Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness

National Library of Medicine’s healing totem was created to promote good health, in keeping with the mission of the doctors and scientists who work there to advance our knowledge of health and medicine. Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine
National Library of Medicine’s healing totem was created to promote good health, in keeping with the mission of the doctors and scientists who work there to advance our knowledge of health and medicine. Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine


By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News 

There was a new and very exciting exhibition recently on display at the University of Washington, from October 6 – 27. Brought to the public by the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, the exhibition was titled Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness.

Due to the limited exhibition time and distance to the UW campus, we here at the syəcəb have decided to bring the exhibition to you by way of a series. Over the next several issues we will explore the interconnectedness of wellness, illness, and cultural life for Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.

Readers will discover how Native concepts of health and illness are closely tied to the concepts of community, spirit, and the land.

As we well know, Native concepts of health and illness have sustained diverse peoples since our ancestral times. This traveling exhibition that was displayed at the UW was used as a learning tool for up and coming medical school students as a way to showcase how revival and pride in Native ideas among a new generation of medical practitioners can help sustain them in the twenty-first century.

Last week, we provided our readers with the in-depth introduction for Native Voices; this week, we will explore the connectedness of Native peoples and Nature.


Nature: A sources of strength and healing

A deep respect and connection with nature is common among all Native peoples. Unlike modern society, which erects barriers between itself and the natural world, Native cultures derive strength and healing from the land and water. Individual wellness cannot be achieved when the connection to nature is missing or contaminated.

“The environment shapes the culture of the people,” explains Roger Fernandez of the Lower Elwha Band of the Klallam Indians. “Anywhere in the world, the environment they live in shapes that culture. You have the mountain people, and the lake people, and ocean people, and island people. That environment shapes the culture, and then the stories explain the people and their relationship with that environment, and the art becomes to me a visual manifestation of that whole process that the art incorporates the environment, it incorporates the culture, and it incorporates the stories, the understandings, and the meanings of the people.”


Aloe, dandelion and willow. Photos courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
Aloe, dandelion and willow. Photos courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.


Healing plants

Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian healers all have a long history of using indigenous plants for a wide variety of medicinal purposes. Medicinal plants and their applications are as diverse as the tribes who use them. Beyond the medicinal benefits, indigenous plants were a staple of Native peoples’ diet before European contact. Today, indigenous plants are central to efforts to improve dietary health for current generations.

In Hawaii, the “Waianae Diet” and “Pre-Captain Cook Diet” aim to reduce empty calories, fat, and additives and promote a healthier, more balanced diet by restoring the role of indigenous foods. Various Native tribes have similar projects emphasizing traditional foods. In this very real sense, food is medicine.

Dandelion is a generous source of Vitamins A, B, C and D and various minerals. It is also used for liver issues like hepatitis and jaundice and is a natural diuretic. All of the plant parts can be used: the root as medicine, food, or coffee substitute; the leaves as a poultice or salad; and the flowers as food or medicine.

Willow leaves are used in a poultice or bath for skin infections or irritations and the leaves can be chewed and placed on insect bites for pain relief. Willow ash can be sprinkled on severe burns or to prevent infections in cuts. Willow is used in some forms of over-the-counter aspirin. Willow aspirin compounds are organic and less volatile than their chemically made counterparts.

Aloe is used for healing burns, as a tea to detoxify the body, and as a skin moisturizer.


A totem for healing

The National Library of Medicine’s healing totem was created to promote good health, in keeping with the mission of the doctors and scientists who work there to advance our knowledge of health and medicine. Following a blessing at the historic Lummi village site of Semiahmoo, the finished totem was transported across the United States, with tribal blessings at several sites along the way. The healing totem was erected as part of a traditional Lummi blessing ceremony in from the National Library of Medicine in October 2011.

“The figures in this totem are based on stories of the Lummi Nation and the Algonquin Nation,” explains Master Carver Jewell James, a member of the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation. “At the totem base is depicted a woman with a gathering basket, symbolizing the role of women in collecting traditional herbs and medicinal plants. Above her rises the Tree of Life, with its branches reaching for the sky and its roots deep in the Earth, symbolizing how all life on Earth is related. The Tree represents the forest from which medicines are gathered. Capping the pole is Medicine Woman in the Moon, looking to the Great Spirit to reveal new knowledge.”


