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Indigenous Healing and the Power of Relatedness

When Lakota people use the words “Mitakuye Oyasin,” they are saying “All my relations,” which sounds like a simple phrase, but has deep and far-ranging implications in an understanding of what it is to be human, how we fit into the Universe, and how we heal.

Similarly, when practitioners of the traditional Mesoamerican healing system called Curanderismo utter the Nahuatl word “Ometeotl,” they refer to the dual energies of the physical world as well as the unity that came before and underlies this duality. Both of the above utterances reveal a great deal about how relatedness guides notions of wellness and healing in the indigenous world. Similar words and concepts exist among other Native Peoples of the Plains and Mesoamerica, but I will use these two terms because they are most often utilized in cross-cultural discussions.

In this essay, I’ll explore how the theme of relationship is at the core of the healing technologies found in indigenous healing systems in North America and Mesoamerica, largely through my own personal experiences with their traditional healers. I will describe them from an indigenous perspective, and in performing a phenomenological exploration, I will not discuss the existence or non-existence of entities such as spirits or the Creator, or how human beings can be “connected” in a literal sense to all the phenomena of the universe. I will, however, discuss how these notions relate to indigenous understandings of the healing process.


Both Ometeotl and Mitakuye Oyasin (and its correlates in other Plains Native American languages) are rooted in their respective cultural systems, and reveal a great deal about their underlying spiritualities. Both Ometeotl and Mitakuye Oyasin are tied to notions of a mysterious Ultimate Reality, which is at once beyond rational understanding while it serves as a great unifying principle for human beings to define themselves by their relatedness to the myriad beings of the universe.

In a sense, we can say that the unity of the universe is Ometeotl in Mesoamerican thought. Accordingly, Alan Sandstrom and Pamela Effrein Sandstrom explain that, “Divinity is expressed in the workings of the universe as a whole, including the sun, the earth, water, growing crops, and human beings… The universe… is deified, and the spirits… are nothing more than temporary manifestations of a great unity. The nature of the unity is such that everything is related, and what appears to be separate and even opposite is actually the same thing… The earth, for example, is not a unitary spirit that makes crops grow; rather it is an aspect of a deified universe that is connected to everything else and that contains within it all of the complexity and contradictions of the universe at large.”

Clearly we as human beings have a relationship with Ometeotl, and while we cannot capture its essence in words, we can experience it and align ourselves with it. As Grace Sesma says, “Within the navel of the Earth, the center of the Universe, the four directions, we pray, grounded lovingly on our holy Mother Earth in order to transcend the seductiveness of polarities. We acknowledge Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, the Lord and Lady of Duality, the earthly manifestations of divine male and female energy; of stillness and movement, hot and cold, night and day, heaven and earth, that we may enter into oneness with Ometeotl.”

Similar notions exist in the Plains Indian understanding of the universe and our place in it. As the Lakota author Vine Deloria, Jr. said, “A living universe within which events and actions have moral content necessarily suggests that all things are related. Not only is everything related, but it also participates in the moral content of events, so responsibility for maintaining the harmony of life falls equally on all creatures.” Going further in detailing our connection to other creatures, Deloria says, “American Indians, understanding that the universe consisted of living entities, were interested in learning how other forms of life behaved, for they saw that every entity had a personality and could exercise a measure of free will and choice. Consequently, Indian people carefully observed phenomena in order to determine what relationships existed between and among the various “peoples” of the world. Their understanding of relationships provided the Indian with the knowledge necessary to live comfortably in the physical world, and to not unduly intrude into the lives of other creatures.”

In various Lakota ceremonies, a prayer may end with the utterance of “Mitakuye Oyasin” similar to the way in which the word “Amen” finishes a Christian prayer. It is also used to acknowledge the utterance of another person in the ceremony. When we say “All my relations,” it’s a remembrance of our sacred connection to all that is. That connection or relatedness is also at the heart of indigenous notions of wellness. Therefore, I am well when I am connected; I am ill or out of balance when I am disconnected.

