Traditional culture is crucial, now and always
No matter how successful economically, no matter whether poor or well-off, no Native people can long ignore its traditional ways. And, where necessary (most everywhere these days), cultural and linguistic recovery are vital activities in the re-strengthening of American Indian nations. Recovery is necessary because the onslaught against tribal lifeways has been extremely forceful.
It is one important thing to do business in America. It is even an important thing to - in a nationwide context - identify with or partake in American policy development. It is quite another thing for Native leaders to negate the inherent value of our own cultures, or to put aside the ever-present requirement of all tribal peoples to sustain their long-term distinctiveness and their multi-generational cohesion.
Tribal sovereignty is founded upon American Indian specific societal distinctiveness. This is the very definition of self-governing tribal nations. Pursuing aggressive economic strategies should not detract from that most important goal. In fact, all financially successful tribes should enhance it, fund it generously and make every effort to identify the future of their nation with it.
The depth of traditional culture in Native communities carries a special value. It merits great attention and discussion. It is a tremendous gift at this time in history, when technologies are fast outpacing human connections to nature and when nature itself is being put under such great stress. The natural world is certainly under serious and destructive subjugation and there is concern about its present and future life-enhancing capacity. Still, the new Indian generation must deal with that reality in a proactive and positive way; not in the negativity of absolutes that can paralyze the need for effective strategies, nor in debilitating conflicts built on egos.
Unity of the people is a most serious goal. Positive self-interest is good for the individual; it is crucial for a family; it is fundamental as well for a nation, particularly for a tribal nation. The traditional cultural bases and values, when seasoned by applied practice are excellent guides - philosophically, psychologically, spiritually - for the building of family, clan and nation. The language should always be recovered and the spiritual culture upheld. Tribes must make that investment, which is the necessary foundation of the next generation of tribal children.
It is within this context that we congratulate the many traditional healers and culture-bearing elders who gathered in Washington, D.C., during the weekend of November 14-17, to manifest the conference, "Indigenous Healing Traditions of the Americas: Paths to a New Medicine." This remarkable event examined the "uniqueness, wealth and complexity of the healing traditions indigenous to the American Continent," and emphasized their potential for delivering culturally sensitive and effective health care.
Sponsored by the Continuum Center for Health and Healing, Beth Israel Medical Center, and by the Association of American Indian Physicians, the Indian Health Service, the National Aboriginal Health Organization (Canada), the Pan-American Health Organization and the World Health Organization, among others, it featured excellent presentations that carefully explained and analyzed serious healing techniques and programs directly from and adapted from American Indian cultures.
Although widely used and adapted, traditional medicines are not easily shared. They depend heavily, some would say almost exclusively, on cultural, often local, contexts, on the use of specific languages and the layering of practical, physical prescription with substantial depth of spiritual value and connectivity. Nevertheless, when respect guides the dialogue, as it did at the recent conference, clear communication can take place.
Among the topics discussed were healing techniques such as Mayan uterine massage, described by healers and midwives from Central and North America. Another, presented by the Aguaruna Amazonian tribe and many others, dealt with green medicines and their usefulness in the treatment of malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases. The Cree talked about their employment of the medicine wheel in working with youth and families, in traditionally-based treatment of diabetes and alcoholism, and HIV/AIDS, as well as healing approaches to mental health issues and substance abuse. An audience of several hundred that included a good number of medical doctors and other primary care providers followed the program for several days.
That such a conference is held at this moment in history is significant. To see such a wide range of professionals and scientists mingling and learning from a counterpart range of culture-bearing elders and healers is quite extraordinary. Most importantly, it is not a unique happenstance. It is part of a trend and pattern that has exploded upon medical science in the past decade and it signals to all Native nations that traditional knowledge is worth treasuring.
Healing, as one speaker emphasized, "is in the practice." So is culture. Practice clarifies and, over time through the generations, only practice of one's cultural values and traditions, even in the midst of great change and adaptation, will sustain our peoples.