Tens of thousands of years before European settlers established a foothold on the North American continent, Native Americans utilized a wide variety of spiritual and natural practices to restore and maintain health. While many indigenous traditions were nearly eradicated by cultural genocide, the old ways are beginning to enjoy a new acceptance.
Native American healing is a catch-all phrase that includes the healing beliefs and techniques of more than 500 indigenous tribes in North America. It's a melting pot of spirituality, religion, herbal treatments and rituals used to alleviate the mental and physical problems of humans. The focus is on healing the person rather than curing a disease. The belief is that this is achieved by bringing one's spirit, or soul, into harmony with nature and the spiritual universe. Essentially, man is part of nature and health depends on balance within that relationship.
The history of Native American faith healing actually pre-dates history, at least to the extent of recorded time. "Native American healing has been practiced in North America for up to 40,000 years," says the American Cancer Society. "It appears to have roots in common with different cultures, such as ancient Ayurvedic and Chinese traditions, but it has also been influenced by the environments in which Native Americans settled, and the nature, plants and animals around them."
Native American faith healing is closely related to shamanism, utilized by ancient civilizations on all continents except Antarctica. Indigenous peoples in North, Central and South America, just like their contemporaries in Africa, Australia and Europe, enveloped themselves in the rituals, trances and visualizations taught to them by their elders, shamans and medicine men.
In her book "Healing and Transformation Through Self-Guided Imagery," Leslie Davenport explains the basics of the healing process. "Shamanistic worldview holds that there's a bridge between the spirit world and the day-to-day-world, created by shamanic practices that shift awareness out of the ordinary thinking mind," writes Davenport. "This change in consciousness is referred to as a trance or journey, and the practice often incorporates dancing, drumming and meditating."
As genocide by the United States and Mexican governments drove tribes to the edge of extinction, many native medicine practices and beliefs were forced underground or lost. Native American healing practices were spread orally and, as the people died out, so did the traditions. Remaining American Indians were forced to assimilate all aspects of white culture, including religion and medicine. In fact, native ceremonies were banned or illegal in many parts of the United States until 1978, when congressional legislators passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
Today, there's something of a resurgence among those interested in indigenous medical practices. Native Americans are keen to regenerate and pass on their lost culture while even non-natives seek to understand the ancient healing beliefs and techniques. Native hospitals and clinics, primarily on reservations, proudly utilize some of the practices and rituals passed down from their elders.
Research by mainstream medical practitioners has produced little statistical data that would deem Native American medicine an option for the prevention or cure of disease. But even skeptics seem to acknowledge that the ancient, spiritual traditions provide benefit in the areas of pain relief and stress, primarily due to the spiritual, calming effects of prayer and meditation.