Traditional Healing Meets Western Medicine

In her book "Red Medicine: Traditional Indigenous Rites of Birthing and Healing," Patrisia Gonzales shares her personal experience as a herbalist and traditional birth attendant and explores Indigenous medicine across North America. At the AAIP conference, she will discuss how indigenous medicine evolved from a relationship with a universe that is alive and creating.

Traditional Healing Meets Western Medicine.

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico—Honoring indigenous healing principles, bringing Western trained physicians together with traditional healthcare providers and providing mentorship opportunities for young American Indian and Alaska Native students are the goals of the 20th Annual Cross Cultural Medicine Workshop to be held April 26-29 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The event, sponsored by the Association of American Indian Physicians (AAIP) and open to the public, expects around 100 attendees for presentations about traditional indigenous medicine and how it can complement, enhance and strengthen Western healthcare.

“The workshop is from the perspective of the traditional healer. We always have two or three traditional healer speakers,” says Dr. Nicole Stern, incoming president of the AAIP. Stern (Mescalero Apache), an assistant professor of medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, is interested in the prevention of health disparities affecting American Indian communities.

According to Stern, the event also connects pre-medical and medical students with mentors. “The smallest segment of the physician workforce, just 0.5 percent, is American Indian or Alaska Native, according to 2008
Association of American Medical Colleges data,” says Stern. “And the number of Native Americans applying for and attending medical school is actually going down. We need to change that because our community is underserved already.”

Patrisia Gonzales (Kikapoo/Macehual), author of several books including the recently published Red Medicine: Traditional Indigenous Rites of Birthing and Healing is one of the speakers. Gonzales is an assistant professor of Mexican American studies and teaches in the American Indian Studies Program and the Native American Research and Training Center, all at the University of Arizona. Her talk, titled Indigenous Healing Systems, will discuss how indigenous medicine evolved from a relationship with a universe that is alive and creating.

“Indigenous peoples’ medicine evolves out of relationships with the places we are born, both physical and unseen places,” she says. “Knowledge comes to us through these relationships about how to take care of that which gives us life. It is through these relationships that medicine evolves.”

Gonzales points out that many scholars recognize that Native people share similar values—a relationship to the four elements and a responsibility to the world around us, for instance—and that those values are expressed distinctly based on the way indigenous people evolved in their specific environments.

“For many indigenous peoples, one of the reasons to do healing is not just to care for the person, but to express the understanding that life is always beginning again, always being renewed. This idea often shows up as a healing or rebalancing ceremony, whether that’s birth or going on to the spirit world. Because the spirit world is another expression of life,” she says.

Of particular interest to Gonzales and her work is the concept that a person or people could suffer a spirit wound or trauma, the idea that a traumatic experience could displace part of ones’ spirit without the person immediately dying, and that without treatment, the person will suffer and ultimately perish.

“The indigenous peoples of Mexico and South America share this ancient concept of a soul trauma or spirit wound, called susto in Spanish. And many have rituals and ceremonies to call back the spirit from the place where the trauma happened that disturbed the person’s life force,” Gonzales says. “Traditional indigenous medicine can help us understand this trauma across generations and across time that we often carry as a people. When we heal in traditional medicine, we undo the impact of time. That’s what’s important about revitalizing and preserving indigenous traditional medicine. We have healing ways that can help us understand and undo the very serious issues we have in the indigenous Americas.”

Other speakers at the workshop will discuss herbal medicine, values of spirituality and the family, the importance of culture-based intervention as a critical element of evidence based medical care and the ancient wisdom of ceremony medicine.

The AAIP was founded in 1971 by a group of American Indian and Alaska Native physicians “to pursue excellence in Native American health care by promoting education in the medical disciplines, honoring traditional healing principles and restoring the balance of mind, body, and spirit.”