Who Defines a Culture?

Mike Myers

I’m raising the question, “Who defines a culture,” because both settler governments (U.S. and Canada) have been pretty aggressive in trying to force out definitions of certain aspects of our cultures to their satisfaction, particularly in the areas of traditional health and healing.

The traditional people I work with across the continent have been very adamant in their refusal to commit to establishing definitions or allowing the settlers to impose definitions. Well, it seems the settlers have gotten around this position. For example, the Cass Lake Indian Hospital (IHS) has issued a job announcement for a Traditional Healer.

Now some folks are saying, “It’s only a job description” – but it’s not. It is setting out federal definitions for the requirements and qualifications for the job which include as Minimum Qualifications the following: “Your resume must demonstrate at least one (1) year of specialized experience equivalent to at least the next lower grade level in the Federal service obtained in either the private or public sector performing the following type of work and/or tasks:”

Clearly these are the qualification for someone who is already a federal employee or about to become one. The tasks they then spell out under Basic Requirements include:


• Behavioral or social science; or related disciplines appropriate to the position. OR
• Combination of education and experience that provided the applicant with knowledge of one or more of the behavioral or social sciences equivalent to a major in the field. OR
• Four years of appropriate experience that demonstrated that the applicant has acquired knowledge of one or more of the behavioral or social sciences equivalent to a major in the field.
IN ADDITION TO BASIC REQUIREMENTS: Candidates must have 52 weeks of specialized experience to at least GS-07 level to qualify for the GS-09 grade level.

The vast majority of traditional healers and medicine people I know do not have such degrees. There are a few of the younger ones who have gone to college or university and earned degrees in a variety of fields. But none, I know, have the mandatory “..52 weeks of specialized experience to at least GS-07 level..”

And then we finally get to what the feds want in terms of traditional/cultural healing practices:

Examples of Specialized Experience for GS-09: Experience in traditional Ojibwe and other Native American healing beliefs, traditional behavioral development and cultural practices. Skills in providing Native diagnostic procedures and ritual treatment procedures including: simple Native ceremonies, blessing and sweats.
Experience and skills in traditional counseling methods appropriate to Ojibwe and other Native cultures.

Ability to work with patients and staff of diverse cultural backgrounds in a culturally competent manner.

Understanding of higher level of Native ceremonial systems and of adult educational principles, techniques and methods for patient and staff education. Etc…

Both the I.H.S. and the Veterans Administration will pay for traditional healing services as part of third-party billing but this announcement changes that dynamic. Now the I.H.S. has moved to bring these practices in-house under their control and dictation as to what are acceptable qualifications they require to be considered a traditional healer and traditional healing.

It bothers me that I know that somewhere there are purportedly Indigenous folks collaborating with the I.H.S. to develop this position. Their participation grants a legitimacy to these efforts. Their participation also grants a permission for the defining and categorizing of our sacred ways, practices and beliefs. This settler given legitimacy and permission is further strengthened by the fact that the top five positions in the I.H.S. (Acting Director, Principal Deputy Director, Deputy Director, Chief Medical Officer and Bemidji Area Office Director) that are occupied by folks who descend from Indigenous nations and peoples.

Couple this with the fact that there are colleges now offering courses in Indigenous Traditional Healing ways and practices. I’ve also had a problem from the beginning when I heard about this. Number 1: these are the critical elements of our civilizations and cultures that do not, under any circumstances, belong in Western institutions. Number 2: this is going to produce a whole bunch of non-Indigenous folks running around claiming to be traditional healers and they have the credentials to prove it. Number 3: this then leads to the de-legitimizing of real Indigenous healers and medicine people.

Through the teachings that I’ve had the privilege to learn over the years there is commonality of understanding as to how one becomes a part of traditional healing ways. There are three pathways – you are born with these gifts, you are dreamed into these ways, or you have had to receive a healing and become a part of it for the rest of your life. There is no course you can sign up for and be given a degree in. This is all setting the stage for a major cultural clash one in which as my good friend has observed, “The truth gets trumped by the credentials.”

Before anyone wants to get all Woodstock or Rainbow Nation about this, my position is these are the only legitimate pathways into these sacred societies and ways. For me, there is no debate or discussion about this. One must come through our sacred institutions to be a part of this. We cannot lose control of this and allow non-Indigenous institutions or people to engage in defining, legitimizing or otherwise authorizing the sacred practices of our ways-of-life. Bottom line – this is none of their business!

One of the realms of self-determination is Cultural and is protected in international law such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is also enunciated as a key principle in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This is cultural appropriation at a higher level. It’s actually cultural colonization. After centuries of trying to eradicate us as nations and peoples, and then trying to eradicate us culturally through the boarding/residential schools they now invade us through a job description and take control of defining who and what are traditional healers and our practices.

If you agree this is an invasion then you need to make your voice heard. I’ve listed the top five people in the I.H.S. add to them the Secretary for Health and Human Services and President Obama in voicing your concerns and discontent.

Mike Myers is the founder and CEO of Network for Native Futures, a Native non-profit that works with Indigenous nations, communities and organizations internationally. The network's mission is to support sustainable development and nation re-building through providing of technical assistance, training and consulting.

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hesutu's picture
I guess now we have to stop complaining about all those plastic shamans who charged for sweats, given that we're now advocating that people should be paid a fees in USD to do ceremony.