The Cultural Healing


It is difficult to underestimate the effectiveness of Native American and aboriginal healing arts in contemporary healing. The traditions of indigenous healing are actively practiced nowadays. Though, it is only the start of the revival of the cultural healing that began with the popularization of the New Age. The tradition of such healing practices dates back to ancient times. It was formed during the course of the development of the particular culture and usually reflect the essence of the people’s world view.

A peculiar issue that will be studied in the current research is the approach of the traditional healers to illnesses and the process of healing itself. It is rather different from the one practiced in the Western medicine, which is considered to be academic and is the most wide spread type of medicine now. The main difference between them is in the fact that the Western medicine works specifically with the problem. For example, if the person suffers from heart aches, the doctors work mainly with his/her heart. The situation with the traditional indigenous medicine is the contrary. They try to heal the person in general, paying attention both to the body and the soul. The healing process of native people include the sort of art therapy with singing, dancing, weaving, body ornamentation, feasting. Such ritual models are religious practices, creative expression and art at the same time.

It is difficult to state whether the traditional indigenous therapy is better than the Western official medicine. I would rather assume that it is even dangerous to go to indigenous healers when there are serious problems with the health, because the rituals can not cure the pneumonia, for example. However, it is possible to say that the Western medicine needs to take the best from the indigenous healers and their diverse ways to cure souls with art. They might be of great importance to those people, whose problems with health derive from problems of mind, among which are drug and alcohol addicts, or those people, who suffer from depressions.

In the current essay the insight into the traditional healing practices will be given. The research consists of the literature review and the summary of the most important issues that were found in the published sources on this subject.

Literature Review

First of all, it is crucial to understand what is aboriginal. In the United States there are two main groups of aboriginal people, which are the Alaska Natives and the American Indians. They are often unified in one group of “aboriginal population” in the literary sources. Archibald (2006) characterizes the aboriginal population in the following way:

Native Americans experience higher rates of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, suicide, violent victimization, post-traumatic stress and incarceration than non-Native Americans. Prior to the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, an estimated 25 to 30 per cent of Native American children had been removed from their families” (Archibald, 2006).

As it is evident from such quotation, the statistics about the well being of the tries is rather depressive and as the result the attitude towards the native population of the United States might not that positive. The question about how can the aboriginals heal someone if they can not heal themselves is one of the reasons that make many people doubt the effectiveness of the alternative ways of healing.

It is necessary to define the notions of aboriginal and traditional healing practices in order to understand clearly the subject. The Western world view supposes that the process of healing is synonymous to the one of treatment, which is only partially right. According to the information provided by the World Health Organization (2002), the definition of the traditional medicine is given to the Arabic unani medial tradition, to the Indian ayurveda and to the traditional Chinese medicine. It is also written that various forms of indigenous medical practices also refer to this notion. In some countries the popularity of the traditional methods of healing is rather high. For example, nearly 80 percent of African people and 40 percent of the Chinese population prefer them to the Western medicine. The practices of indigenous healing include herbal therapy, the usage of minerals and parts of the animals, spiritual therapies that help the patients to maintain the emotional health and manual therapy (World Health Organization, 2002).

Another important aspect that is payed much attention in the literature concerning the aboriginal medical practices is the set of its distinctive characteristics. It is characterized by the holistic approach to healing that is not that vivid in the traditional Western medicine (Hewson, 1998). According to Smith (2009) and Moran (2008), emotional and spiritual problems can not be divided from the problems of the body and the interconnection between them is direct. The balance of emotions is one of the key aspects that are important in cultural healing practices. Another peculiar distinctive characteristic of the traditional healing is the fact that they pay much attention to socializing. The family and the community are among the main components that help ill people overcome their disease. Socializing with the other people might be helpful for those who suffer from depression or addictions, as it was mentioned earlier (Lane et al., 2002). The last distinctive feature of the aboriginal healing is that the process is closely connected with the environment. The activities outside the Western hospitals are sometimes much better for the patients, because they do not create extra emotional tension, that is already present in the souls of ill people and thus ruin their bodies step by step.

The main concepts in the aboriginal healing are “forgiveness”, “acceptance” and “finding somebody’s ow way”. Being healthy means to live in peace with the surrounding world, with the other people and, which is the more important, with oneself. The problem of the contemporary western world is that people try hard to fit into the society with imposed consumerist desires and norms how the successful person should look like and live. In reality, thousands of people become tired of such restrictions, that do not give them emotional peace and happiness. Consumerism does not give the relief form the depressions and does not give real satisfaction with the life. It is nothing but another form of addiction. The philosophical world view, the contemplation, the art and the real nature around make people, who fell ill from the contemporary life style and society, think about the basic eternal questions like who are they an where are they going. In fact, the therapeutic effect of such aboriginal healing is difficult to underestimate.

It is possible to find numerous feedbacks that people who managed to start the new life after they were healed in the sources about the aboriginal healing. Lane gives the following example of the words of the cured person in his article:

Being “healed” means living in peace, living in acceptance and not judging anyone. Thus with the residential school experience, healing means to come fully into acceptance of what took place and fully forgiving everyone that was involved. The only way to resolve the pain that comes from living in the past is acceptance and forgiveness. I tried all different kinds of healing, but I didn’t feel like I was healed until I saw all the things that had happened to me as a great gift” (Lane et al. 2002).

