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  • Kenneth Cohen

The Path of the Native Healer

It was an honor to be invited to the home of the Cherokee medicine man, Keetoowah, great grandson of Ned Christie, the renowned nineteenth century warrior who defended the rights of his people. Keetoowah was dressed in weathered overalls and a turban-like cloth cap with a spotted eagle feather propped up in the folds-- the traditional hat of the Cherokee. He looked far older than his sixty years.

I moved aside the piles of old magazines and a box of jewelry clasps and fasteners to make room to sit on the couch. Keetoowah sat across from me on a comfortable chair. He squinted slightly and said, matter-of-factly, "I hear you are interested in Indian medicine. Let's see if Indian medicine is interested in you." He placed a small quartz crystal in my palm and suggested that I hold it between my two hands and close my eyes. About twenty minutes later, Keetoowah asked me to open my eyes. "Well, what did you learn?" I told Keetoowah that I had felt something very peculiar. The crystal had entered my body, and its essence seemed to flow through me, as though carried by my blood. I felt that I had become the stone.

Keetoowah must have been satisfied with my answer because we spent the next few hours discussing our mutual interest in healing, continuing the conversation over lunch. I became a weekly guest in his home and quickly realized that I had found not only a great teacher but a new and very treasured friend. I received my Indian name, Bear Hawk, and my sacred pipe from Keetoowah. For the next ten years, I became his principle apprentice and learned how to "doctor" people with my hands, my voice, and, most importantly, with prayer. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that several decades have passed since that first meeting, and that my friend has been gone since 1987. I am now older than Keetoowah was when I first met him. Time is strange, isn't it?

The Challenge of Healing

I offer this personal experience to demonstrate that Native American healing is not an academic discipline that can be learned from books. Nor can it be grasped by participating in rituals, visiting power places, or by imitation. The lessons are learned from the guidance of elders, especially the original elders in nature: stone, water, earth, fire, air, animal, and plant. Their power enters into the soul through dreams and vision- seeking and during times of sacrifice and fasting. We fast from food, from water, from words and busy-mindedness. In some traditions, a seeker also fasts from light, meditating in a dark chamber or cave. Healing power comes as a grace to those who are humble enough to listen and courageous enough to express and act on their vision.

The Native American way is not for everyone. We each have our unique talents, gifts, and life purpose. Health is enhanced by discovering that gift and expressing it in a way that brings harmony and happiness to our communities and world. "You don't choose the medicine," said Keetoowah, "it chooses you." This is especially true of spirituality, the medicine path that leads people to Spirit. Don't pursue God like an object that you can grasp; rather live in a good way and you will receive what is needed. You may find that your medicine is Jewish, Christian, Celtic, Norse, or African. It is most likely the religion of your ancestors. However, it is also possible that your path is unique and not easily categorized. No spiritual gift or life purpose is better or worse than any other. In fact, each facet of the human spirit fits together like a puzzle-- like the continents that were once joined. After all, even science must now admit that people are more similar than different. Perhaps we also share a common, though fragmented, spiritual teaching. A phrase from the original instructions is written in every soul. Yet this does not mean that we are all One. Such blurring of distinctions is a disservice to everyone. Rather we are All Related.

The path of a traditional healer is not easy. An invitation must be extended by an elder or a spirit, and one may feel compelled by a vision or deep intuition. And the tests are often much more severe than those offered in any university. The healer may find him or herself wounded and challenged as Spirit offers lessons in compassion and fortitude. I had to symbolically face North, the direction of Winter and death, during a seven year period of illness and personal hardship. I was lucky and passed through my "dark night of the soul" to stand in the East, the direction of Spring. Some people are not so fortunate; they face North and die. I am not trying to scare you away from Native American medicine if that is truly your path. However, it is important to understand that although all paths to Creator are equally valid and worthy of respect, they are not equally smooth or easy. I remember sitting in a circle with Keetoowah and a group of spiritual seekers one day. A young white man asked Keetoowah, "What do I need to do to become a medicine man?" Keetoowah scolded the man for his presumption, "I wouldn't wish that curse on anyone. And you can't do anything to become a medicine person!" Keetoowah understood this because of his life experience. He had suffered much during his learning journey-- born with typhoid fever and a twisted spine, having overcome alcoholism and cancer, fought in wars, and living much of his life with heart disease and emphysema.

How to Learn About Native Culture We do not have the right to trespass on Native American sacred sites or ceremonies any more than we may enter a person's home without permission. It is not that particular races are excluded because of the color of their skin. Rather, any person may be excluded from learning these ways, whatever their race, if they lack respect and humility or are motivated by ego, entitlement, and privilege. And, to be honest, I have to say that many Americans of European descent have a romantic or stereotyped view of Native Americans, and thus pursue teachings for the wrong reasons. Rather than following an authentic inner voice, they believe that indigenous ways are adventurous, fun, and exotic, or perhaps even a commodity that can boost their income and status (social or academic) and that it is their right to imitate and appropriate them.

