bodies, dancing, exorcisms, sand paintings, and even limited use of mind altering substances to persuade the spirits to heal the sick person. Rituals can last hours or even weeks. These ceremonies are a way of asking for help from the spiritual dimension. Prayer is also an essential part of all Native American healing techniques (see Spirituality and Prayer).
Most Native American treatment is a slow process, spread over a period of days or weeks. It may involve taking time out from the usual daily activities for reflection, emotional awareness, and meditation. The healer may spend a great deal of time with the person seeking help. Healing is said to take place within the context of the relationship with the healer.
What is the history behind it?
Native American healing has been practiced in North America for up to 40,000 years. It appears to have roots in different cultures, such as ancient Ayurvedic (East Indian; see Ayurveda) and Chinese traditions, but it has also been influenced by what people learned about the environments in which they settled: nature, plants, and animals. Other healing practices were influenced over time by the migration of tribes and contact with other tribes along trade routes. The tribes gathered many herbs from the surrounding environment and sometimes traded over long distances.
Many Native medicine practices were driven underground or lost because they were banned or considered illegal in parts of the United States until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed. Even now, there are difficulties with ceremonies and rituals on sacred sites. These activities are sometimes forbidden because the land now serves other purposes. Today, Native American and Indian community-based medical systems still practice some Native American healing practices and rituals.
What is the evidence?
One clinical trial examined 116 people with a variety of ailments (such as infertility, chest and back pain, asthma, depression, diabetes, and cancer) who were treated with traditional Native American healing. More than 80% showed some benefit after a 7 to 28 day intensive healing experience. Five years later, 50 of the original participants said they were cured of their diseases while another 41 said they felt better. Another 9 showed no change, 5 were worse, and 2 had died. However, the comparison group who received different treatments also showed benefits. More clinical studies are needed to confirm the benefits of the specific healing methods.
Although Native American healing has not been shown to cure disease, individual reports suggest that it can reduce pain and stress, and improve quality of life. The communal and spiritual support provided by this type of healing could have helpful effects. Prayers, introspection, and meditation can be calming and can help to reduce stress.
Because Native American healing is based on spirituality, there are very few scientific studies to support the validity of the practices. It is hard to study Native American healing in a scientific way because practices differ between various Nations, healers, and illnesses. Many Native Americans do not want their practices studied because they believe sharing such information exploits their culture and weakens their power to heal. Historically, there have also been misinterpretations of Indians’ culture and beliefs, which may increase this reluctance.
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