When we use the word “relation” or “related” in the Western world, we refer largely to the connection I have with my immediate blood family, and our notions of relation generally end there. In the indigenous world, my relations include a much wider “family” that considers my connection to: all human beings from my immediate family to my community, my tribe or nation, my region and ultimately the chain that connects me to everyone in the human race. My relations also include the animal world of mammals (the “four-legged people”), the animal world of birds (the “winged people”), the animal world of snakes and insects (the “crawling people”), the world of plants (“plant people”), the mineral world (“stone people”); the earth itself and finally, the heavens. Mitakuye Oyasin and Ometeotl remind me of my connection to all of these relatives. My web of relations extends from where I am right now to all that is, and my wellness depends on that web remaining undamaged.

So how, exactly, do I damage my relations in a way that brings on illness? Most often, it begins with an injury in my connection to those persons closest to me; an unresolved conflict with my spouse, my child, or my neighbor for example. To look at this from a purely psychological perspective, we can say that I am likely to become ill when my negative emotions are stored and blocked. What begins as what we would call in the modern world an “emotional” problem, then turns into a “physical” or “mental” illness.” In the indigenous world, where all aspects of a person are said to be interrelated, however, these designations have little importance.

I can also fall out of relation and prey to illness for spiritual reasons: when I am isolated from the world of Nature (for example through too much city living), or from the Creator (when I act as if I am the center of the Universe). Likewise I can fall ill due to my failure to honor my ancestors or even the spirits of the land I inhabit.


Next, we will examine how this system of belief informs indigenous methods of healing. Specifically, we will look at how relatedness is at the core of one on one healing as well as group ceremonial healing.

One on One Healing

In one on one healing or “doctoring ceremonies,” a patient or client meets with a healer. There are generally two parts: the heart to heart talk, and a ceremony designed to address the presenting problem and/or an herbal prescription. This can literally be one on one, meaning that the healing work takes place with only two people present, or it can include others. In some cases, an entire family is in the room with the healer and patient, so the patient has the support of many human relatives, as well as the support of non-physical entities.

Step one is the heart to heart talk, known as a “Platica” in curanderismo (not named as such, but similarly utilized in Native Plains healing). This involves looking into the background of the patient and the personal history leading up to the health issue. In this step, healer and patient sit opposite one another in close proximity to deeply discuss the nature of the problem. This is not merely a review of the health issue, but an uncovering of hidden emotional issues often at the heart of the presenting problem. The healer asks a series of questions designed to reveal problems in relatedness: Whether to oneself, the immediate family, wider community or the extended web of relations that includes earth (and all the beings on it) and sky.

The heart to heart talk is all about digging deeper. It may begin with the health concern, but eventually works through layers of emotional issues to reveal much deeper connections in how one aspect of life is related to others.

Frequently it brings up mistaken notions that may hold the person back in life. In common modern terminology, this is a form of narrative medicine. Through the telling of one’s personal story, the team of healer and patient often uncover erroneous personal beliefs of limitations that can become self-fulfilling prophecies of failure and sickness.

So why does this method of talking work in healing? In the mainstream western world, physical concerns take a person to a medical doctor, mental concerns take a person to a psychologist or psychotherapist, and spiritual concerns take him or her to a clergy member. In the indigenous world, all concerns belong to the realm of body-mind-spirit-emotions because all aspects of life are interrelated. The physical body doesn’t “exist” as an independent entity; nor does the mind, nor the spirit, nor the emotions. Therefore, a problem in one system creates a problem in one or more of the other systems. The job of the healer, then, becomes to restore balance to the entire mind-body-spirit-emotions complex. While there are specialists, a single healer addresses all levels of this mind-body-spirit-emotions complex.

Step two is the healing ceremony. This part can take the form of energetic healing, physical manipulation or herbal medicine.

Energetic techniques

Energetic techniques largely take the form of ceremonializing the concerns outlined in the heart to heart talk. This part generally begins with a purification of the patient utilizing sage, cedar or sweetgrass in Native North American healing, or copal (resin of a tree) smoke in Mesoamerican Curanderismo.