Judging by the enumeration of the most essential distinctions of the aboriginal healing from the Western medical tradition, it is possible to conclude that the process of aboriginal recovery is the cultural renewal, therapeutic changes and recovery from addictions. Sometimes people really need psychological rest, art, nature and other people to recover from the trauma or to find their personal identity, that does not need addictions to live on. The injections of sedative medicines that the Western medicine often proposes does not always help to calm down and to overcome the problem. That is why such aboriginal healing practices are really very important for certain categories of people with mental and emotional problems.

The healing traditions of the native communities are various and perhaps every tribe has its own ways to relieve suffering. A peculiar detail is that with the increasing popularity of the traditional methods of healing the literature proposes two kinds of information about the subject. The first group of sources describe really traditional methods of aboriginal healing, that have been practiced for centuries in the native communities and are a comparatively stable set of rituals and methods. The second group is the one of so called experientially informed healers. In other words, those people who have experienced the trauma or addiction, and who had gone through the traditional aboriginal healing, use their knowledge to help the others, who have similar problems. They are using the same methods as the native healers and sometimes they really can help, because they know the essence of the problem “from inside”.

The really traditional aboriginal medicine and the new age remix on its theme differ greatly. The main distinction is that no matter how hard the Western person tries to copy the atmosphere of the tribal medicine, he/she can not do it. There are no generations that stand behind him/her and her mentality is absolutely different from the one of his/her “teachers”. People of the Navajo hataali learn for many years while working with the senior healer of their tribe by assisting him in his work during the ceremonies with healing singing. The chants that they use are long and complicated, and the Indians think that even a minor mistake can lead to terrible consequences. Making herbal remedies is also a difficult task ans in mu opinion it is even more challenging than singing healing chants (Wearne and Muller, 2009). The magic of words is a dubious question and a question of faith, but the effect of herbs is rather real. The diagnostic skills also require long and serious learning, because they are impossible without the knowledge about the human body. All these issues show that despite the positive experience those experientially informed healers have, their knowledge is not enough to understand the entire healing culture of the aboriginal people, that developed for centuries.

Body of Paper

The study of literature for this research made me understand that there is almost another world that exists near the one that I am used to. It is possible to say that I am rather Western centric in my world view, which is not strange, because the contemporary world is becoming more and more global and the only set of ideas dominates the minds all over the world. When I heard about coping with depression, I usually thought about psychiatric, who make injections of hormones to the patients and talk to them, trying to understand what is the essence of the problem. When the psychological problems are more serious than the simple depression, for example, schizophrenia, the medicine can do nothing. It is a sort of punitive psychiatry and suppression of symptoms of the slowly progressing disease.

The aboriginal healing offers a strange, but yet effective approach to curing the soul. If the medical case is not really heavy, the atmosphere of another contemplating world and nature around might help to overcome the problems. One of the most well known traditional healers named Thunder Woman once said that it is the Western medical tradition that is the alternative medicine. It is the traditional healing that is the original medicine, because it was in the beginning of the human development and is still more proximate to the nature than the Western clinical approach. The native medicine is the sacred cult, the religion and the mystery, that the indigenous people preserve.

The traditional healer can be called the spiritual leader more than the doctor. In the Indian tribes they are called the hataalii, and he/she is perceived as someone who sees the other people as an entity of the soul and the body. Both men and women can become healers and the gender priorities depend solely upon the specific Indian tribe. The only thing that is obligatory for the healers is that they have to be healthy themselves and live in harmony with the universe. The “work” of the healer in such traditional communities is an honorable thing and only the most intellectual people of the tribe can cope with it (Beadman, 2009).

The relationships between the doctor and the patient in the Western medical practices is completely different from the one of the traditional healer and his/her patients. According to Hewson (1998), the majority of native healers do not distinguish objective and subjective symptoms, and do not see the difference between the notions of caring for the person and curing him/her. They listen carefully to the stories of the lives told by their patients and penetrate deeply into their psychological state and social circumstances. They are ready to understand everything about the person’s life, his/her fears, hopes, beliefs and attitudes, and there are no insignificant details in such process.

Another peculiar issues about the aboriginal healers is their close connection to their native land. It is traditionally thought that the powers of the healer come from the land where the tries leaves, and it is the nature itself that choses who is worth to have such powers. Such approach is rather strange for the Western medicine. It is problematic to imagine that the students will not pass exams in the medical universities, but will listen somehow to the voice of the nature that will tell them who deserves to be called the doctor. Such details about the cultural healing make the majority of people skeptical about the effectiveness of the aboriginal medicine. The claims about being the chosen one really do not have any empirical proofs and it is difficult for the majority of people to believe that the healers are not charlatans and their strange methods can help someone. There have been undertaken several attempts to make the native healers pass the accreditation as the western style doctors do, but they failed because the approach to the human health, to the world in general and to the methods of curing differ greatly.

