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.”


Traveling ‘Native Voices’ Health Exhibit Opens Today in Anchorage

© Howard Terpning Courtesy of The Greenwich Workshop, Inc., Courtesy National Library of MedicineBlessing from the Medicine Man, Howard Terpning®, 2011
© Howard Terpning Courtesy of The Greenwich Workshop, Inc., Courtesy National Library of Medicine
Blessing from the Medicine Man, Howard Terpning®, 2011

The traveling exhibit “Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness” opens June 9 in Anchorage.

RELATED: 9 Great Places to Experience American and Native Culture

Starting at the Dena’ina Center, the exhibit will debut with a noon luncheon ceremony featuring the Southcentral Foundation, the Alaska Native Heritage Center and the National Congress of American Indians.

The exhibit will remain open for visitors of the Conference of the National Congress of American Indians until June 12, and then it will open to the general public at the Alaska Native Heritage Center from June 13 through mid-September.

Oral history and the wisdom of medicine men are recognized in the traveling exhibit, which made its grand debut at the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland with a blessing ceremony on October 5, 2011.

RELATED: The National Library of Medicine’s ‘Native Voices’ Exhibit Shares Native Concepts of Health, Healing and Illness

Some of the most revered native healers were interviewed for the project, plus tribal educators, curators and others. “One of the major goals is to share from the native community and in their own words and own descriptions what is important to them in terms of native concepts of health, healing and illness,” Fred Wood, a National Library of Medicine curator involved with the project’s development, said. “We’re doing our best to make that in their words, not someone else’s interpretation.”

RELATED: The Lummi Healing Totem Pole Carries Stories of Traditional Medicines and Practices

Topics featured in the exhibition include: Native views of land, food, community, Earth/nature, and spirituality as they relate to Native health; the relationship between traditional healing and Western medicine in Native communities; economic and cultural issues that affect the health of Native communities; efforts by Native communities to improve health conditions; and the role of Native Americans in military service and healing support for returning Native veterans.
Indian Health Service Director, Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, a featured speaker at the opening ceremony, said the concept for the exhibition grew out of meetings with Native leaders throughout the nation, “and reflects the Native tradition of oral history… This wonderful exhibit is helping to make Native voices and cultural perspectives seen and heard, and to promote understanding and appreciation of Native cultures.”

For web browsers all over the world, photos and summaries on the web site pull out specific aspects of the exhibit, such as the healing properties of certain plants.  The introduction to the “Medicine Ways” section states that “[m]any traditional healers say that most of the healing is done by the patient and that every person has a responsibility for his or her proper behavior and health. This is a serious, lifelong responsibility. Healers serve as facilitators and counselors to help patients heal themselves. Healers use stories, humor, music, tobacco, smudging, and ceremonies to bring healing energies into the healing space and focus their effects.”

Ceremonial drums, pipes and rattles from Upper Plains tribes are displayed in one section on healing. Another explores ceremonies that traditional healers performed to give relief to returning veterans who suffered from combat-related stress. “Because physical and spiritual health are intimately connected, body and spirit must heal together,” says printed material in the exhibit, on “The Key Role of Ceremony.”

Another section explores Native games “for survival, strength and sports.” Surfing figures big here, as the exhibit pays tribute to Duke Kahanamoku, Native Hawaiian Olympic medallist who is credited with reviving surfboarding as a sport. In the lobby of the library is a 10-foot model of the Hokule‘a, a traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoe. It is intended to show visitors “how the mission of the Hokule‘a has spurred a Hawaiian cultural and health revival.”



Arigon Starr Talks About Her Super Universe

By Toyacoyah Brown on March 5, 2014

You may remember we posted a story about Laguna Woman, a new character that was going to be featured in the Super Indian comics by Arigon Starr. Ms. Starr took some time out from her busy schedule to tell us how Super Indian started and what inspires her with all her projects.

