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Encyclopedia of Native American Healing

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From our very first contacts, our relationships with Native American healers has continually been a love-hate affair. This unusual dichotomy stems from the fact that Native Americans have always seen external reality through different eyes. They inhabit a world in which the Creator is known only as a "Great Mystery." Such a view negates any possible discussion concerning the nature of God (a "mystery power") and also imbues the lives of Native Americans with mystery. And as any good anthropologist will tell you, where there is mystery in a culture, there is bound to be magic begotten from the "mystery powers."

The use of such powers is central to all Native American healing. Despite centuries of missionary work and other acculturative forces such as mandatory education, these mystery powers remain very active to this day, though they are secreted away on Native American reservations spread across this land. It is the use of these mystery powers by Native American healers that constitutes the hate side of the love-hate affair. As non-Native Americans, we tend hate anything we cannot rationally explain, and healing among Native Americans certainly operates, for the most part, in a realm of reality totally foreign to the Western mind. During our initial encounters with Native Americans, in the early 1600s, we were certainly not prepared for the concept of a physician's "spirit helper" effecting a human cure. Furthermore, if such cures did exist, we reasoned they were certainly the "work of the devil." And when it came to "the infernal, terrible shrieking" of their medicine men and women, that is where most of us drew the line. Since then, more than 300 years have passed yet our attitude remains much the same. If anything, we are even more skeptical of Native American healers for no longer is the devil given blame—now we simply deny they have any powers at all. Unfortunately, our tendency to simply dismiss the mystery powers of Native American doctors only serves to obscure any real understanding on our part of the actual efficacy of their healing techniques.

Recently it has been made clear that Native American healing practices cannot be separated from Native American religious beliefs [Hultkrantz 1992]. That is, for Native American healers spirituality is a necessary aspect of medicinal treatments. This fact has long been known by anthropologists, who for over a century have been equating the Native American meaning of the word "medicine" with "mystery," "holy," and "sacred." However, anthropologists have largely avoided this mystery-power aspect of Native American healing by artificially creating rational and irrational categories for treatments. Irrational treatments are those procedures that involve the use of mystery powers, while rational treatments include their medicinal herbal knowledge, message techniques, methods for setting broken bones, and other such procedures that can be rationally explained. The result of this artificial division is that Native American irrational therapies have, for the most part, been ignored by ethnographers, while at the same time such information is usually held in secret by their doctors and not discussed with outsiders.

For rational treatments, this is not the case. For example, the enthnographic data reveal that Native American's medicinal herbal knowledge was, and still is, astounding. It is not unusual for a skilled "doctor" (medicinal herbalist) to know the medicinal uses of 300 to 400 different local plants, including mixtures thereof. Because this knowledge also differs from area to area, their total plant knowledge is phenomenal. For example, Vogel's classic work on medicinal plants, which is limited to "remedies used by both Indians and whites" [1970:9], lists over 500 known botanical drugs. In fact, there have been only "a bare half dozen, at most" [Vogel 1970:6] plant drugs ever listed in The Pharmacopoeia of the United States of America since its inception in 1820 for which Native American uses have not been documented. On the other

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