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Addressing Critical Concerns of Healthcare Systems Serving American Indians/Alaska Natives

Traditional Medicine


Philmer Bluehouse (Navajo), Director, Safe Schools/Healthy Students, Traditional Health Apprentice and Peacemaker, Secretary, Diné Medicineman Association, Inc., Ft. Defiance, AZ.

Philmer Bluehouse explained how his experience in traditional medicine has led him to believe that both methods used by traditional and Western medicine are complementary. Traditional medicine emphasizes the power of the mind, the body, the spirit, and the natural environment in healing; the objective is to achieve harmony and balance. Western medicine has a more interventionist mentality. These two sides can be seen as a warrior side and a peacemaker side; both are necessary.

Credentialing traditional medicine calls into question how much information is appropriate to share. For example, can the methods be quantified or applied to the standards developed in Western medicine? Can comparative value be established? Mr. Bluehouse noted that healers do not want to share the processes and rituals with Western-oriented researchers, not only because they are sacred, but also because they are very delicate and can be dangerous if used incorrectly. As a possible solution, Mr. Bluehouse suggested that research efforts study surface aspects but not the deeper aspects of the rituals.

To help protect sacred information, some traditional healers are forming their own organizations. For example, Navajo traditional healers have formed a nonprofit research and development group, the Diné Medicineman Association, Incorporated. The association is overseen by a council of 12 men who have been traditional healers for many years; they advise younger practitioners. However, some traditional healers will not participate in the association, stating that its credentialing process is superfluous as they were called to become healers by their communities.

Another way to protect sacred information, according to Mr. Bluehouse, is to "seriously look at the chants and rituals" as healing methods. The chants, prayers, and rituals are similar to the books used by Western medical students. Creation and journey narratives have reference points on how the healing processes work. Narratives can also be used as teaching tools to promote prevention; characters can illustrate behaviors to follow or avoid. Understanding the knowledge behind the methods will lead to greater honor for healers and their journeys to learn traditional methods.

Helping youth to understand and appreciate traditional beliefs is more effective when these are presented positively. Traditional methods are being used in the Safe Schools and Healthy Students Program within the Pinon Unified School District #4 (Pinon, Arizona). Students in long-term school suspensions are referred to Peacemaking, a healing strategy using traditional values to allow them to decide for themselves what they must do to heal. It is hoped that students who discuss issues with their parents and significant relatives will take better control of their lives and form better communication skills. These strategies are to be evaluated in this school system to determine their applicability and success.


Kim C, Kwok YS. Navajo use of native healers. Arch Intern Med 1998;158:2245-9.

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