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What is Native American Medicine?

Adapted from "Native American Healing" by Kenneth Cohen, in the medical school textbook, Wilderness Medicine ed. by Paul S. Auerbach, MD (Elsevier, 2016)

Native Americans or American Indians are the indigenous peoples of North America. In Canada, it is also common to refer to the original peoples as First Nations, aboriginal (including Métis), or autochthones (French). Ultimately, there is no perfect or correct generalization for North America’s original people, because the very concept of “Native American” was a political expediency when indigenous people sought unity in the face of common postcolonial challenges, including military, political, cultural, economic, environmental, social, and health. A morally acceptable term was also needed to substitute for the words savages, hostiles and other demeaning labels or stereotypes common in post-contact discourse.

There is no single Native American or First Nations culture. There are more than 4.3 million indigenous Americans in the United States and another 1.3 million in Canada,  which are divided into more than 1162 recognized Native governments: approximately 600 in Canada, 562 in the United States, and hundreds more in various stages of the recognition process. Approximately 225 Native languages are spoken in the United States, and another 50 in Canada. A far greater number of North American indigenous languages are extinct or are no longer spoken fluently. These languages are divided into 50 language families, many as different from each other as Romance (e.g., Italian) from Sino-Tibetan.

Old Hollywood movies and popular literature characterized as “New Age” promote a particular kind of generic Indian: in buckskins and feathered headdresses, speaking Tonto-like broken English, and frozen in popular imagination in western landscapes. Museum exhibits sometimes reinforce the impression that Native Americans are relics from the past rather than a people concerned about their future. Today’s Native Americans wear business suits rather than buckskins, prize higher education, and often identify themselves as Christian. They are patriots who volunteer in the armed forces in higher percentages than any other ethnic minority. They live in houses and apartments, not in tipis.

Indigenous Americans live in two worlds: the culture of their ancestors and that of the modern United States and Canada. Health care choices are influenced by this duality. Although many Native Americans are more likely to seek an allopathic physician than a traditional tribal healer, there remains widespread respect for many traditional remedies, such as prayers, herbal medicines, counseling, and ceremonies. Sometimes ancient and modern healing methods are combined to create synergistic effects.  Prescription medicines smudged in sage smoke and prepared with prayer are believed to be more effective than other methods of administration. Counseling complements the sweat lodge for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Among diabetes patients, nutrient ratios are managed with a traditional native diet by substituting indigenous grains such as amaranth and wild rice for high-glycemic starches such as potatoes and bread. Native healers have always practiced “holistic” or “integrative” medicine. These terms take on more meaning as Native Americans find creative ways to combine the old and the new.

Postscript: The Meaning of "Healing"

Native American Medicine is grounded in landscape, language, culture, and the wisdom of the elders. From the Native American perspective, medicine belongs more to the realm of healing than curing. These two concepts are not identical. Physicians aim to cure disease, to vanquish it, to make it go away. Traditional indigenous healers emphasize healing, in the sense of "making whole" by establishing, enhancing, or restoring well-being and harmony. An important aspect of treatment is listening to the story or meaning of the disease—what events in the patient’s personal, family, and community history are connected to his/her physical, psychological, or spiritual challenges. By understanding the story, the healer can help the patient find greater meaning, purpose, and, ultimately, joy of life.  


I am not saying that Native American healers are unable to cure, only that curing is not always the exclusive, or even sometimes, the primary goal. The efficacy of a cure can be measured; it belongs to the realm of science. The effects of healing are not as easy to quantify because healing touches every aspect of person's life-- it belongs as much to spirit as to science.


 The Politics of Healthcare


Indigenous healthcare cannot be separated from politics, economics, and history. Native American healing emphasizes harmony with the earth as an essential ingredient in personal health. But how can anyone find harmony with the Earth if greed, consumerism, and the obsessive need for “growth” result in cutting Mother Earth’s hair (the forests), breaking her bones (minerals), and dumping poison into her bloodstream (rivers and oceans)? We cannot preserve original healing traditions without protecting the land and water—our shared ecosystem-- and without recognizing the rights of the original people of North America to autonomy and control over their own lives.

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