Once the patient has been ritually cleansed, the various healing techniques are employed along with prayer. Some of these energetic techniques include:

  1. Use of feathers. In Plains Indian healing and for some Mesoamerican healers, certain feathers are believed to contain sacred healing properties. Birds of prey feathers, particularly those of eagles and hawks are believed to be particularly powerful. Because they fly highest in the sky, they are said to contain some of the power of the Creator. Holding either one feather or a fan of feathers, the healer invokes heartfelt prayers for resolution and healing on behalf of the patient, while fanning him or her either with or without smoke of the herbs mentioned above.

  2. Transfer of energy. Some healers utilize hands-on healing that is similar to the “laying on of hands,” where the healer intentionally sends thoughts and intentions of healing into the body of the patient, while gently touching the afflicted area or holding hands just above the physical body.

  3. Coal doctoring. This is where the medicine person builds a ceremonial fire, and takes a live coal from the fire and holds it in his or her mouth or between teeth and blows the hot air onto the patient. My “adopted” Comanche grandfather, Oliver Pahdopony utilized this form of doctoring. He explained to me that once he put the hot coal in his mouth, his patient’s flesh became like wet cement; he could move it around to shape it the way he wanted. Then, like cement, it would “dry” and hold the form that he intended; that of being healed and whole.

  4. Extraction. A ceremonial means of “extracting,” often through sucking either directly onto the skin or utilizing a tube of some sort to get rid of energetic intrusions. In some cases the intrusion is said to be purely energetic, and therefore invisible. In other cases, actual objects are said to be removed such as insects, blood, or even nails.

  5. Limpia. In Mesoamerican Curanderismo, this step often utilizes herbs or an egg swept over the body to absorb energetic stagnation or blockages. This step is highly ritualized, and is based on the idea that the egg is a perfect cell, and can absorb negative energy like a sponge.

  6. In the case of a type of trauma known as susto (sometimes translated as “magical fright”) a more intense ceremony called a Soul Retrieval may be employed. This involves an internal journey undertaken by healer together with patient to find “soul parts” that may have splintered off due to intense trauma. The rationale is that when a person is exposed to trauma, a part of the self leaves and seeks a safe space. While this is a survival mechanism that helps in the short term, if unresolved it leads to greater problems later in life. A Soul Retrieval is to visit these disembodied parts in an effort to coax them back into the body through negotiation and ceremony. In the end, that person’s vital energy (known as “tonalli” in the Nahuatl language) is returned, so the patient can return to normal life.

A healing story that incorporates Platica, Limpia and Soul Retrieval to treat a toxic case of envy is found in Elena Avila’s book, Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health: “After giving him several platicas and limpias to identify his lost soul parts, we did our first soul retrieval. I put Polito into a trance and told him that I was going to send him on a shamanic journey to find a lost part of his soul. I drummed for quite a while and, when I felt his journey coming naturally to an end, I helped him come back out of his trance state. Then I asked him gently, ‘Polito, what did you see? Did you find your soul?’

“He started to weep, telling me, ‘I saw a child, a very small child who was reaching out toward me with his little arms… But he had no head because everybody else always does his thinking for him. This child had blood dripping from his arms, legs and chest. He said, ‘I have been wounded so many times.’ Right before you stopped the drumming, I saw a lightning rod that said, ‘Wake up!’

“During the next soul retrieval, Polito saw himself as a little boy again. His head and shoulders were bent and he was looking down at the ground. He was hiding outside because his mom and dad were inside the house getting drunk and would not listen to him. He felt so unwanted.

“Afterward, while we were talking, Polito told me that he used to go outside and hide for hours. He had always been envious of his brother Juan because he was his mom’s favorite child. Many feelings began to surface, and he told me that he wondered what his life would be like if his father had not died. He started to cry and said, ‘I wish my father was still with me.’

Polito did overcome a good part of his envy of families and closeness by going back to his cultural roots. He began to attend some of the Pueblo Indian fiestas and dances, which gave him a greater sense of cultural identity and a sense of belonging somewhere. His depression began to lift. He had never known his grandparents, because they had died when he was very small, but he was comforted when I told him, ‘The earth that we walk on is the ashes of our grandparents.’”

