Medical and healing among the Southwest Tribes

Health and healing are among the most important concerns of Native American ritual. It is essential to understand the concept of health other than in the terms of Western medicine. Many Native American cultures understand illness not as the result of some biochemical, physiological, or psychological malady, but as a sign of disorder in society or the world, which is then reflected in the illness of an individual. Diagnosis thus consists of discerning the status of the community or the world. Healing requires repairing or restructuring these environmental concerns.

 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, although studies don’t 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.

 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.  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.


Mehl-Medrona LE.   “Native American medicine in the treatment of chronic illness: developing an integrated program and evaluating its effectiveness”.   Alternative Health Medicine.   5 (1999) :36-44.  Web.  17 May 2013.

 “Native American Healing”.  American Cancer Society.  Web.  17 May 2013.

 Sheridan, Thomas and Nancy Parezo.  Paths of Life:  American Indians of the Southwest and Northern Mexico.  Tucson: University of Arizona Press.  1996.  Print.

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