Lessons From Native American Culture

The Mohave ritual usually carried out when the child is between the ages of nine and 12 allows the child’s nature to manifest itself: A singing circle is prepared, unbeknownst to the boy, involving the whole community as well as distant friends and relatives.

On the day of the ceremony, everyone gathers round and the boy is led into the middle of the circle. If he remains there, the singer, hidden in the crowd, begins to sing the ritual songs and the boy, if he is destined to follow the two-spirit road, starts to dance in the fashion of a woman. After the fourth song the boy is declared to be a two-spirit person and is raised from then on in the appropriate manner.

“Mental Health”

In the domain of emotional health, the Native American’s views are holistic; there is no mind- body-spirit- separation and they value natural interventions to help heal the afflicted person.

The family and community are involved in the healing and group support is primary pathway to health. The role of sense of belonging to interpersonal relationships and the well-being of individuals, family, and community is emphasized through the worldview of the American Indian population.

It is a dynamic phenomenon of social significance.

In the Native American culture and tradition, communication is a multi-level emotional experience. Individuals use gestures to express feelings and thoughts rather than engage in verbal interactions.

There is dynamic use of dance and art to convey messages and history and there is great value placed upon listening rather than talking.

The one-on-one therapeutic model of Western culture is not a trusted tool for the Indian individual who is in emotional distress and he or she turns to family and community and the spiritual healers as well as natural sources of strength when there is emotional pain.

As to locating a “cause” of emotional suffering, the view is that this is external to the individual and not a brain-based phenomenon. The “spirits” may be upset by a disruption of the harmonious balance and restoring stability is the responsibility of all concerned.

In addition, A.I. individuals believe that the distress of mind-body-spirit is often because of the traumas caused by oppression and domination by foreign cultures.

The standards by which the Western culture defines “normal” and “mental health” and the cause of emotional pain are very different and evoke different responses. The shame, stigma and self-blame that are the ultimate consequences of Western tradition are absent within the American Indian culture.

There is, therefore, opportunity for healing instead of searching for a cure and the emotional distress brings the family and community together instead of creating isolation and disengagement.

Cultural Transmission of  Values and Resilience

In American Indian culture, the story of the tribe’s experiences is transmitted over the generation through story-telling and ritual.

This practice provides an historical background for their belief system and a sense of stability and security for community members. Narratives form a fabric of enduring beliefs unlike the “breaking news” that intrudes upon other cultures’ consciousness. They celebrate the culture’s victories and lament their pains in ways that teach lessons and guide younger generations.

Although the fabric is strong and the people are resilient we cannot deny the  traumatic events that impacted Native American lives. After living on the North American continent for 30,000 years as separate heterogeneous nations, Native Americans were confronted with the arrival of European settlers who invaded their ancestral lands through military intrusions, committed mass murder, engaged in massacres of tribal villages, forced persons to be removed from their territories and broke treaties.

When not engaged in warfare, forced attempts were made to acculturate the population to the colonial life and eliminate Indian culture and religion, in part by removal of children to boarding schools and foster homes.

Disease epidemics spread, populations were decimated, and their culture violated. The resulting despondency and melancholy AI/ANs suffered were too often met by alcohol and drug abuse as an escape.

Learning and Reflecting

Recently there have been shifts in the perspective of psychologists that are transformative for Western Culture but not for  Native American. With globalization and research, the mind-body connectivity is growing stronger and a more holistic view is being discussed. The environment is being given credit for influencing human health and well-being and there is an increasing appreciation for the integrative view of life in all of its forms.

The lessons we may take from our Native American communities are simple but elegant.  There are ways to perceive emotional distress that relieves the burden from the shoulders of the ones who suffer. We may begin to consider that many factors play into life experience some of which we have little knowledge.

We may look to those who have the wisdom of life experience for their opinions, their views and most importantly, their support. Embracing and listening to friends and family has proven to be part of the healing process.

We can consider placing value upon spiritual and natural healing processes and incorporate them into an expanded domain of healing ingredients. Perhaps we can practice listening and story-telling, especially with the younger generation that will thrive when they sit and hear about traditions, heroes and the fabric of life that binds us together.

We can learn by teaching that there is life beyond the individual person and we belong to a collective universe that is dynamic and strives for balance and for resilience. Lastly, we may think about what we have been doing and decide that we can transform ourselves and find satisfaction, love and hope in new ways.


Re:  Two Spirit

Kobby Dagan /

Lessons From Native American Culture