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Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.

Sponsor: Institute of Spinal Cord Injury, Iceland



1) Native American Medicine

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 SCI.

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. 

Common 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 validity.

1) 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 medicines.

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 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.

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.



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.

Patience is paramount. Healing occurs when the time is right.

Healing Approaches

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 walk again.

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. Specifically, 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, www.wholistichealingresearch.com).

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 natural way."

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.

2) 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 level.

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 curanderismo.

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.

Curanderismo and 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.”

Although curanderismo may or may not affect physical healing as defined by physiological change, it will influence healing in terms of improved quality of life, happiness, and self-understanding.

3) African 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.