[Marxism] Natives and Medicine: Traditional and Western

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at earthlink.net
Tue Dec 7 17:44:11 MST 2004


Around 1950 or so, our family stopped at the mission town of Ganado on the
Navajo Reservation where a new hospital had been built.  The administrator,
a physician from far away Phoenix, talked of his frustrations in getting
Dine' clients.  After much diplomacy, he and his small staff had been able
to persuade a number of the always extremely influential Navajo medicine men
to visit and tour the hospital.  Some came and, initially, things seemed --
at least to the Anglo medics -- to go well.  And then one of the medicine
men stepped into a side room.  There he saw human body parts in alcohol.  He
and all his colleagues left the setting immediately.  It took a long time
indeed to even begin to repair that situation.

What happened?  The violation of a major and still universal Navajo taboo:
Chindee, translating into fear of the dead.  All of this is very complex --
far too much for any of the simplistic Tony Hillerman novels. The basic
things:  fear of the dead, avoidance, purification ceremonies.  Some other
tribal nations embrace this concept, under their own linguistic names, but
many do not.  On the other hand, all Indian nations hold to the "good
medicine" / "bad medicine" dichotomy.  Medicine men and related healers
practice good medicine; witches and their allies [runner/messenger "skin
walkers" in the Navajo world]  practice bad medicine.  Among the Navajo,
witches and the skin walkers can and should be killed [as an act of self
defense.]  No legal authorities -- tribal or Federal -- prosecute in these

A Navajo medicine man trains rigorously -- often for as many as seventeen
years.  There are intermediate levels -- hand tremblers, star gazers -- but
the full fledged Dine' practitioner goes much further in specific training
time than his "western" counterpart.

A witch trains rigorously as well -- and for a very long time.

Our own family, heavily Wabanaki and Iroquois and profoundly influenced and
shaped by the Navajo, holds very much to this.  When, in the early summer of
2003, I began to sense an insidious and ugly disease which was increasingly
malevolent and ghostly, some of us immediately thought "witchcraft" -- and
others didn't rush to summarily rule it out.  And now, well over a year
after the [finally] formal diagnosis of a very lethal variant of SLE Lupus,
we can still wonder about witchcraft.  I have never really appreciated
"western" doctors -- avoided them for decades -- but now, in the final
analysis we have arrived at a point where we don't see the Native beliefs
and "science" as antithetical.

About a generation ago, the Indian Health Service [U.S. Department of Public
Health] and the Navajo medicine men agreed to work together in many
instances. [Well before that, a major Anglo IHS skeptic on medicine men and
Indian  beliefs left the Navajo country forever, a shattered and tottering

This collaboration between the Navajo medicine men and western physicians
has worked very well.  And now, as per the attached article from the Navajo
Times, young Navajo are moving into western medicine.  This isn't new in the
Indian world:  for much more than a century, there have been Native M.D.s --
Carlos Montezuma [Yavapai Apache] and Charles Eastman [Sioux] being among
the early trailblazers.  The Iroquois have furnished a number of physicians
as have other tribal nations.

But this is a big step for the Navajo.

Our grandson/son, Thomas -- Wabanaki, Iroquois, Mississippi Choctaw -- is
moving rapidly into medicine with a strong dimension in psychology. [William
James, an M.D. as well as a pioneer psychologist and key American
philosopher, would be proud of him.]  Thomas, who did very well on his MCAT
exam, has been present for virtually everything --  almost countless medical
tests, consultations -- involving me.  The doctors came to respect his
presence and observations very early on.

Navajo med students a growing club

By Levi J. Long
Navajo Times  12/2/04

TUCSON - Nazhone Yazzie is making his way down an unfamiliar path, a road
undertaken by only two other Navajos before him.

As a fourth-year medical student at the University of Arizona, Yazzie is
hoping to become the third Navajo surgeon in the country.

Dr. Lori Arviso-Alvord, the first Navajo woman surgeon, and Dr. Taylor
McKenzie are the only two Navajo surgeons licensed to practice medicine.

Yazzie, 27, hopes to join them soon.

One of eight Navajos enrolled in the University of Arizona School of
Medicine, Yazzie is part of a unique group. The university now boasts one of
the largest enrollments of Navajo students in the school's history and in
the country.

Rosalita M. Whitehair, a second yer medical student at University of Arizona
College of Medicine, adjusts a leg strap for Jesus Escobedo, 5, of Nogales,
Senora, Mexico at the St. Andrews Children's Clinic in Nogales, Ariz., Nov.
5. Whitehair, from Window Rock, donates her time at the clinic. (Special to
the Times - Donovan Quintero)

The other UofA medical students are Orlantha Whitehair, 26, and Charlene
Robinson, 37, both from Page, Ariz.; Rosalita Whitehair, no age given, from
Window Rock; Stephanie David Gauby, 22, from Grand Falls, Ariz.; Del Yazzie,
28, from Shiprock; Naomi J. Young, 24, from Sawmill, Ariz.; and Clarissa
Phan, 28, from Gallup.

