Rosicrucian Writings Online

The American Indian
Medicine Man
By John Palo, B.S., D.C., F.R.C.
(Reprinted from Chiropractic Psychotherapy, Winter 1958)
[Reprinted in The Rosicrucian Digest, August 1960]
IN THE death ward of a city hospital an Indian boy, named Don, was dying. For a month he had lain in this ward. Then ... late one night he began to feel the cold, numbing rigor of death creeping up his legs ... when suddenly he saw standing by his bed a tall kachina dressed in dancing kirtle and sash, and carrying a blue feather in his left hand. Before his illness, Don had been unsuccessfully trying to learn the ways of the white man. He had not been fully initiated into the ways of his own people, so he was quite apprehensive as the kachina spoke. "I am your Guardian Spirit, Dumalaitakal. I have been guarding you all of your life, but you have been careless. I will wait here and watch over your body, but I shall also protect you on your journey."
Don felt himself lifted like a feather and swept over the mountains by a gust of wind, "like flying." Well, here was a flat mesa! Here were the old water holes on the ledge at the pueblo! Don walked into his home ... his mother was combing his father's hair ... they didn't see him ... he walked out ... there were the sacred places, all the kachinas, all the places of legend. Then the great realization came to Don that he had decisions to make and trials yet to endure ... it was done.
"Now, my nephew, you have learned your lesson," the kachina said. "You have a long time to live yet. Go back to the hospital and to your bed. You will see an ugly person lying there; but don't be afraid. Put your arms around his neck and warm yourself, and you'll soon come to life. But hurry, before the people put your body in a coffin and nail down the lid."
Don obeyed and soon he became warm. Nurses at the hospital were about the bed. One of them holding his hand uttered, "The pulse beats."
The head nurse said, "Sonny, you passed away last night, but you did not cool off quite like a dead person, so we did not bury you. Now we will get the credit for saving your life."
Next day his Guardian Spirit appeared again.
"Someday, my boy, you will be an important man in the ceremonies. But if you don't obey me I shall punish you again, but for only four trials--then let you die. I shall hold you lightly, as between two fingers, and if you disobey me I will drop you. Goodbye and good luck."
He took one step and disappeared. Don saw a soft eagle feather rise up from the floor, float through the door and vanish.
All his life Don remembered Dumalaitakal's admonition. He returned to the pueblo and took up the frugal life of his people. He was initiated into the secret societies, learned the rituals, and in time was made an Indian Medicine Man.
This is one instance of how an Indian became a modern medicine man. It was not always done in this fashion. Frequently, however, there was a vision or psychic experience around the age of 12 or 13, and the boy then knew his destiny.
*  *  *
The Medicine Man's contact with his fellow tribesmen was close and frequent. He was known and watched from infancy. His advice, his visions, etc., had to be successful most of the time or he would lose the respect of the tribe. He could not very well pick up his shingle and open up an office in another town. Thus, he had to be good ... You may recall how Jesus was ridiculed in his home town. His neighbors dared him to demonstrate his powers ... This is not exactly the best environment for good and noble works.
The instances of rejection of genius by friends, relatives, home towns, and native countries are numerous. Yet, in the instance of the Indian Medicine Man, serving under the most trying of conditions, we find tribal acceptance.
*  *  *
Just who was the American Indian Medicine Man and what services did he perform?
The title is deceiving. It seems that the Indian had associated the word medicine with any mysterious force. As the tribal holy man was the one called upon to deal with the mysterious, he was dubbed "Medicine Man." Life's mysteries, however, extend beyond medication. We must, therefore, consider his title in its broadest possible sense. He was the tribe's minister, philosopher, singer, ritualist, artist, physician, prophet, seer, et cetera. Primarily, however, he was a holy man.
In the field of physical therapeutics, he made extensive and notable contributions. Sweat baths, sun bathing, spinal manipulation, and counterirritation (zone and reflex therapy) have been reported to be used by him. He also set broken bones, performed blood-letting, pulled teeth, and bandaged wounds. He prescribed diets as well as fasts.
His herbal, animal, and mineral remedies have been a constant source from which modern pharmaceutic and nutrition experts are even now still drawing. He discovered such items as castor oil, cascara, numerous diuretics, emetics to induce vomiting, anaesthetics to kill pain, as well as sedative and hypnotic herbs. He discovered quinine bark for the control of malaria and used willow bark, containing the ingredients of aspirin, for the symptomatic relief of rheumatism and arthritis.
Traditionally, some Indians believed that within the area where the disease occurred, a plant or herb for its treatment was also to be found. The Indian accumulated numerous herb remedies, many of which we are not yet aware, through such research. Some Indians, however, did venture out for remedies. The Incas of Peru, for example, would send runners to the seashore for fresh fish to cure goiters due to lack of iodine.
In Yucatán and Central America two thousand years before Columbus, Indians filled dental cavities, fitted false teeth, and applied artificial limbs. Their skill with surgical instruments was fine enough to open skulls by trepanning. They practiced the Caesarean type of delivery long before the birth of Julius Caesar.