A theoretical healing story from Native North America is described by Ken Cohen in Honoring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing: “…let’s imagine that a patient named “Tom” goes to a Native healer because his doctor has diagnosed a benign liver tumor. The first stage of treatment is a counseling session. During this session, the healer first smudges himself, his healing tools, the patient, and the space with sage smoke. He offers a prayer or an invocation and invites Tom to pray out loud and in his own way. The healer then talks with Tom to understand him as a person, not just a disease: he may ask questions about his family and work and how he feels about his own problem, including any information about it he may have received in dreams. Tom may describe his difficult childhood relationship with his father, who never understood or appreciated him, and who, even years after his death, Tom describes as ‘a thorn in my side.’

“If a patient’s illness is rooted in the emotions, a counseling session may provide all the therapy that he needs. As the patient releases bound-up emotions and makes healthy behavioral changes based on the healer’s recommendations, the physical problem disappears. Tom, however, requires additional therapy. As they continue to talk, the healer begins to see with his spiritual eyes that there is indeed a ‘thorn’ in Tom’s side. It is an intrusive and toxic energy actually shaped like a thorn. It must be released emotionally and physically if Tom is to heal. The healer encourages Tom to talk more about his feelings, and slowly, the emotional knots start to loosen. Now the healer will practice ‘hand doctoring,’ a Native American form of massage. Placing his palms a few inches above Tom’s body, the healer moves his hands slowly, with great sensitivity, along the contours of the subtle energy field that surrounds Tom, sensing physical and psychic aberrations. He projects energy into depleted areas, brushes away pain, and pulls out invisible toxic threads from the tumor. The healer picks up his drum and begins to sing a healing song, while imagining that a badger is burrowing into Tom’s liver to dig out the toxic ‘thorn’ and the tumor itself. He adds more sage to the smudge, as an offering of respect and to feed the badger spirit power with the smoke. When the session is over, the healer gives Tom a mixture of sassafras root, dandelion leaves, and other healing herbs. ‘Drink this herbal tea every day for the next seven days. Don’t forget to doctor up the tea with prayer and good thoughts before you drink it.’

“Two weeks later, Tom’s physician tells him that the tumor is gone. Tom arranges a Giveaway and a feast to thank the healer and the many friends and family members who had been praying for him.”

Physical Manipulation

The physical manipulation utilized is a hands-on series of techniques that seek to restore proper functioning of the physical body through bone-setting techniques somewhat akin to chiropractic, or massage. Often the patient experiences emotional releases during these sessions, and may even re-live past traumas believed to be embedded in physical tissue.

Another technique employed is Cupping (found similarly in Traditional Chinese Medicine). In Curanderismo, Fire Cupping is often employed for a variety of back problems and pain in various parts of the body. A glass cup is held in one hand by the healer, and a flaming cotton ball soaked in alcohol is held by forceps in the other hand. The flame is placed into the open end of the glass cup, then the cup is quickly placed onto the skin at the afflicted spot to create suction, drawing blood to the surface. Kiowa people in Oklahoma are known to do something similar, utilizing a buffalo horn. My “adopted” aunt, Ella Fay Horse did this form of “wet cupping.” She would very gently cut a thin slit in the skin at the afflicted area with a broken glass bottle, and then place a buffalo horn over it. She would then suck on the open end of the horn, and place a wad of chewing gum over it to seal it and begin the suction. As she explained to me, the blood that was drawn into the horn would congeal like jelly, thus removing the source of the problem.


This involves the healer prescribing various plants either used alone or multiple herbs in a combination to affect healing of a variety of ailments. While this may seem like a different type of healing than those discussed above, with little connection to the notion of relatedness, such is not the case. An indigenous herbologist enters into a special relationship with medicinal plants. Not exclusively, but more often a woman, she “communicates” with the spirits of the plants in order to understand them and come to know them. This is much more than a mechanical knowledge of the physical properties of plants; it is a personal knowing, in which the plant can confer knowledge onto the healer. The herbal healer develops a unique relationship with the individual medicinal plants, each having its own unique “personality.”