They range from first- to fifth-year students. Their medical interests also
vary, with some planning to practice family medicine while others want to
specialize in bioengineering research.

"It's encouraging to see our group getting larger," said Phan, a third-year
student who hopes to practice family medicine or possibly cardiology on the

Many American Indian students grapple with issues of tradition and Western
medicine, Phan said.

"We're always asking ourselves, how do we unite the two?" she said. "But
with us being here, we can start to unite the two together."

The students are combining unique cultural knowledge with medical studies,
said Athena Ganchorre, program coordinator with UofA's Indians into Medicine
Program, or InMed.

Native students in the health field are mentored through InMed, which
provides cultural and academic support, as well as career development
programs and tutoring, Ganchorre said. The U.S. Indian Health Service funds
the nationwide program.

Most of the students she sees come from the reservation and have strong
family roots and community ties. "For a majority (of students) they want to
go back to the reservation to help their people," she said.

But the road getting into medical school and finishing the five-year
program, plus at least another four to six years of hospital residency,
isn't easy.

The hard road

Reservation elementary schools often struggle to prepare students with basic
math and writing skills, and the academic gap with non-reservation schools
may continue into high school.

In 2002, less than 200 American Indians, or 7.14 percent of all minority
students, were in medical school, reports one study on diversity in the
health care work force. The report, "Missing Persons: Minorities in the
Health Professions," was commissioned by the Sullivan Commission earlier
this year.

American Indians are the scarcest ethnic group in the profession, said Alan
Galindo, executive director of the Association of American Indian

But before those numbers can increase, tribes must do a better job of
preparing their children for higher education, Galindo said.

Dr. Lori Arviso-Alvord, now serving as associate dean of multicultural
affairs at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, agreed and said it all goes
back to a good educational "pipeline."

"Every step is important, we have to provide the best education,"
Arviso-Alvord said. "One thing that hurts students is not giving them a
strong foundation at the high school level. As a result they struggle in

"But we can get there," she said. "We just need to get more students
accustomed to believing they can do the work and are able to do the work.
And it's getting easier."

Intensive mentoring

Galindo said the Association of American Indian Physicians has set up
mentoring programs to get more native students into medical schools.

The association hosts nationwide workshops at eight colleges with large
American Indian student populations, including the UofA.

One of the most popular is the pre-admission workshop, in which promising
students receive assistance with every step of the process to get into
medical school.

Over 1,300 college students apply to the workshop annually, of which only
125 are selected, he said. At least 25 of these are Navajo.

"We get Navajos who apply to each workshop. There is a growing interest
(compared with) years past," Galindo said.

UofA's Ganchorre noted that each year the Navajo candidates are stronger.
This year the UofA medical school admitted two Navajos to its first-year
program out of 125 spots open, Ganchorre said.

"We have the largest number of Navajo students enrolled in medical school
and we hope to continue," she said. "But even though it's a large number for
us, it still isn't enough."

Once the students are admitted, InMed continues to work with them, helping
them to graduate and pass the medical board exams.

Students who flunk the medical board exam can still receive a medical
degree, but they cannot practice medicine until they pass the test and are
licensed by the national Board of Medical Examiners.

Nazhone Yazzie does not talk about the risk of failure. He talks instead
about the fascination of his chosen field - surgery - and the feel of
breaking new ground.

"I like the technical aspect of surgery because it's hands-on and
interesting to see," he said. "Surgery ... it's like butchering a sheep. You
take a sheep intestine and cut it in half.

"When you talk to (elders) in those terms, they understand it because
they've seen it done before," he said.

The prospect of being one of only three Navajo surgeons makes him feel like
an adventurer.

"It feels, in a sense, like new territory," he said. "I'm not sure what to
expect because in a way it is a new frontier."

Much remains to decide. When it comes to picking which hospitals to approach
for a residency, or which area of surgery to specialize in, it can be hard,
he said.

But even if he hasn't found those answers yet, Yazzie feels that being one
of the few Navajo surgeons in the country will benefit him and others in the

"Going back home to practice medicine has always been my dream," Yazzie
said. "Now, I just need to make that happen."

HUNTER GRAY  [HUNTER BEAR]   Micmac /St. Francis Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´
and Ohkwari'

In our Gray Hole, the ghosts often dance in the junipers and sage, on the
game trails, in the tributary canyons with the thick red maples, and on the
high windy ridges -- and they dance from within the very essence of our own
inner being. They do this especially when the bright night moon shines down
on the clean white snow that covers the valley and its surroundings.  Then
it is as bright as day -- but in an always soft and mysterious and
remembering way. [Hunter Bear]

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