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Native American Healing

Other common name(s): Native American medicine, Indian medicine

Scientific/medical name(s): none

Description

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.

Overview

Available scientific evidence does not support claims 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 traditionally 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, or 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 aim to find and restore 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. Available scientific studies do not support these claims.

There are many types of Native American healing practices, and they are promoted to help with a variety of ills. Some of the most common aspects of Native American healing include the use of herbal remedies, purifying rituals, shamanism, and symbolic healing rituals 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 and prepare the person for healing. Shamanism is based on the idea that spirits cause illness, and a Native American healer called a shaman focuses on using spiritual healing powers to treat people. 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 shamans, herbalists, spiritual healers, and medicine men or women. Many Native Americans see their healers for spiritual reasons, such as to seek guidance, truth, balance, reassurance, and spiritual well-being, while still using conventional medicine to deal with “white man’s illness.” However, they believe that the spirit is an inseparable element of healing.

What does it involve?

Native American healing practices vary greatly because there are more than five hundred Native American Nations (commonly called tribes). 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.

However, the many types of Native American medicine do have some basic rituals and healing practices in common. Because of Native American tribes’ 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, which contains acetylsalicylic acid, also known as aspirin.

Purifying and cleansing the body is also an important technique used in Native American healing. Sweat lodges (special, darkened enclosures heated with stones from a fire) or special teas that induce vomiting may be used by the healer for this purpose. A practice called smudging, which involves 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 to appease the angered spirits.

Another practice of Native American healing, symbolic healing rituals, can involve whole communities. These rituals use ceremonies that 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.

Native American treatment is usually a slow process, spread over a period of days or weeks. It may involve taking time from one’s 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 common with different cultures, such as ancient Ayurvedic and Chinese traditions, but it has also been influenced by the environments in which Native Americans settled, and the nature, plants, and animals around them. 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 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 American 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 reported no change, 5 were worse, and 2 had died. However, the comparison group who received different treatments also showed benefits, and the patients’ reports were not verified by doctors. Because of the limitations in this study, it is impossible to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of Native American healing. More clinical studies are needed to confirm the benefits of the specific healing methods.

Although Native American healing has not been proven 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, outside society has sometimes misinterpreted Native American culture and beliefs, which may increase this reluctance.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

These substances may have not been thoroughly tested to find out how they interact with medicines, foods, or dietary supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.

Like other complementary therapies, Native American healing practices may be used in relieving certain symptoms of cancer and side effects of cancer treatment. People with cancer and other chronic conditions should talk to their doctors before using purification rituals or herbal remedies. Cleansing rituals may be particularly harmful to people who are already dehydrated or in a weakened state. Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer

References

American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Title 42, Chapter 21, Subchapter 1, USC §1996 (1978). National Park Service Web site. Accessed at http://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/FHPL_IndianRelFreAct.pdf on June 5, 2008.

Amor A. Special rapporteur report: religious intolerance in the United States. United Nations Commission on Human Rights Report, 1999. Accessed at http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G98/148/96/PDF/G9814896.pdf on April 19, 2005. Content no longer available.

Atwood MD. Spirit Healing: Native American Magic & Medicine. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Co; 1991.

Borchers AT, Keen CL, Stern JS, Gershwin ME. Inflammation and Native American medicine: the role of botanicals. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;72:339-347.

Cohen K. Native American medicine. Altern Ther Health Med. 1998;4:45-57.

Cohen K. What is Native American medicine? Sacred Earth Circle Web site. Accessed at http://www.qigonghealing.com/sacred_earth/what.html. Excerpted and adapted from Honoring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing. New York, NY: Ballantine Books; 2003 on June 3, 2008.

Johnston L. Native-American medicine. Alternative & Innovative Therapies for Physical Disability Web site. Accessed at http://www.healingtherapies.info/Native-American%20Medicine.htm on May 26, 2008.

Marbella AM, Harris MC, Diehr S, Ignace G, Ignace G. Use of Native American healers among Native American patients in an urban Native American health center. Arch Fam Med.1998;7:182-185.

Mehl-Medrona LE. Native American medicine in the treatment of chronic illness: developing an integrated program and evaluating its effectiveness. Altern Ther Health Med. 1999;5:36-44.

National Institutes of Health. Alternative Medicine: Expanding Medical Horizons: A Report to the National Institutes of Health on Alternative Medical Systems and Practices in the United States. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1994. NIH publication 94-066.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.

Last Medical Review: 11/01/2008
Last Revised: 11/01/2008