Mystery illness decimating sea star populations

D. Gordon E. Robertson / WikipediaOchre sea stars have been dying off, and biologists are unsure why.
D. Gordon E. Robertson / Wikipedia
Ochre sea stars have been dying off, and biologists are unsure why.

By Bill Sheets, The Herald

MUKILTEO — It’s an iconic summertime image in the Northwest: children playing on the shoreline at low tide, shoveling sand into plastic pails while purple and orange sea stars cling to exposed rocks nearby.

On some beaches this summer, that scene likely will be missing the sea stars.

A mysterious condition is killing sea stars — commonly known as starfish — by the thousands all along the Pacific Coast of North America, from Alaska to Baja California.

The ochre sea star, the colorful type often seen clinging to those rocks, is one of the hardest-hit species, said Drew Harvell, a Cornell University biology professor working on the problem for the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories.

Sea stars, she said, “are emblematic; people have them on their T-shirts, for heaven’s sake.”

Local populations in the inland waters of Western Washington — including in Mukilteo and Edmonds — have been nearly wiped out just in the past few months, researchers and divers say.

The stars are turning to jelly and disintegrating. A group of researchers is working to find out why.

“It’s extremely difficult to pinpoint the exact cause,” said Ben Miner, an associate professor of biology at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

He recently collected samples of sick and dead sea stars in Mukilteo and Edmonds.

The prevailing theory so far, Harvell said, is that the deaths are being caused by a pathogen, bacteria or a virus, as opposed to a broader environmental condition such as ocean acidification.

Other types of organisms are not experiencing similar death rates, she said. The scourge has been more pronounced in inland waters than on the outer coast.

Populations in Oregon, compared to those in Washington and California, have mostly been spared.

Some inland waters have been hit hard by the die-off, while other areas, such as the harbors at Langley and Coupeville on Whidbey Island, still have healthy populations, Miner said.

Sea stars that live in ultraviolet-light-filtered water in aquariums are mostly healthy, while those that live in unfiltered water are more often showing signs of disease, Miner said.

While the evidence so far points to a pathogen, “that certainly doesn’t preclude the possibility that there are other things in the water that are weakening their immune systems and allowing them to get sick,” Miner said. “It has the potential to be a combination.”

If it is bacteria or a virus, it’s uncertain whether humans are contributing to the problem, Harvell said.

“Once we know what it is, we’ll have a much better idea of what the answer to that is,” she said.

Another theory is that the condition is caused by radiation that has drifted across the ocean from the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, which suffered a meltdown after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

If that were true, many more creatures would be affected, researchers said.

“It’s unlikely to be the direct cause,” Miner said.

There are several hundred species of sea stars worldwide and about 25 in the Pacific Northwest, he said.

“About half of those species appear susceptible,” Miner said.

Large “sunflower” stars, which have up to 20 arms and can be more than 3 feet across, have taken the brunt of the plague along with the ochre stars, Harvell said.

Kimber Chard, of Edmonds, a scuba diver who frequents the waters of Edmonds and Mukilteo, said he began noticing dying sea stars about nine months ago.

“The sunflower stars used to be everywhere,” Chard said. He used to see up to 30 of them per dive. Now it’s down to two or three.

“There used to be so many of them, and they’re just so few.”

Sea stars are echinoderms, in the same phylum as sea urchins, sand dollars and sea cucumbers. Sea stars are voracious eaters, sucking down clams, mussels, barnacles, snails, other echinoderms and even each other, researchers said. As a result, their losses could send big shock waves through the food chain.

Scientists at universities along the West Coast and at Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., have teamed with aquariums and divers to work on the problem.

Miner is placing healthy sea stars in tanks with sickly ones to test the contagiousness of the condition. Samples of sick stars are being tested at a marine lab on Marrowstone Island near Port Townsend. Some are frozen, preserved and sent to Cornell researcher Ian Hewson.

“He has the capability to test for bacteria and viruses and he’s worked incredibly hard all fall,” Harvell said.

Miner said he hopes to have some study results to report within a couple of months.

“We’re just watching which way it goes and how fast it goes,” he said.