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Fact Sheet

Native American/Alaska Native Traditional Healing

April 12, 2012

What Is Native American Traditional Healing?

Most Native American tribes have traditions about health and illness. In this fact sheet the term "Native American" is meant to include Native Americans and Alaska Natives. These traditions are not based on western science. Instead, they come from the tribe's beliefs about how individuals fit in the web of life. This web includes the tribe, all humanity, the earth, and the universe. Many healing traditions focus on harmony. Healing occurs when someone is restored to harmony and connected to universal powers.

Traditional healing is "holistic." It does not focus on symptoms or diseases. Instead, it deals with the total individual. Different people with HIV disease may get different treatments. Healing focuses on the person and their environment, not only the illness.

Certain people in each tribe are recognized as healers. They receive special teachings. Healing traditions are passed from one generation to the next through visions, stories, and dreams. People usually receive traditional healing through community or family referrals.

Healing does not follow written guidelines. Healers work differently with each person they help. They use their herbs, ceremony and power in the best way for each individual. Healers may be used for certain conditions. They might refer people to other healers, if appropriate.

Healing might involve sweat lodges, talking circles, drumming, ceremonial smoking of tobacco, potlatch ceremonies, herbalism, animal spirits, or "vision quests," to name a few practices. Each tribe uses its own techniques. They are only steps towards becoming whole, balanced and connected.

Who Would Benefit From Traditional Healing?

Traditional healing can be very powerful for Native Americans dealing with HIV. It can restore a sense of connection to their tribe and culture. This promotes spiritual, psychological, emotional, and physical healing.

Some traditional healers only work with members of their own tribe, while some healers will work with others. Some people who are not Native American believe that working with a traditional healer has helped them.

Many people use the techniques of traditional healing. However, there is a big difference between traditional healing and using traditional techniques. Participating in a sweat lodge might help someone for a particular health problem but not for another. Also, the experience could be very different depending on who runs the sweat lodge.

Traditional ceremonies usually involve much more than outsiders are aware of. When you attend a ceremony, show respect by asking about guidelines for observing or participating.

How Does Traditional Healing Interact With Western Medicine?

Healers have different views about combining their methods with western medicine. Some do not see any value in medical science or treatments. Others believe that the systems deal with different aspects of an individual so there is no problem using both.

Most western physicians do not understand the value or importance of traditional healing to their Native American patients. A few, especially in areas with large Native American populations, are more open to traditional healing.

If you combine western medicine and traditional healing, let your physician know about any treatments you are using. There might be interactions. For example, a traditional healer might use an herbal preparation to help you sleep. In that case, your physician would probably not want you to take sleeping pills. Your healer might want you to use herbs to cleanse your system. These might interact with western medications that you are taking. Your physician might help you avoid negative interactions.

The Bottom Line

Native American traditional healing is a holistic approach to health. Each tribe has its own healing traditions.

Traditional healers do not follow a standard procedure. Instead, they apply their skills to each person individually.

By themselves, techniques such as sweat lodges or vision quests are not "traditional healing." They have the most meaning as part of an overall healing tradition.

It is best if your care providers all know about everything you are doing for your health. There may be interactions among different techniques that you want to avoid. Inform the healers working with you, both western and traditional, what medications, treatments and dietary patterns you follow on a daily basis, whether they are prescribed or not.

For More Information

Contact the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center, Denver, Colorado for more information. Their web site is Their telephone number is (720) 382-2244.

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This article was provided by AIDS InfoNet. Visit AIDS InfoNet's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
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