Native American Healing And Spirituality Religion Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
It is a long held belief that Native Americans migrated to the Americas from northeast Asia, hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. Their culture and religion travelled along with them and were further developed and transformed over time according to the environment and region in which they finally settled. Together we will examine some of the different spiritual and religious beliefs and healing techniques that have remarkably withstood the test of time.
In modern European and American cultures, examining both healing and spirituality would result in a rather broad spectrum. But in traditional Native American culture that many still honor today, healing and religion are very much hand in hand. To heal the body, one must simultaneously heal the soul. All healing ceremonies begin with prayer and are led by a “medicine man”. We will refer to healers in general as healers rather than medicine men or women simply because there are far too many terms in different languages and nations that would in some way translate into medicine men or women.
In different Native American cultures, healers do much more than just heal. They are the spiritual leaders of their people. “To an English speaker, a medicine is something used to treat disease or enhance well-being. Native Americans accept this definition, but in the context of traditional culture, the word medicine has a much broader and richer meaning. Medicine means the presence and power embodied in or demonstrated by a person, a place, an event, an object, or a natural phenomenon (Cohen, 2003, p. 27, para. 5).”
Healing and religion, in traditional terms, is deeply rooted in the natural world. Nature itself has incredible healing powers. From the many trees, plants, and roots that are important curative ingredients, to the simple practice of walking along and reveling in the beauty of the tremendous gift our Great Creator has given us, it is all good medicine. In fact, the practice of walking amongst nature and allowing your spirit to communicate with nature has a name; it is called, walking the truth. Walking the truth means to walk a spiritual path through life and remaining in motion; that is, realizing that spirituality is dynamic rather than passive. The spiritual person does not meditate in a cave waiting for enlightenment. Instead, he or she values what Tibetan Buddhists call “meditation in action,” a spirituality that is fully engaged with life (Cohen, 2003, p.92).
There is also another reason for walking with nature, to locate and obtain herbs, plants, and roots that aid in the healing of common ailments. For instance, if you come down with a stomach ache, you might try chewing some pine resin. Or if your child develops Thrash, try boiling some bark from a Persimmon tree and using the infusion to wash his or her mouth (Speck, 1944). There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of natural remedies that have been used for thousands of years by indigenous peoples. They may sound absolutely absurd to a modern physician, but one must respect the fact that there is a reason for their continued use; they work!
Another important concept in Native American healing and religion is finding and understanding your own spirit and getting oriented in the realm of the sacred. The sacred hoop and the four winds represent everything in the natural world. Think about all of things in nature that are spherical in shape: the sky, clouds, stars, the sun, the moon, rain drops, snowflakes, and even nests of birds. The evolution of life itself begins, comes full circle, and in the end the spirit goes back to where it came from.
The four winds represent the power of nature. The power of wind can move, at will, all other basic elements of nature. The four winds are also indicative of breath. We humans, and a lot of other creatures, cannot live without it but for a few minutes. In medicine wheels, the four winds are represented by the four directions: north, south, east, and west. Each direction represents qualities that contribute to spiritual health and harmony. East represents birth, new beginnings, spiritual renewal and development. The south represents growth and youthful energy. The seeds that are planted in the east come to bloom in the south. The west represents the autumn of life and is a place of spiritual vision and transformation. We stand facing west to give thanks to the Great Spirit for all the blessings of life. The west is also where we prepare for the sacred journey; the journey our body takes back to Mother Earth and the journey of our spirit back to the Great Creator or Spirit. North is the direction of wisdom and old age. North is where we examine all of life’s struggles and challenges. We focus on the wisdom of coming full circle with life, the lessons of this world and the cleansing of impurities created by it, all in preparation for the next world.
Just as medicine wheels are located in places considered sacred, all healing must take place in a setting that is conducive to healing. Blessing and smudging are essential in making the home or setting where healing is to take place ready. Smudging is taking the ash of foliage such as cedar or sage and rubbing a small amount on all participants of a healing ceremony. Smoke from the burning foliage is allowed to spread through the area and also waved over the heads of the participants. The smoke and scent is believed to help purify the space of toxic and negative energy, feelings, thoughts, and spirits. The smell of nature also invites and welcomes healing power and positive energy. Not all plants are intended for smudging and they vary by tribe.
According to Milne and Howard(2000, p. 545, para. 3) “Ceremonies may address specific illness and life problems, or they may be prophylactic; they may be intended to ameliorate the cause of suffering, or they may be intended to enhance health, the quality of social relationships, and financial well-being.” Praying and chanting is an important ingredient in religious ceremonies as well as healing ceremonies. In traditional Native American, praying begins and ends each and every day. Praying with friends and family is done regularly. Praying heals the spirit and strengthens ones faith. Healing chants are usually performed by close family members who have gathered around a loved one who is seriously ill. Chants are also performed during meditation sessions, pipe ceremonies, and in sweat lodges.
Sweat lodges, or purification lodges, are one of the oldest of Native American ceremonies. The sweat lodge is a place of physical and spiritual purification and an occasion to commune with the great forces of nature-earth, water, fire, and air-and the Great Spirit who created them (Cohen, 2003). Participants sweat away illness, pollution and negative thoughts and energy. According to Cohen (2003, p. 257, para. 4), “The ceremony is generally divided into four rounds, after each of which the door flap is briefly opened to let unneeded forces out and to allow refreshing energy in.” Many attend a sweat lodge ceremony on a weekly basis. It is a place of incredible spiritual rebirth and mental and emotional clarity.
In recent years, medical anthropologists have taken a closer look at the traditional medicinal practices of Native Americans, how those practices interact with modern medicine in the United States, and how they are perceived and used by Native Americans. One project that has made incredible strides into understanding these differences is called the Navajo Healing Project. “One of the most striking ways in which this complexity is evident is in the large area of Navajo life in which religion and spirituality are intimately entwined with health care and healing. Indeed, healing is the central theme of Navajo religion, while the sacred is the central element in Navajo medicine. Just as Navajos orient themselves geographically within a territory defined by four sacred mountains aligned with the four cardinal points, today they orient themselves medically in a field of vital interaction among four modes of healing: conventional biomedicine, Traditional Navajo healing, Native American Church (NAC) healing, and Navajo Christian faith healing (Csordas, 2000, p.463, para. 1).”
Happiness has always been and will always be the best medicine. While modern physicians focus on the battle for the cure to an illness, native healers feel that it is best for the patient to focus on the positives in one’s life-family, love, spiritual health-all the things that bring pure joy to us all. Native healers realize that joy of life is the best medicine and patients should keep their attention drawn towards the gift of life and not towards the repercussions of particular indulgences. It is true that some things are not truly healthy but focusing inward and listening to our inner spirit and letting it guide us is the best way to stay healthy and happy; maybe that is the reason the Great Spirit gave us twice as many ears as mouths. Listening is the key to wisdom and understanding. If only we could merge the ethical values of Native American healers with the technology and science of modern medicine, we might discover a deeper sense of healing and stronger medicine for all people.
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