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  • Writer's pictureKen Cohen

The Random House Interview with Ken Cohen

What is Native American Healing?

By "Native American" I mean the original peoples of North America, as defined by Native American nations. Only these sovereign nations have the right to define tribal identity. And I use the term "healing" to distinguish it from curing. Curing is the domain of licensed health-care providers, such as physicians. It means applying a therapy with the purpose of eradicating disease. Curing can be measured and replicated. Healing, on the other hand, means to make whole and holy, to establish a greater connection between self and nature, self and community. It focuses on qualitative change more than quantitative, on spiritual well-being more than cure. Of course curing disease is a desirable outcome or side effect, but it is not the primary purpose. Native American healing cannot be separated from culture and spirituality. It involves immeasurable forces that are beyond the scope of science and medicine.

In other words, we should not attempt to license medicine men?

The very idea is absurd and I would even say insulting. Neither licensing boards nor government agencies, whether state or federal, should interfere with Native American spiritual practices and religious freedom. You can't test or expect uniform answers from healers who are given unique instructions by the Great Spirit! Also, each of the more than 500 tribes in North America have their own culture, language, and healing traditions.

Are you a medicine man?

In my view, the term "medicine man" is an honorific, a title conferred by a Native elder or community because of a person's healing knowledge, wisdom, courage, and service. It is not proper for a person to call him or herself a medicine person.

How old is Native American healing? Do you believe that it was already in existence when Native Americans crossed the Bering Straits on their way to the New World?

No one knows the age or origin of Native American healing. There is physical evidence of people in the Americas 100,000 years ago, and it is likely that herbal or other healing methods were practiced at that time. Anthropologists are now forced to admit that they seriously underestimated the antiquity of the occupation of North America. Some tribes' oral traditions describe volcanoes that have been extinct for one million years.

How do you explain that?

I can't. Well, here's my version of the Bering Straits legend. Native Americans did not come from somewhere else; I accept the evidence of oral history that they originated in North America. They traveled from North America across the Bering Straits many years ago, when North America and the Russian Far East were connected by a land bridge. They didn't like what they found there, so they came back. And that's why you find evidence of cultural diffusion going both directions. Honestly, I think the Bering Straits nonsense was created by Europeans to allegedly prove that since Native peoples were not originally in North America, the colonizers had as much right to the land as they. Perhaps it seemed a more acceptable justification for imperialism than either the Doctrine of Discovery or Manifest Destiny.

You call your book Honoring the Medicine? Does this title have a special meaning?

Yes, the medicine is that which inspires a sense of the sacred. It is a power in people and in nature and in the mysterious realms of ancestors, spiritual powers, and the Great Spirit. The purpose of my book and the dedication of my life is to honor the medicine. Honoring the medicine is also a principle in Native American healing practice. Healers teach their patients to discover and honor their unique medicine-- their gifts and life purpose. Honor the medicine by living it, by having the courage to express it and use it for the good of others. To honor the medicine is to live an honorable life.

What, from a Native American viewpoint, are the primary causes of disease?

People become sick because they do not follow the Creator's instructions. They bend to the conditioning influences and pressures of educational and religious institutions. They fill their lives with things and their minds with noise rather than silence. They forget how to listen to the deepest voice, a voice that is both inside and outside. They become disconnected from their own spirit and dreams, from their community, from nature, and from Creator. I would say that disconnection is the primary cause of disease.

Yet Native people, like modern physicians, recognize that there are many possible causes of disease. According to Native teachings, there may be physical reasons for disease, such as exposure to viruses or bacteria, addictions, unbalanced diet, poor habits of self-care; emotional factors like depression or anxiety and negative thinking in general; and spiritual factors such as living without gratitude, breaking taboos, or vulnerability to negative or even evil forces.

How do Native healers treat disease?

There is no universal method. It depends on the culture of the healer and his or her training, sensitivity, vision, and connection to spirit. However, if we look at Native cultures generally, we can say that certain methods are extremely common-- and these are explored in detail in my book. For example, all healers pray; most sing and use sacred instruments such as the drum. And many Native healers practice, counseling, ritual, massage or laying on of hands, and herbal medicine. And, by the way, most healers use therapeutic humor. Appropriate use and timing of humor can establish friendlier relations and lightens personal preoccupation.