There are many respectful ways to learn about Native American culture, including:

  • Read. There are many excellent books about every facet of culture. Please see the bibliography at the end of my book Honoring the Medicine.

  • Observe intertribal dance, music, and cultural gatherings known as pow-wows. When the master of ceremonies announces, "Intertribal. Everyone dance!" that includes you and is an opportunity to participate and enjoy. The location and dates of pow-wows can be found in News from Indian Country and many online sites.

  • Enjoy the arts, culture, and history presented at Native American art shows, galleries, trading posts, and at museums such as the National Museum of the American Indian, the Gilcrease Museum, the Heard Museum, and the many fine museums of individual Indian nations.

  • Listen to Native American music. Music is an important key to culture. You can find Native music online and at many music and museum shops. Vendors at pow-wows often have a great selection. Better yet, attend live concerts by the many fine musical groups and individual singers and musicians.

  • Enjoy First Peoples cuisine. I am a passionate eater, and I love indigenous owned restaurants that serve dishes based on traditional foods and spices or creative fusions of old and new. And there is nothing wrong with cooking similar dishes for your family based on the increasing number of Native American cookbooks.

  • Offer financial support to organizations that defend the land and rights of Native peoples, such as the Native American Rights Fund.

  • Learn how to be a better protector and caretaker of your local environment through political activism (including voting) and ecologically responsible behavior that reduces consumption and waste.

  • Find mentors who can train you in survival and living skills that build appreciation for nature, such as hunting, fishing, building shelters, fire making (with bow drill and flint), tracking, and recognizing local flora and fauna.

  • What if you are invited to a ceremony? Learn the proper etiquette and protocol for the ceremony by asking more experienced participants or your host. Beware, however, of individuals who charge money for Sweat Lodges, Vision Quests, and other sacred ceremonies. Educational seminars may require tuition; but according to Native American/First Nations protocol, it is immoral to equate healing or ceremony with a monetary value.

Sharing the Wisdom

The foundation of Native American culture and healing is traditional values. When Seneca elder Twylah Nitsch was a young girl, her grandfather placed twelve stones on the ground in a circle and described how each symbolized a gift along the Pathway of Peace, a road to balanced living. Here is my understanding of these gifts:

  1. Learning. Learn from all our relations, from mountain, plant, animal, human, from dreams, from elders and children, from stories and life experiences. Good learning creates connection and caring; poor learning is intellectual baggage.

  2. Respect. Honor all forms of life; do not be careless in your thoughts, words, and actions. Respect yourself; low self-esteem insults Creator's precious gift of life.

  3. Acceptance. We cannot grow unless we accept who we are and have the courage to face and learn from our weaknesses and shadows.

  4. Spiritual Sight. Sight and insight are equally important. Spiritual sight means ridding the mind of mental screens, so that we perceive the world without preconception, stereotype, and prejudice.

  5. Listening. The spiritual person is a good listener. Native American elders sometimes test prospective students by observing how comfortable they are with silence. The narcissistic person is always thinking and speaking and thus has nothing to express but his or her own opinions. There is no silent space in which to simply listen and experience.

  6. Speaking. If we can hear the truth but are afraid to express and live it, even when it goes against the crowd, then we can never find inner peace. Walk your talk, and talk your walk.

  7. Love. Keetoowah once said to me that he used to fight his enemies, but later decided he was going to love them to death! Love is for warriors, not whimps. Jesus' love did not prevent him from throwing greedy merchants out of the temple.

  8. Service. Service is more than "helping." Some people help from a position of superiority and expect something in return. True service is selfless and without ulterior motive.

  9. Relationship. Native American prayers frequently include the expression "All my relations." We are all related, like plants growing from the same soil. The action of any member of a community affects all members. We are accountable to each other and to all of nature. A feeling of connectedness is the source of responsible action.

  10. Creativity. Nature never repeats herself. Although we are all related, we must each find our own path to Creator. An Innu elder once told me, "If you sing someone else's song, you are called a liar in my language." Creativity means allowing the mind to soar like the eagle. The eagle does not follow any one else's ruts and leaves no track in the sky.

  11. Dynamic Spirituality. The spiritual person does not sit in a cave and wait for "enlightenment" before doing good in the world. A medicine person is in the front lines. A warrior like Geronimo would lead his warriors, not watch from the hill top. Spiritual warriors stand up for what they believe in and fight against injustice.

  12. Gratitude. We can express gratitude through music, song, prayer, dance, and art. When we are grateful to Creator for our gifts and blessings, we strengthen those blessings. If you receive a meaningful dream, thank Creator for the dream, and it is more likely to come true. If you see a deer in the forest or an eagle flies overhead, thank these teachers for their wisdom and beauty. To me, the most beautiful prayer is to simply say Thank You!

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