Health Advice



Returning to its roots, Indian Health Service seeks traditional healers

Sydney Akridge, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

He has treated people with physical, mental and spiritual ailments for over 30 years. Today, he estimated about a quarter of the people living on the reservation use traditional spiritual and health practices.

Morales said having a traditional healer at the hospital would help community members better understand their overall health.

"This would connect them spiritually and reunite that link with our past that has been missing from our culture and traditions," Morales said.

She knows firsthand about that missing link. Growing up, Morales knew her great-grandmother Melvina Horn was a well-known Assiniboine plant expert, but Morales' grandparents were afraid that the government would punish their family for learning about cultural and religious traditions or using traditional medicine.

Morales remembers how Horn would pick some peppermint to make tea for her aunt when she was sick with a cold. That was the extent of Morales' medicinal plant knowledge before she attended a National Science Foundation presentation in 2009 in Washington, D.C., on medicinal plants that grow in the Dakotas. Morales found that many of these plants also grew in Montana.

"I was very impressed," she said. "And I wanted to learn more and more and more."

Today Morales uses herbs in teas and creams for many ailments such as colds, allergies, skin irritations and joint pain. She and her husband are drinking tea with elderberries to boost the immune system during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is also testing combinations of plants such as lemon balm, hops, lavender, rosemary and skullcap to help with anxiety and stress.

She teaches students in the college's Native American Studies and Allied Health associate degree programs the lost traditional and cultural ways their people used the plants.


"It helps them to understand their people, how they used it, what they used it for, and gives them a better understanding of who they are," Morales said. "Medicine, plants, it's part of us."

She also lets students take home dried plants. One year, a student brought some home to her grandfather. As soon as the student made him some tea, she told Morales, he started to share stories about plants and his family.

"Having that medicinal tea from plants just woke him up, just brought memories flooding back, and she was really happy. She hadn't seen her grandfather so excited about something," Morales said. "And this was over a cup of tea."

(Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. This story package was produced by students in the Montana Native News Honors Project, a capstone course at the University of Montana School of Journalism. The complete project is available at

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