Have Native healing methods changed over time, or are the methods today the same as those practiced in the past?

Some methods have remained relatively unchanged, but many have evolved because of innovations and visions of influential healers and because of cultural exchange between healers from various tribes. Also, Native healers do not live in a vacuum. They are part of both the modern world and the ancient world. Today, it is not uncommon for a healer to pray over a prescription drug to increase its efficacy or to refer a patient to a physician to treat the medical side of a problem.

Have you performed any miracle cures?

Well they may seem like miracles because the Great Spirit is beyond our knowledge. For example, after one brief ceremony, a man with advanced multiple sclerosis was able to walk normally. A Vietnam vet overcame many years of post traumatic stress disorder after a ceremony in which he asked forgiveness of one of his victims. A drug addict stopped using drugs and got off the streets after an exorcistic ritual. I recount some of these stories in my book, but please remember that I did not perform the cures. The Great Spirit is the doctor. I just helped to make a connection with His/Her miraculous power.

What do you charge for a consultation or a ceremony?



Yes. Now, I can only speak for myself. I am not saying that other healers shouldn't charge for their services. But as I have been taught by my elders and instructed by Spirit, it is wrong to charge money for a traditional healing. When a person is sick we should not take advantage of him or her. A doctor should be generous and thus must be willing to be the poorest of the poor. I have never charged a fee for Native American medicine. Yet, this does not mean that healing is free. Some sacrifice, some offering must be made by the patient. Perhaps a pilgrimage or a fast, perhaps a donation to a Native charity-- something to demonstrate dedication, resolve, and good will. The patient may also need to pay travel expenses for a healer and his or her helpers and host a feast. In the old days, a patient might give horses and blankets; today a patient might offer personal gifts as well as money. But I personally feel that it is wrong to set a fixed fee for traditional healing. This is a very important and nuanced topic as it also involves traditional protocols, such as the offering of tobacco to request healing and the ethical values on which indigenous medicine is based. I try my best to introduce the principles in my book.

Does Native American medicine include practices that people can do for their own healing?

Of course. For example the Lakota holy man, Fools Crow would doctor himself by sitting in the sunlight and using his hands to energetically remove unneeded or toxic forces. But the most important self-healing practices are 1. learning how to maintain inner silence and 2. spending as much time as possible in the wilderness. Herbal medicine and diet are also important components of a Native American self-healing program. I am a proponent of natural foods; we should eat fresh, seasonal, local, and organic. And stay away from the three whites: sugar, salt, and white flour.

What about "bad medicine" or sorcery. Do you believe that it really exists?

The human mind has the power to influence its own physiology in a positive or negative way. We also have the power to influence others. The greater the power, the greater the responsibility to use it correctly. I know people who have been the victims of curses. It is real, and curses work whether the victim believes in them or not. I tell several stores of curses and cures in my book.

Are there any dangers? For example, do Native American therapies produce side effects?

Before I answer this question, let's look at the record of western medicine. More than 140,000 people die each year in hospitals because of unforeseen effects of medication. Many people also die from surgical complications. And if we look at subjective reactions to western medicine, it is even more grim. Patients generally feel worse after seeing a physician. Taking penicillin or having blood drawn or one's anatomy probed is not fun. I am not saying to avoid following the doctor's orders-- western medicine can be life-saving; but there is certainly a difference in the degree of side-effects.

By contrast, Native American medicine is generally safe and free of unpleasant side-effects. Significantly, patients generally feel better after visiting a Native healer than they did before seeing him or her.

Is Native American healing used as a stand-alone therapy? What do Native people think of Western medicine?

No person or culture has a monopoly on healing wisdom or technique. Is Western medicine a stand alone therapy? Or does the patient need the loving support of his or her family to truly overcome disease? Does the patient require counseling or lifestyle changes? Perhaps the patient must take herbs or probiotics to heal his intestines after a course of antibiotics. What therapy on earth is a stand alone therapy? Native American philosophy is pragmatic. If it works, use it. Native medicine men do not hesitate to personally visit doctors for bacterial infections, trauma, diabetes management, and many other conditions. They go to the optometrist and the dentist, just like you and me.

What illnesses can Native American healing cure? Is there scientific evidence?