The differences in the two opposite world views are sometimes basic. Everything in the Native American culture is thought to be alive and have its own soul. That is why much attention is payed to the unification with nature. The balance is the main thing that the healers try to attain when they cure people. It is thought that when the spirit is calm, there can not be any diseases of the body. Illness is always an imbalance, even though the persona can think that everything is normal with his/her mind. Rituals are the basic things in the traditional indigenous medicine. They help those people think that preserving the traditions is one of the ways to preserve the balance in the universe. For example, when the men of the Comanche tribe went to the World War II, they received the buttons of peyotes to put into the bags with medicines. People thought that this ritual will give the men protection during the war. The Cherokee people think that offering of tobacco should be made to the four directions, so that the wind would carry on th smoke and cover those people who need protection.

It is interesting to compare the approach the native medicine uses with the way the contemporary Western medicine functions. The Western medicine uses a reductionist approach to healing. That means that it aims at stopping the disease or at least at killing its symptoms. The alternative medicine tries to cure the human as an entity by using the holistic approach. The spirit, the body and the mind can not be divided from each other. When something is ill, everything becomes ill. Then, the Western medicine uses another sort of data to evaluate the state of the patient’s health than the alternative healers. Laboratory, psychological, anatomic and biochemical information is obligatory for the traditional curing process, while the tribal medicine uses spiritual and psycho-social data to understand the state of health. It is difficult to state the the tribal approach is better than the traditional one. The key to this phenomenon is in the low scientific development and possibilities of the alternative medicine and it is necessary to always understand that such methods can be efficient only for a small category of patients. Those people who have really serious problems need to consult the traditional doctor, because chants and herbs can not help from cancer or AIDS.

Though, there is a very positive issue that the alternative medicine provides. It helps people understand how heal themselves and make them feel what it is like to be healthy and live in harmony with themselves. The Western medical approach is the contrary and it is,perhaps, its major psychological drawback. The traditional medicine creates the habit of being ill and taking pillows that will obviously relieve the pain. It is evident even from the aggressive propaganda of medicines and the great number of drug stores everywhere. Sometimes it is really better to understand how to take care of the body and soul, than to take drugs every time the problem appears.

Nowadays there is a peculiar thing connected with the cultural healing. It is possible to find so called aboriginal healing centers all across America. There are several variants of what is hidden under this name. It might be a hospital where the Aboriginal healing practices are combined with the techniques of New Age. There might be no aboriginal healers in the clinic, but sometimes it is possible to find a native specialist. Another variant supposes that the hospital is equipped with Western style technologies and the only difference of such clinics from the usual ones is that there are special rooms for the aboriginal clients and their families, where they are able to practice the traditional rituals. Though, it is really not usual for a native healer to do his/her work in the room of the hospital, where the essence of the cultural healing is completely lost.


The arts of healing of the aboriginal people has a ling history. Nowadays more and more people pay attention to the alternative healing practices that are performed by the native people partly because the New Age tendencies revived them, partly because they really work in certain cases. To start with, the main distinction of the cultural healing from the Western medicine is that the healers care not only for the patient’s body, but also for his/her soul. The attempts to find harmony with the universe, with the people around and with oneself are really important for those people who suffer from the disorders like depression or drug, alcohol abuse. Many people doubt whether the healers are charlatans or not, because many issues that form the aboriginal world view do not correspond to the Western mentality. It is problematic for the majority of people to believe that the land gives the healer the magical powers to cure the other, that it is the nature that decides who deserves to be the healer and so on. It is also impossible to check the level of medical help the healers give according to the traditional Western medical standards. Though, there is one important thing in the cultural healing. The aboriginals make people understand what it is like to be healthy and to be in harmony. Taking medicines every time something is wrong with the body is not a good way out. Sometimes it is more wise to pay attention to the soul and mind, that also deserve healing, but are almost completely neglected by the Western traditional medicine.


Archibald, L. (2006). Decolonization and Healing: Indigenous Experiences in the United States, New Zealand, Australia and Greenland. Ottawa.

Beadman, B. (2009). A Working Future, Territory Growth Towns. 4th Indigenous Economic

Development Forum. Alice Springs.

Hewson, M. G. (1998). “Traditional Healers in Southern Africa.” Annals of Internal Medicine 128(12): 1029-1034.

Lane, P. J., Bopp, M., Bopp, J. and Norris, J. (2002). Mapping the Healing Journey:the Final Report of a First Nation Research Project on Healing in Canadian Aboriginal Communities. Aboriginal peoples collection. APC 21 CA.

Moran, H., Fitzpatrick, S. (2008). Healing For The Stolen Generations: Document Prepared in

Response to the National Indigenous Healing Forum. Canberra.

Smith, R. (2003). “Learning from indigenous people.” British Medical Journal 327(7412): 0.

Wearne, G. and Muller, S. (2009). Dilthan Yolunha: An Evaluation of a Yolu Healing Place. Darwin: Wearne Advisors and associates.

World Health Organisation (2002). WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2002–2005. Geneva: World Health Organisation.

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