Herbal healers from throughout the Americas had very sophisticated understandings of how to cure a surprisingly wide diversity of ailments at the time of European contact. For more information on what herbs cure what illnesses, see Infusions of Healing: A Treasury of Mexican-American Herbal Recipes by Joie Davidow and American Indian Medicine by Virgil J. Vogel.


Group healing experiences include a variety of therapeutic and ceremonial activities. There are many, but I will discuss the two that are probably most common:

Talking Circles

This involves a circle of participants who pass around a ceremonial item like a decorated stick called a talking stick or an eagle feather. Only the person holding the item has the authority to speak, and may choose to speak for as long or as short a time as he or she desires. This is a chance to unburden oneself of daily concerns. All in the group are bound by a notion of confidentiality, agreeing not to speak outside of circle about anything revealed in circle. In Curanderismo, this is called a group platica. In some ways, these talking circles are similar to group therapy in Western Psychology, except they have a deeper spiritual component. Participants frequently speak in a way that asks for help from the Creator or other spiritual entities.

In A Gathering of Wisdoms, Tribal Mental Health: A Cultural Perspective, tribal leaders describe how the talking circle fits into wider Native American life, “There are two intertwined themes in Talking Circles which are essential in Indian culture. First, respect for the individual is evident in that each person is given an equal chance to bring forth their concerns and each is listened to with respect. The second theme is that each individual is a vital part of a greater community. The whole weight of the talking circle affirms the inherent value of each individual to the group as a whole. There is no pressure to agree or reach a consensus: the important thing is that each person be heard by their community and that no voice be lost.”

The Sacred Sweat

In principle, the Native North American Sweat Lodge is quite similar to the Mesoamerican equivalent called the temazcal, but in practice they are quite different. Both involve using heat and vapor for the healing session, inside a heated structure made specifically for that purpose. In significant ways, though they are also distinct from one another.

The Native North American Sweat Lodge

For this ceremony, an igloo-shaped structure is constructed out of fresh cut saplings partially buried in the ground, and bent over and tied together to make a frame. It is then covered with tarps or blankets or a combination of the two, with a door flap to allow for entry and exit. A small pit is dug into the center to receive the hot rocks that are the source of the heat. Several feet from the structure, an altar is often made of dirt in a small mound. Several feet from that, a fire is built to heat the rocks until they are red hot.

During the ceremony, the rocks are carried into the Sweat Lodge cradled on a pitchfork, while participants are seated inside in a circle surrounding the central pit. In some cases all the rocks are placed at once, while in others, one-fourth of the total number of rocks are placed in the pit at the start of each of the four “rounds,” or sessions. Usually one person is the ceremonial leader. In humility, that person is sometimes called the “water-pourer.” (The humility lies in that person not having status above the others; he or she is said to simply pour the water). When the water hits the rocks, billows of steam are released, and the temperature inside the lodge quickly rises.

The ceremony varies from tribe to tribe and even from leader to leader within a tribe. Generally, it includes prayers, songs, and ritualized discussion. A particular sweat session may be for a particular purpose, such as praying for the healing of a community member or even more mundane purposes such as expressing appreciation of one person toward another, or a birthday or wedding. There are group prayers and individual prayers. When a person prays individually, he or she usually starts with prayers in support of the stated purpose of the sweat ceremony. Following that are prayers for others in the community. Often prayers are for support of soldiers fighting overseas, those in hospitals, nursing homes, the homeless, etc. Usually one prays for oneself last, after all others have been mentioned. In all cases, the ceremony is about re-establishing and reinforcing the connection between each participant and all of his or her relations.

The Temazcal

“Temazcal” comes from the Nahuatl word “temazcalli,” which means house of vapor. Usually it is a permanent structure made of adobe, stone or brick. Rocks are either heated outside like in the Native North American Sweat Lodge and brought in red-hot, or they are heated while inside the structure, in which case the smoke and fumes are vented out prior to the group entering.

