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Lessons From Native American Culture

“Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity”. – Hippocrates

There are wonderful opportunities to learn from other cultures how to manage our emotional  turmoil and stop the self-blame and the wild goose-chase.  When we look at other cultures through a wide lens, it empowers us with new insights and strategies that have enabled others to remain resilient and satisfied.

Native Americans, for example, have lived in synchrony with the human and natural world. Their experiences help teach how to find strength, peace and emotional wellness.

 “Everything on earth has a purpose every disease an herb to cure it and every person a mission” (anonymous 1845)

Well Being and Collective Harmony

Native Americans have encountered vast and devastating experiential upheavals in the confrontation with Western values and practices. Yet, many have sustainable belief systems and cultural traditions that have been passed down through generations and serve as models that we can consider in order to improve our own well being.

The overarching descriptive word for the American Indian world view is holistic. They view the natural world, the spirit world and human beings as an integrated whole and they cherish  balance and harmony in the collective universe.

American Indians understand the world in its natural order’s rhythms and cycles of life and include animals and plants as well as other natural features in their conceptions of spirituality,

A Native Americans worldview is deep and intense and infused with spiritual meaning. Everything in their culture ties into their belief system and their love for their land and people.  With the collective support of family and community comes the sense of satisfaction and belonging that defines “happiness.”

The Importance of Roles in an Integrated Culture

Having a defined place within a family, a community and a culture enhances a sense of purpose, stability and resilience over time. In AI culture, roles are clearly defined and egalitarian.

Men and women exist in a cooperative partnership, elders are respected for their wisdom, children are raised to honor adults and to be part of the community as well as the family.

Wives share honors and responsibilities of men in prominent statuses.  Bickering between mates is uncommon although the presence of stress in the form of changes imposed by the dominant culture and also alcohol and drugs does upset this usually quiet and satisfactory situation.

Native American women have a significant role in most First Nations social systems.  Specifically, the literature has emphasized the importance of elder Native American women in the transmission of culture and values and as leaders in their clans, tribes, and nations (Barrios & Egan 2002).

Native women’s’ power is manifested in their roles as sacred life givers, teachers, healers, doctors and seers.  In many instances, the health of their communities depends upon them.

There is a special role that deserves attention. The LGBT community exists within the Native American culture and these individuals are referred to as “Two Spirit.” They have a special place, defined roles and traditions that are positive and fulfilling for them and for the community.

In most tribes, Two Spirit individuals are called upon to be caretakers of children, the elderly and the infirm members of the community. They are believed to possess unique healing abilities and an abundance of compassion. The Mohave tribe believes that they can see with the eyes of a woman and a man which endows them with unique powers and strengths.

There are several rituals that serve to engage the Two Spirit individual into the heart of the community;

The Papago ritual is representative of this early integration: If parents noticed that a son was disinterested in boyish play or manly work, they would set up a ceremony to determine which way the boy would be brought up.

They would make an enclosure of brush and place in the center both a man’s bow and a woman’s basket. The boy was told to go inside the circle of brush and to bring something out, and as he entered, the brush would be set on fire. They watched what he took with him as he ran out and if it was the basketry materials they agreed that he was a Two Spirit.

 

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.

References

Re:  Two Spirit

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Lessons From Native American Culture