I have personally facilitated healings from cancer, arthritis, chronic pain, encephalitis, migraine, Crohn's Disease, fibromyalgia, diabetes, chronic fatigue, asthma, multiple sclerosis, autism, depression, and other conditions. Not all aspects of Native healing are subject to measurement. For example, we can measure distinct changes in brainwaves, blood chemistry, and skin conductivity in both the healer and patient, but we cannot measure the Great Spirit or his power directly. We can determine the biochemically active agent in a healing herb, but cannot measure how the prayers of the healer empower that herb.

Some of the best healing research was conducted at the Menninger Institute during the 1980s and early 1990s. Compared to untrained people, exceptional healers were able to produce unusual electrical currents on the skin and electric fields around their bodies. The results were published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. There are also numerous studies of the effects of sense of life purpose and healing environments on disease treatment outcome

Your last book was about qigong, Chinese healing therapies, and you are well known as master of qigong. I understand that you even speak the Chinese language. Is qigong related to Native American healing, and how do you manage to teach or write about these two different subjects?

There are two major similarities between qigong and Native American healing. First, both qigong and Native American medicine are ancient and indigenous healing systems. Second, people who pay close attention to their bodies and to nature discover similar things. Thus, both cultures recognize the existence of subtle, invisible life currents, connected with the breath. And they independently created similar methods of balancing these life currents with acupuncture and massage. The Native American and Chinese healing systems are complementary. There are, however, some important differences.

I feel that Native American healing is more truly holistic. It examines not only the energetic components of disease-- the specialty of qigong and acupuncture-- but also the emotional, mental, spiritual, and environmental. It also places a strong emphasis on the intuition, visions, and dreams of the healer.

Why should it be difficult to write about or teach both Chinese and Native American traditions? If I told you that I was teaching French and Tibetan, you would say I was "talented." If I had graduate degrees in psychology and theology and taught courses in both, you would not assume discord-- provided that I didn't speak French while teaching Tibetan or confuse the psychology of Freud with theology of Hassidism! I teach and write about two different but related subjects. As an educator I keep them distinct. I see no need to fit myself into a box. Specialization is a European, colonial concept.

How do Native people feel about you writing about Native American medicine?

Elders have encouraged me to share what I know. My adoptive Dad, a respected Cree medicine man, did a ceremony over the title page of my book. The spirits blessed it and told me to publish. I had the same positive reaction from the many elders I visited or asked to review my work. They know that I am aware of traditional protocol--there are many things that I will not write about or allow to be recorded. Some teachings must be earned or only given at certain times.

How did you become interested in Native American medicine?

The medicine chose me. It is not a matter of interest or choice. I do what I have to do. To live any other way is to be disrespectful to the powers. If you are asking about the particular circumstances that clarified my life path-- that is easier to answer. When I was in my twenties I went on a pilgrimage, a search for life purpose that led me to a very special place-- a lake at the top of the continental divide, the home of Thunderbird, spirit of the West. Here I was given direction and purpose.

How does a person become a medicine man or woman?

Some people are born with the gift; it is in their blood and family line. Some receive it ceremonially, in a kind of initiation or transmission. But, to me, the most important way to become a medicine person is through personal training and sacrifice.

How were you trained?

I have been initiated into various Native American medicine societies. Elders have also transmitted the power of sacred stones and plants into my body and spirit. And, my formal adoption by a Cree elder was certainly a kind of initiation. I carry songs and teachings from my adoptive family. But, as I said above, the most powerful way to become a healer is through personal training. I have apprenticed with elders, participated in ceremonies, fasted, and prayed for a vision of my life purpose.

Are there any teachers that had a particularly strong influence on your life, and could you tell us something about them?

I tell stories about my teachers in a lengthy chapter at the back of my book. One of my most influential mentors was the Cherokee healer Keetoowah, who gave me my Indian name "Bear Hawk" and first taught me doctoring. He was a powerful and kind person and full of humor. He once told me that he'd done everything in his life except scalp a white man. He used to be quite a warrior, but in his old age, he said, "I've decided to love my enemies to death!"

Any closing words or advice?

Very few people are called by spirit to become medicine people, and even fewer survive the tests and tribulations of this path. But everyone can benefit by learning the values and ancient wisdom of Native peoples. My book emphasizes these values and teachings. My ultimate goal in writing Honoring the Medicine was to inspire people to live with greater honor and to respect themselves, each other, and the earth.

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