The temazcal is perhaps the best example of reinforcing the sense of group relatedness, because it often begins with a ceremony outside the lodge to call in the four directions. During this ceremony, participants stand in a large circle, and the group faces each of the directions, calling in the energy and the guardian of each direction, one at a time. Next the spirit of the sky (including the Creator) is called in and invited, followed by Mother Earth, and finally the Corazon or heart as center. Next, each participant is smudged with sacred copal smoke, in preparation for entering the temazcal.

Once all have entered the temazcal, the formal ceremony begins. Unlike the sweat lodge, formal attention in the ceremony begins with each participant seeking his or her own healing. This is similar to the notion that when on an airplane, people are told in the event of an emergency to put the oxygen mask on oneself prior to putting one on a chlld. Later during the ceremony, attention may be given to sending healing energy out to others outside of the circle of the temazcal.

During the ceremony, there is also often a time for the release of toxic emotions through breathing, yelling or crying. The temazcal is sometimes described as the original “hospital” of ancient Mesoamerica because it re-establishes balance and can either prevent disease before it occurs, or treat almost any illness.

There is tremendous flexibility in the structure and content of temazcal ceremonies. I have been in temazcal ceremonies that included such diverse elements as: Holding afflicted body parts over heated rocks, applying mud or cacao to each participant’s body, serving herbal/medicinal tea, inviting spirits of deceased relatives, calling upon various spiritual energies to aid in healing, drumming to bring back lost soul parts for a patient suffering from severe trauma, and washing the feet of each participant. This is to say that there is no one single way to conduct a temazcal ceremony.


Another category of ceremony, which is sometimes undertaken alone and sometimes in a group of people has to do with restoring balance in one’s relationships through the power of nature. It can have an immediate healing effect on a patient who undergoes it, or it can be a ceremony that a person undergoes in order to find the power to heal others. Sometimes it has both aspects.

The Plains Vision Quest

The vision quest is a solo vigil in the state of nature. It is a time of personal sacrifice during which one deprives oneself of food, water, companionship and any material comforts. For Plains Indians, this was undertaken since early times for many purposes, one of which was to be healed of an illness, while another was to receive the power and guidance necessary to become a medicine man or woman within the community. In the case of my “adopted” Comanche grandfather Oliver Pahdopony (mentioned earlier), he was healed of terminal cancer through a vision quest that he underwent while in his 70’s. The same power that entered him and cured him of his cancer became the power that he used in healing patients in his vocation as medicine man that he held until his death.

In her book Prayer on Top of the Earth: The Spiritual Universe of the Plains Apache, author Kay Parker Schweinfurth describes the Plains Apache formula for converting the spiritual power gained in a vision quest into healing power. She writes, “To undergo a vision quest, the supplicant traveled to a sacred place in the mountains or on the prairie and devoted himself or herself to a period of no sleep, fasting, and prayers to induce a vision… When the spirit power finally appeared and communicated with the supplicant, it offered its protection, granted the power to cure, and taught its songs and rituals… During the vision quest, the spirit instructed the visionary about healing paraphernalia and how to assemble a fetish as a visible token of the spirit powers. If the spirit was a bear, some part or parts of the bear would be included in the fetish; if a snake, a part of the snake would be essential. The visionary then gathered various items of animal and bird body parts, plants, seeds, rocks and other required items and placed them in a skin pouch. That individual was then recognized as the owner of a medicine bag with special curing powers.”


In traditional Mesoamerican ceremonial ways, a similar belief exists that the spirit of nature can cure or be the source of healing power, but solo quests are rarer and much less formal. Two of my Mexican teachers of Curanderismo told me that they spent time in nature all alone in prayer and ceremony in order to increase their healing powers.

More common, however, is group pilgrimage to places of known power. A group of people goes to a place believed to be especially sacred such as a mountaintop, ocean, river or cave. Prayers and invocations are made along with offerings such as candles, chocolate, flowers, beans, seeds, and mescal or other alcohol.

The story of my Mixe friend Catalina Jimenez Ramos is a perfect example. (The Mixe are an indigenous group living high in the mountains of the Mexican state of Oaxaca).

