The other evening I received a distressing phone call. It was one of those calls that stuns: confusing, painful, and shaming; it was also a misunderstanding, a misreading of an action I had taken in good faith. The caller’s response was understandable given what I now know, although their approach to addressing the problem was hurtful. Anyway, I was upset, so talked things over with Jennie, then drummed to look into it. Unfortunately, I could not still my mind enough to have any clarity, so I put down the drum and went to bed. Overnight I had two dreams that seemed to imply a positive outcome, and the issue appears to have been resolved.
This incident set me to thinking. So often people feel threatened or hurt by the things we do in good faith. A great example of this is the recurring tensions between Alternative healers and Indigenous communities. There is an ancient adage in shamanic circles that says, “If it works, use it!” Now that is all good and fine, and makes perfect sense; at the same time, cultural context and ownership really do matter. Good faith, and an openness to acknowledging and correcting the unintended harms we do, help.
The differences between traditional healing and Western Medicine really show up in medical emergencies. If I break my leg, or have a heart attack, I am going straight to the ER. If the situation is dire, I trust Jennie will offer healing, and call others to do the same. Later, after the emergency has been taken care of, I will contact a trusted colleague and request a ceremony.
After that ER visit, many of us are going to want to know whether a spiritual problem was entangled with the physical one, perhaps even causing it. This is outside the scope of practice for most Western trained physicians so we consult another kind of expertise. Sometimes we can look into the matter ourselves, other times we need the aid of another. (Given my Polio determination to do everything myself, I frequently need to be reminded by friends and family that it is OK to ask for aid. I’m way too likely to isolate and try to figure everything out on my own, and I am working on this. Bad habits are so hard to break!)
Those after ER sessions may well involve talk, energy work, and/or ceremony. ER visits are a lot like other life-and-death events, and even if there is no spiritual conundrum involved in the original mishap, there probably will be one by the end. ER visits might lead to soul loss, other traumatic responses, or the acquisition of energy beings. Each of these problems must be addressed and each will likely need a response tailored to it specifically. It’s important the healer look into things and seek to ascertain what might best be done.
I enjoy teaching these post ER tools to Alternative practitioners and other health care providers. The challenge is to do so in a way that respects the needs of the Indigenous communities in which we practice, as well as those who may own the tool. Respect goes a long way. When I teach I will often say who taught me a tool or technique, and whether the skill may be shared with others. I also try to give the tool cultural context and explain the problems created by removing it from context. It is helpful that there are many interventions that have cross cultural equivalents and can readily be adapted to multiple health care contexts in a respectful and caring manner.
As I was saying, there are ways of working and specific ceremonies that are the sole property of Indigenous individuals or communities. These are context specific and removing them from that context, or utilizing them without permission of the owners, is cultural appropriation, that is, theft. It is also Bad Medicine in every sense of the term. One must keep in mind that colonialism has inflicted much harm on Indigenous people by stealing our knowledge, failing to acknowledge the owners of that wisdom, and decontextualizing our traditions and practices. Given the flood of such knowledge that has entered the dominant culture, for both good and ill, traversing this ground is indeed tricky. Respect goes a long way towards ameliorating the hurts and tensions surrounding cultural ownership and appropriation; a good rule of thumb is, “When in doubt, ask an elder.”
Many folks came into this life with the express mission of helping humanity make the transition into a sustainable, spirit filled, future. They come to this task from diverse cultures and points of view; some are Indigenous and others are not; many look to Indigenous cultures and wisdom for guidance in this enormously challenging task. I like to remind myself, and those I teach, that each tradition, Indigenous or not, has much to offer. As we learn from one another it is good to be grateful for the sharing, and respectful of the feelings and traditions of the sharers. Perhaps misunderstanding and conflict are unavoidable, yet our attitude towards the teachings, and one another, can make a huge difference when navigating difficult moments. Practicing compassion, and insisting on just behavior, are ways we can lead by example. They are also, of themselves, healing.