In the field of spinal manipulation, Dr. C. W. Weiant, Dean of the Chiropractic Institute of New York, in a paper read recently to the American Anthropology Association, stated, "I myself have observed crude spinal manipulation in rural Mexico, where it is popularly referred to by such expressions as 'el abrazo del ranchero' (the rancher's embrace) and 'el apreton del arriero' (the mule driver's thrust), but whether these are of Spanish or indigenous origin I do not know."
In a recent book La Filosofia Nahuatl, the author Miguel Leon Portilla notes that the Aztec Indian wise men distinguished between "el verdadero medico" or true doctor, and the witch doctor, who relied on superstitious practices. One of the criteria for differentiation was that the true doctor knew how "to concert the bones."
*  *  *
In his psychic, psychological, and psychiatric work the Indian Medicine Man excelled. He realized something perhaps better than some modern physicians do. A patient is much more than a broken bone, a high fever, a subluxated vertebra, et cetera. This holy man would heal the whole man or woman. He knew that somatic ailments can leave psychic scars and vice versa. He therefore saw fit to incorporate the powers of music, art, religion, psychology, philosophy, etc., in his treatments. Full and excellent rapport was one of his usual rewards. He evolved techniques which, even today, mystify most people.
Instances of therapeutic psychic projection, as seen with Don, the Indian boy, were not uncommon. The Medicine Man endeavored and, no doubt, often succeeded in manipulating the psychic forces involved in disease processes. Psychoanalysts of all schools can well imagine the depth psychotherapy involved in nine or more days and nights of continual treatment with attendant drumming, chanting, rituals, sand-paintings, visits from loved ones.
The following unusual case shows some aspects of the Medicine Man's approach. A 10-year-old boy had been unsuccessfully treated for a bladder condition by several doctors. A Cherokee Medicine Man was called. As the Medicine Man warmed his hands over some hot coals, he had the boy strip to the waist. At about the region of the kidneys, he placed his warmed hands on the boy's back. As he softly rubbed this area of the back, he chanted some old healing melody. He then whistled a single note, which he repeated for some time. The Medicine Man then announced he was finished and departed. The boy was cured. Thirty years later this patient asserted that since that day he has never had a return of his ailment. The use of sounds, chants and the laying on of hands for therapeutic purposes is not news to the American Indian.
Another common treatment is the removal of stones from the sick. After working on the abdomen of a patient, the medicine man will come up with a stone in his hand as the offending item. This may be mere legerdemain. The patient's knowledge that his trouble was something tangible, however, and has been removed from him is potent psychotherapy....
The medicine man's unusual powers were also directed at such practical duties as directing his tribe to the exact location of game and warning them of the approach of an enemy party. Custer's Last Stand is perhaps a prime example of the latter phenomenal practice. Story has it that the famous Sitting Bull, who was a medicine man, had a vision of the approach of General Custer and his men just prior to their historic battle.
The medicine man, as a holy man, fostered and guided the tribe's cosmology and approaches to life's mysteries.
Pueblos, Navahos, and other tribes recognized the sun as the most powerful of creative forces--the primal source of life.
In Taos, every spring, the members of each kiva or temple "work for the sun." For forty days and nights they are confined to the kiva in a state of withdrawal from the outside world. The Indian rarely speaks during this period. His cheeks are pale; his gaze is turned inwards. In the darkness of the kiva his whole being is oriented to the infinitely expanding radiance of the Sun--the imbuer of all things with life. He is thus wholly enraptured.
In western literature similar limited and extended ecstatic states have been described by Honoré de Balzac in Louis Lambert and by Dr. Richard M. Bucke in his book Cosmic Consciousness. Not understanding these states, society has too frequently regarded them as periods of insanity. Such episodes, history will show, are usually followed by periods of great creative productivity on the part of the participant.
James Hobbs, in his book Life in the Far West (1872), throws some interesting light on the Comanche beliefs. There seems little doubt that the Comanches had an unwavering faith in a future existence. Their afterworld was conceded to be beyond the sun where it sets in the west. They believed in a Great Spirit from which they came, and considered the Sun as the visible means through which the Great Spirit revealed himself.
In fact the Comanches found it difficult to separate the two, and humbly reverenced the Great Spirit through their worship of the Sun. For sun worshippers they were. It was a dominant feature of their beliefs, and they revered it as the source of all living things. The sun might be said to be the Father Principle of all life. The earth was worshipped as 'Mother' since it was the producer of all that sustained life. In death, the Comanches returned to the 'Father,' partook of the joys of a veritable happy hunting ground, and after a time, returned to mother earth to be reborn and keep up the population and power of the tribe.
The abilities and teachings of the medicine men varied with each tribe. One of the tribe's greatest assets, however, was to have one of high caliber.
Today, on such large reservations as the Navaho's in Arizona, there is a growing mutual respect between the Indian Medicine Man and the U. S. Public Health Service. More and more is the Indian Medicine Man calling upon the services of Public Health doctors where he feels such services are more effective. More and more are the Public Health doctors referring Indian patients to their medicine men--especially where psychosomatic factors are involved.
Webmaster's Note:
The following books are available online (external links): 
  1. Honoré de Balzac - Louis Lambert
  2. Richard M. Bucke - Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind
  3. James Hobbs - Wild Life in the Far West; Personal Adventures Of a Border Mountain Man

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