One thing I would really like to promote is that “Super Indian” is more than a weekly webcomic. It started life as a comedy radio series in 2007, thanks to the Native Radio Theater Project and Native Voices at the Autry. The show was broadcast nationally through the Native Voice One radio network and American Indian Radio on Satellite. There were only ten five-minute episodes produced — but I had WAY more stories. That’s when I decided to do the comic book.

timthumb.phpBecause I finally had enough material, I released “Super Indian Volume One” in May 2012. The 64-page full-color book features “Super Indian” issues #2, 3 & 4, plus extras like features on Jim Thorpe and Maria Tall Chief (“Real Super Indians”). The book is available through Amazon, the Super Indian Comics Website (Paypal), plus for all digital devices (Kindle, Nook, etc.) from Amazon and ComiXology.

“Super Indian” led me to Lee Francis IV and the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. During a writing conference in Cherokee, NC, we joking talked about the old “Comics Code Authority” that used to police the comic book world back in the 60′s & 70′s. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny to have a logo that vetted Native American comic book stories? That way, people would know that the stories and art came from actual Native writers and artists.” That idea became the Indigenous Narratives Collective, which now has a bunch of Native comic book writers and artists from all over Indian Country involved. Our first group comic, “INC’s Universe #0″ had contributors Roy Boney, Michael Sheyahshe, Beth Dillon, Ryan Huna Smith, Theo Tso, myself — plus an introduction from comedian Charlie Hill. Charlie is a big fan of comic books and loves “Super Indian.”

Also — some folks might already know me from my music. I’m the artist behind the song, “Junior Frybread,” which was “Song of the Year” at the Native American Music Awards in 2002. Believe me, I STILL perform that song at every gig. I’ve released four music CDs since 1997. I’ve also had the pleasure of singing at Gathering of Nations (when they used to do shows in Pit), a bunch of colleges, universities, museums and in England and Australia.

I’m also a produced playwright and actor. My one-woman comedy with music, “The Red Road” was featured at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City and Washington, DC, the Gilcrease in Tulsa, the Youth Theater Festival in Adelaide, Australia after making a debut at the Autry National Center. I had a lot of fun working with the folks at Native Voices at the Autry and starred in many of their Equity Productions.

Believe me — with all of those activities, there is never a dull moment around here. I’ve got at least three more comic book projects in the works that I’m juggling right now. The Indigenous Narratives Collective will be releasing the first volume of “Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers,” which tell stories from all the tribes that participated in the military program. I’m writing about the Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I — and there will be other stories from Native writers & artists in the book. I’m also developing “The Saga of Henry Starr,” which is based on Robert J. Conley’s novel of a real Oklahoma outlaw. Yes, Henry is one of my ancestors….we have a lot of outlaws in my family! Mr. Conley is a renowned Cherokee historian and professor who’s written hundreds of westerns and novels based on Cherokee history.

As for Laguna Woman, she’s set to figure prominently in Issue #6 of “Super Indian.” Working with Shayai Lucero was a real treat. I had met her years ago when she was Miss Indian World and we kept in touch. FYI, Lee Francis IV from INC and Wordcraft is the son of legendary writer Lee Francis III. Lee III started Wordcraft over 25 years ago as an non-profit organization to help mentor Native writers. The Francis family is also from Laguna Pueblo and I really wanted to honor the work that Lee and his father have done for the community. That’s why Laguna Woman, aka Phoebe Francis, has that name. It was important to Shayai, Lee and me to make sure that Laguna Woman was not a stereotypical super-hero.

“Super Indian” will continue to keep the humor coming, plus the social commentary. I’m sure folks who look in at know all about “blood quantum” and can see the humor in a vampire who wants to become a full-blood Indian by biting full-blood Indians. How else do you get a CDIB card these days? AAAY!

Hope that helps! This might actually be a good guest blog, ennit? AAAY!


P.s. I’m a tribally enrolled with the Kicakpoo Tribe of Oklahoma. I’m Buffalo and Uskas Clan and my Indian name is Makedeothecua. My mom is an enrolled Muscogee Creek. Her mom was Cherokee and Seneca. When I grow up, I want to be a Pow-Wow announcer. AAAY!

Make sure you check out Super Indian on their website and follow on their Facebook page.