Health Advice



Returning to its roots, Indian Health Service seeks traditional healers

Sydney Akridge, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

Traditional healers at an IHS hospital or an urban Indian clinic could work with illnesses or problems that affect the community in a way that Western-based clinicians might not, Barnett said. Diseases like diabetes and heart disease, as well as problems like domestic violence, require lifestyle changes, not only a clinical solution, he said.

Because traditional healers were forced to go underground in the past, and the community is protective of traditional health knowledge, it can be difficult to determine the qualifications of traditional healers. They are not certified or licensed positions, like those held by other health workers.

Yet the two IHS traditional healers would need to fill many roles to help with physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of the Fort Belknap community of 7,000 enrolled tribal members. They would educate hospital workers about traditional health practices and cultural sensitivity, connect patients with resources, and use traditional native diagnostic and treatment procedures like ceremonies, blessings and sweats.

"As an advocate and liaison between patients and providers, their work will enhance communication and understanding of the culture and lifeways of the local community," IHS spokesperson Marshall Cohen wrote in an email.

This marks a turnaround from the federal government's history with traditional tribal practices. In 1883, the commissioner of Indian Affairs set up the Courts of Indian Offenses on reservations across the country. The office regularly issued rules prohibiting religious dances, ceremonies and practices of medicine men until 1921 and continued to enforce them through the 1970s.

At Fort Belknap, many medicine people and spiritual leaders were forced underground to avoid punishment, and many families chose not to teach traditional knowledge to their children. Materials used for religious ceremonies were confiscated, and people were taken to jail and sometimes killed if found to be taking part in any of the activities the commissioner's office deemed illegal.


It wasn't until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 that the federal government acknowledged the right of American Indian tribes to practice their religions, speak their languages, visit their sacred sites and use their traditional health practices. But the clampdown took a toll on knowledge passed down for generations by the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes at Fort Belknap.

Previously, around 15 spiritual leaders or medicine men or women would have served simultaneously at Fort Belknap, each with specific knowledge, said Minerva Allen, 86, an Assiniboine elder who learned how to use plants from her grandmother. Today, there are four traditional medicine specialists at Fort Belknap; three are Gros Ventre spiritual leaders and one is Assiniboine.

Still, the Fort Belknap tribes have fought hard to hold on to what remains of that knowledge.

"For over 180 years, they've been trying to blend us in the melting pot of America and make citizens out of us, but we have held on to our own culture, and we have our own identity," said John Allen, 67, the Assiniboine spiritual leader with medicinal knowledge, who is also Minerva Allen's son.


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