In a recent conversation with Cata, she explained the power of pilgrimage to heal. Cata was born with markings on her arm that indicated, according to her elders, that she was destined to be a healer. As a young adult when she could have been training to be a healer, Cata showed no interest in Curanderismo. In early adulthood, she became deathly ill. Her parents, with great difficulty, put together enough money to bring her to the nearest hospital, a long distance from their mountain village. Doctors could find nothing wrong with her, and sent her home. Her condition worsened, and she thought she would die. An elder suggested a traditional Mixe pilgrimage to a sacred mountain named Cempoaltepec.

The pilgrimage, which she undertook with other family members contained multiple parts: First, an altar was constructed in her home with candles, flowers and other elements. A chicken was sacrificed over the altar. Next, food offerings were laboriously prepared that would be left at various sacred spots along the journey. An arduous full-day trek took her to the top of the mountain, where more prayers and offerings were made including the sacrifice of a live turkey that they had carried up the mountain.

Once back home that night, a ceremonial meal was prepared with parts of the turkey, which had been sacrificed earlier. The next day, a final ceremony was performed in the family cemetery, connecting her to her ancestors.

Cata made a full recovery, and soon after began her training to be a healer. Today, she is a prominent curandera in her community as well as a partera or midwife.


So in a modern world of advanced science-based medicine, why does indigenous medicine endure? The simple answer is that it works. People are healed, even when they are not cured, though both may happen together. Being cured means that the patient no longer has the illness. Healing means to regain wholeness, in all that it means. To be made whole means to have balance restored to one’s life.

A great deal of the reason for the persistence of traditional indigenous healing is that it fits into the wider culture in which it is found. Even when marginalized in wider modern communities, Native people turn to traditional healing because it provides and restores a sense of purpose and belonging to its people. Illness narratives in which patients see their afflictions as an opportunity for personal growth and belonging lead to a healing experience that has deep and lasting personal meaning.

Indigenous forms of healing demand that the patient look for the source of healing within and without. Both require forms of assistance that are greater than the patient as a lone entity. This power of transformation and renewal ultimately derives from “all my relations.”


  1. Sandstrom, Alan and Effrein Sandstrom, Pamela. Traditional Papermaking and Paper Cult Figures of Mexico. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986. Pp. 275-77.

  2. Alvarez Sesma, Grace. “Entering the Flower World” in Meditations for InterSpiritual Wisdom: Practices Drawn from the World’s Spiritual Traditions, edited by Netanel Miles-Yepez. Santa Barbara, CA: Spiritual Path Publishing, 2011. P. 73.

  3. Deloria, Vine, Jr. Spirit and Reason: The Vine Deloria Jr. Reader. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1999. Pp 52-53.

  4. Vogel, Virgil J. American Indian Medicine. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

  5. Davidow, Joie. Infusions of Healing: A Treasury of Mexican-American Herbal Recipes. New York, NY: Simon and Shuster, Inc., 1999.

  6. Avila, Elena. Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health. New York, NY: Penguin Books 1999. Pp. 25-252.

  7. Swinomish Tribal Community. A Gathering of Wisdoms, Tribal Mental Health: A Cultural Perspective. LaConner, Washington: Swinomish Tribal Community, 2002, 2002. P. 275.

  8. Cohen, Kenneth. Honoring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2006. Pp. 148-149.

  9. Schweinfurth, Kay Parker. Prayer on Top of the Earth: The Spiritual Universe of the Plains Apaches. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2002. P. 131.

Robert Vetter received an M.A. in anthropology from the University of Oklahoma. His life work concerns the intersection of spirituality and healing in diverse indigenous cultures. His original fieldwork focused on Native North American medicine, especially that of the Southern Plains. Along with his adopted uncle, medicine man Richard Tartsah Sr., he authored the book Big Bow: The Spiritual Life and Teachings of a Kiowa Family. He has studied the traditional Mesoamerican healing system called Curanderismo with teachers both in the United States and in Mexico, and maintains a healing practice as well as a community temazcal in New York.


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