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Traditional and Modern Healers Bridge Differences in Native Communities

Native communities used to turn to traditional healers when they were sick or injured. Now the medical world is finding ways to blend modern medicine with traditional medicine.

Charles Scribe has helped thousands of people to heal since he became a medicine man in 1993. As a medicine man, he often works with conventional doctors, sending patients to clinics for medical tests and surgery.

Scribe says all of us would benefit if more doctors were familiar with traditional healing. Doctors would apprentice with traditional healers. This rarely happens, but some doctors, like the ones Scribe works with, do work with traditional healers when treating native patients.

Scribe had always been interested in the traditional ways of his native people. But it was a gathering of native leaders from across North America that set him on the path to becoming a medicine man. A multi-faith conference on a native reserve in the early 1970s sparked an interest that still burns brightly.

Scribe's father is Cree while his mother is Sioux and Assiniboine. He and his wife run a healing center that has helped thousands of people over the years.

To become a medicine man, he had to apprentice for six or seven years, learning the ancient healing arts from traditional healers. Scribe was about 40 when he finished his apprenticeship and became a medicine man. Apprenticing involves learning how to treat all four areas of a person's well-being: the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental.

Since finishing his apprenticeship, much of Scribe's work has been with people who experienced trauma and abuse as children in residential schools. Their experiences as children have led to various physical as well as psychological illnesses.

"They were having difficulty getting help from conventional clinics," Scribe adds. "They were having trouble finding answers or getting wellness. It turned out that the reason was they were damaged psychologically as children, and standard medicine couldn't deal with it. They were carrying deep-rooted issues."

Scribe has many concerns with modern medicine. He thinks conventional medicine has moved too far away from natural remedies and it doesn't deal with the whole person.

Dr. Marcia Anderson is president of a native physician's association. She doesn't know of any doctors who have apprenticed with a traditional healer, but she says some doctors are learning about traditional healing.

"I know of a few people who are trained in western allopathic (conventional) medicine and have knowledge, or are seeking to gain knowledge, of traditional medicine as well," says Anderson.

"I don't believe it's common, and there may be multiple reasons for this, including the enormous time commitment western medical training demands, which limits the opportunities to be in [the] community apprenticing with indigenous (native) healers."

Anderson says she knows some doctors who are very comfortable working with traditional healers, while others are not. "I believe these collaborations can be very valuable in assisting the provision of culturally competent care to aboriginal patients," Anderson says. She adds that this is her personal view and not necessarily the official position of her association.

"I see value in indigenous healing practices, as they have existed for thousands of years and can be effective," Anderson says. "If people can learn both, this could be valuable. But I recognize that it might be hard to make the time to learn both."

Part of the reason traditional medicine doesn't play a bigger role in health care might be the fact that there are so few doctors of native descent.

"There is an urgent need to train more indigenous physicians," says Anderson. "Indigenous people are vastly under-represented in the medical profession."

Medical schools are working to address this imbalance.

"I believe there are reasons to be optimistic about the potential to increase the number of indigenous physicians," says Anderson, who is Cree-Saulteaux.

"It is vitally important to remember that more needs to be done than just increasing the number of [indigenous] students in the medical schools," Anderson says.

"We need to ensure there are adequate supports to assist their successful progression through medical school, given some of the extra burdens like financial pressures or discrimination.

"Also, the medical schools need to provide a culturally safe environment, and implement curriculum in aboriginal health that seeks to ensure all medical students graduate with a minimum level of cultural competency."

Another way for doctors' offices to have more cultural competence is to have more medical staff from Native American communities. One source of such staff is the physician assistant program at A.T. Still University, which has a special track for American Indian, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.

Physician assistants (PAs) differ from the medical assistant who takes your blood pressure at your doctor’s office. PAs are generalists who are trained like physicians.

Their work includes questioning patients about their medical histories, performing exams, diagnosing, writing prescriptions, ordering and interpreting lab tests, assisting in surgery and counseling patients. They do all of the things that a physician does if it's not a complicated case.

The PA, if he or she is a Native American, can provide an important cultural bridge for a non-native physician treating a native patient.

"If there's an Indian grandma and she goes to the medical office and she sees somebody who looks like her, or looks like her grandchild, and that treats her politely in ways that make sense to her, then there's already a baseline of understanding," says Cynthia Yahola Wilson. She's director of the Native American Physician Assistant (NAPA) Track.

"The body, mind and spirit have to be attended to," Wilson adds. "Although we're teaching the students medicine in western medicine ways, we try to teach them to provide help them provide culturally competent health care."

Wilson says that most Native American communities are medically underserved. High turnover is part of the problem.

"We're looking for somebody 'who has a dog in the fight,' which means that we want people who are invested in Indian communities," says Wilson.

"We're looking for Indian people who want to come work in a clinic [and] will stay there, because there are a lot of medical people who work at IHS (Indian Health Services) or other underserved areas to get loan repayments, to pay off the big medical school bills that they have. They work for the government for underserved areas, but they only do it for a short time."

As a result of this turnover, Wilson says, there's not a lot of continuity of care in underserved communities. Medical professionals come and go. This makes it hard for patients and doctors to build trust and rapport, and for doctors to learn about cultural differences.

"In medicine, one of the key elements is communication, how well people understand each other, and how well the provider can help the patient to bring forward all kinds of resources to help themselves heal," says Wilson.

"Part of that is about connection and communication, and being able to trust and have faith in your provider."


Association of American Indian Physicians
Professional association for native physicians

Association of Native American Medical Students
Provides support and advocacy for medical students

Arizona School of Health Sciences -- Native American Physician Assistant Track
Learn about the physician assistant program

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