Alternate Perceptions Magazine, Jane 2016
A Glimpse Into the Intuitive Medicine of the Native American Tradition
by: Sarah Farmer and Jason Jarrell
Just another cluster of berries right over there, he thought, and then I will be home in no time—when suddenly—a sharp, pricking pain shot through his leg. Looking down in shock, he spots the tail end of a rattlesnake, slithering away. His eyes dart back to his leg, now bleeding, and two perfect puncture wounds dripping with his bright, youthful blood. In terror, he hobbles back home to his mother. As his mother sees him afar off, coming through the trees, her intentions of admonition quickly turn to urgency. She flits through forest, seeking the only help her son will need—the help of the medicine man.
Unbeknownst to the boy in distress, the medicine man begins to work his 'magic'. Powders, liquids, poultices, words. Asking for guidance from the Great Spirit, and inviting the plants to work with him as allies, he intuitively administers his acquired medicines, both spiritual and tangible. The weight of his calling as Healer he accepted long ago, with all sincerity.
By day break, the boy's heart has once again found its natural rhythms, and he drifts into sleep—traumatized, but thankful. The tribes and peoples that once occupied the land we now call America imagined and developed amazingly effective modes of healing to offer their communities. Although Native American medicine and healing traditions are diverse, many of their foundational aspects are quite similar. All highlight the importance of a multidimensional understanding of life and nature, and the interconnection that exists through and between all aspects of what it means to be 'alive'. Much of Native American medicine is centered on animalistic symbolism, incorporating the animals that were most important to them, such as the turtle, rabbit, bear, deer, eagle, and wolf (1).
To the First Nations inhabitants of America, every plant, animal, and stone, no matter how unseen or small, possessed a type of spirit. Each spirit was unique and special, and all life forms were given their due honor and appreciation. The spiritual dimension and the physical dimension overlapped and shared time and space. They viewed their own spirit (soul) and body as a unique expression and extension of the natural world. Indeed, the very laws of nature were viewed as a force to be in cooperation with, not in opposition against (2).
“When the blood in your veins returns to the sea, and the earth in your bones returns to the ground, perhaps then you will remember that this land does not belong to you, it is you who belong to his land.” –Native American proverb, source unknown Although the general healing and restorative properties of seawater have been recognized for many millennia, this proverb explicitly states that human blood 'returns' to the sea. It demonstrates their belief in the correlation and similarities of blood and sea. While some may consider this proverb to be a whimsical, poetic statement issued as a warning to the White Man, perhaps there is also an underlying scientific truth hidden within it. In 1897, a French doctor named René Quinton (3) made a remarkable discovery—human blood is 98% identical to seawater. Ocean water, which is completely saturated and 'buzzing' with so many life-nurturing minerals, is incredibly similar to human blood—blood plasma, or the 'watery' part of human blood—to be exact (4)(5).
(Rene Quinton, Wikimedia Commons)
By the peak of his career, Dr Quinton had developed a method of utilizing very specific seawater injections to heal and cure many health conditions. Unfortunately, the legacy of his healing methods were eventually shut down by friends of those within the French government, who were wary about losing sales in their burgeoning pharmaceutical industry (6).
To the modern Western thinker, irrevocably trained in a solely logic-based, linear way of thinking, these facts beg the question: How could the First Nations have known about the complex and stunning chemistry of their own blood? Of the ocean itself? With no microscopes or lab equipment, no (apparent) knowledge of minerals or molecules, how could they have causally understood something that took modern science centuries to 'discover'? Was it a lucky guess or has the Western world made an error in their assumption of the depth of knowledge that Native Americans possessed? To gain a better understanding of their method of knowledge and information gathering, an examination of the Medicine Wheel may yield more understanding.
The Medicine Wheel is a basic, conceptual, symbolic reference used in the healing traditions of many different First Nations tribes. It contains four quadrants that symbolize north, east, south, and west. Other categories of the wheel include stages of life, seasons of the year, elements (fire, air, water, earth), sacred plants and animals, and also the general aspects of life (spiritual, physical, mental, emotional) (7). Sometimes the manifestations of the medicine wheel were (and still are) physical earthwork structures. At 9,642 feet in elevation, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming is a circular structure created by carefully placed stones. The wheel itself is 80 feet in diameter and has 28 spokes jutting out from its center, which is marked by a cairn, 12 feet in diameter and 2 feet high. There are 6 other cairns incorporated into the design of the wheel, purposefully placed at intervals around the edge of the wheel where the spokes terminate (8). There are some who speculate that the central cairn also used to support a large pole (9).
(Bighorn Medicine Wheel, Wyoming. http://solar-center.stanford.edu/AO/bighorn.html) It is believed that the central cairn, as well as the land it occupies, far predates the medicine wheel itself by many hundreds of years. No one truly knows the original builders or inhabitants of the site—the Crow Indians insisted that the wheel was already present when they came into the area (10) and that their ancient ancestors had built the site (11), and others ascribe the site to the Plains Indians (9). Regardless of whom, it is generally thought that the site itself has been in use for thousands of years. The lines created between any two of the cairns point to different celestial alignments—including summer solstice sunrise and sunset, as well as the rising of several specific stars. It is interesting to note that due to both the elevation and location of this sacred site it remains covered in snow much of the year, but there is a brief reprieve from the snow cover for about two months out of the year—the time close to the summer solstice.
According to author and herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner (11), many indigenous tribes (including the Native American indigenous) developed direct methods of obtaining vast amounts of knowledge without the use of logical, linear "science" or it assisting accoutrements. Buhner insists that many different groups of native peoples, who already had a deep, visceral understanding of life and its nonlinear, realm-like realities could collect information by using their hearts as organs of perception:
"While machines to pick up, decode, and respond to [electromagnetic] signals may eventually be developed, human beings have always possessed one of the most powerful instruments ever created to do this—the human heart. For the human heart is vastly more than a muscular pump—it is one of the most powerful electromagnetic generators and receivers known. It is, in fact, a highly evolved organ of perception and communication." In explanation to the internal status of the human body, Buhner argues that even our modern language is inadequate to express the range of pain, sensation, and feeling of the internal body:
"Unfortunately, in our time, our languaging for these internal states is extremely limited. We may feel 'under the weather,' but we can feel under the weather in a great many ways, and each of these ways has a particular and unique feeling or complex of feelings attached to it. We may feel 'blah' or 'sick' or 'depressed' but each of these statements conveys little information about our internal state. They are not elegant, specifically communicative statements. To a great extent, this limitation comes from a cultural, long-term lack of focus on the great variety of emotional states that are generated by alterations in our internal world. Ancient and indigenous cultures, focused more on the heart as an organ of perception, generally were more able to elegantly articulate these internally generated emotional states." Although the medicine of the Western world is considered to be one of the successful pinnacles of modern living, given some of the shortcomings of our "modern" medicine, perhaps we should look to the healing practices of the Native Americans for further inspiration and guidance. Perhaps the reductionist, mechanically minded allopathic medicine of our western world needs to allow itself to become more open to other methods of information gathering, and incorporate some of the healing traditions of the past into our own.
1. The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines, Matthew Wood, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley CA, 1997.
9. The Big Horn Medicine Wheel, Crossroad of Cultural Conflict, Ricky Laurent, University of Wyoming, Laramie, 1996
10. “The Medicine Wheel” American Anthropologist, 24, George Grinnell, (1922).
11. The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature, Stephen Harrod Buhner, Bear & Company, Rochester VT, 2004.