Exploring Indigenous health traditions, the use of medicinal plants and healing ceremonies | Way of life

The traditions of Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and Native Hawaiians date back thousands of years.

How do they affect their concepts of health and well-being – and how did conditions such as colonialism, forced assimilation, land displacement, and prejudice influence Indigenous health?

“Native Voices,” an online exhibit from the National Library of Medicine, explores these questions, which are as complex as Indigenous cultures themselves.

Through an exhibit, a detailed timeline, and a variety of learning resources, the library tells the story of Indigenous peoples and their health traditions, such as the use of herbal medicines and healing ceremonies.

Disruption and colonization are part of the story. Contact with Europeans brought diseases that ravaged indigenous communities, and as indigenous groups were driven from their traditional lands, their health was affected. Congress has funded Native American health care since the 1920s, but these funds are still insufficient.

A 2018 report by the United States Civil Rights Commission found persistent funding shortfalls and noted “significantly higher” rates of depression, suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction in the Native American community.

Yet the communities remain resilient, and the exhibit documents how they heal in community. Part of the exhibit highlights the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, with clinics on Oahu that combine Western medicine and traditional healing practices that include spiritual healing, family conflict resolution, Hawaiian massage, and herbal medicine .

In interviews, Aboriginal health professionals, community healers and others stress the importance of pride and tradition in healing.

“We all come from somewhere, and looking for those roots can only help and instill a sense of constructive pride, and that translates into holistic health,” says Benjamin Tamura, a Native Hawaiian physician. “I was impressed by the power of cultural health.”

Alvin J. Chase