Native American Indians believe that each person chooses to make himself well or unwell. If an individual stays in harmony, the spirit will be strong and negativity will be unable to affect it. If one chooses to let anger, jealousy, or self-pity take control, disharmony is created. Once harmony is broken, the spiritual self is weakened, and the individual becomes vulnerable to physical illness, emotional upsets, and the disharmony projected by others.

Specific practices vary with each tribe but in most all cases, healing involves the use of herbs, symbols, ritual and ceremony, and community involvement. Health is restored and the spirit is healed by bringing the individual back to harmony and balance with the environment.

The Four Directions

The teachings of traditional Indian Medicine has practical value applicable to our lives today. Practitioners of Indian medicine believe people should make their own choices to achieve and maintain that harmony and balance. Today with the limited choices and rising healthcare costs many face, the methodologies of Indian Medicine can serve as the basis of one’s choices and the path to follow for obtaining and maintaining good physical health and mental well-being.

The methodologies center around the Four Directions used by the American Indians in their traditional medicinal practices. The Four Directions hold that the physical, mental, spiritual and natural aspects of man lie within a circle. The circle represents a person’s environment. A balanced human ecosystem means balance and harmony of one’s self, family and with nature, including the physical, mental, spiritual and personal.

These Four Directions provide a road map for people seeking to achieve balance and harmony in their lives. Amoneeta Sezuoyah, an Indian medicine elder from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians says, “We have to look at what someone is doing wrong, not what is wrong with someone,” and once we know what is being done wrong, “the medicine traditions will bring us back to the reality of health.”

J.T. Garrett explains the Four Directions and how they relate to current medical practices outside the American Indian system:

“In the Four Directions, when we come into this world, we are in spirit, and we’re joined with all other spirits in a universal circle. We come through the center, and as we come through the center, our first contact with Mother Earth and with life as we know it through the physical, is through the direction of East.” East, the Spirit Path, represents the spiritual aspect. This path is considered sacred to most Indian people and tribes. There are certain concepts that can be shared as values for understanding. The first value taught by American Indian medicinal instructors is to respect the dignity of everything, whether it is understood or not, because everything hs its own spirit.

This teaches respect for ourselves and the protection of our environment. The acceptance of the ways of the Indian forefathers emphasizes individual choices and responsibility for those choices. Good choices regarding physical fitness, nutrition, meditation and prayers are similar to the wellness approach recommended today.

“For our little ones, as we call little people our little ones, they come through the direction of East at the age of zero, and they spiral (meaning progress) to the direction of South, the Peace Path. South is play and innocence. It is a time when a little one learns. And we don’t interfere with that little one’s spirit, because they are connected more than we are, because we re-learned and learned away from the spirit way. so as the young person that we call the child goes to the direction South, they learn competition, they learn play, they learn to enjoy their innocence. They learn to touch Mother Earth. They learn to talk to the animals. They know already, innately, to talk to the plants, who are also their helpers.” The youth is learning to venture into the Four Directions while always being within the unity circle and in touch with the spirit of life itself. Youths learn self-sufficiency and conservation – of everything and everyone – within the framework of the circle, and learn how to live in harmony with the earth’s ecosystem. Legends and stories teach them respect and understanding. When one revisits this direction they are rediscovering the innocence and child-like playfulness they first experienced on this path and it helps energize their life forces.]

“As one spirals from the direction of the South and the child, they spiral to the direction of the West, and the West is physical; the West is that fine line between life and life hereafter.” Traditionally, the stamina of the physical was important for spiritual attanment, such as in the Sundance ceremony. Running, walking and certain aerobic activities are necessary in the lifestyle concepts taught in Indian Medicines as are relaxation techniques, including meditation and sweats, as activities for physical, mental and spiritual awareness. There are also ways for “give-aways” (stress release ceremonies) to achieve a path to the higher level of consciousness, a process known as “spiraling of the spirit.” The stress-control concepts taught today are very similar to the meditative and fasting vision quests emphasized in traditional Indian Medicine.

“That’s one of the reasons why the old ones say that there is a very thin line between life and death for adolescents, because they have to spiral from that innocent stage to go through the physical endurance and learn their own strength, introspection, in order to spiral to the direction of the North.” North, the Wisdom Path, represents the mental aspect or the raising of one’s inner consciousness to a conditioned level of receptivity. At this level, one can learn by listening to the mind and spirit, and then make conscious decisions. On this path, the physical and mental were always one merging spirit as a part of the life force. Even seeing and reading are considered a form of listening. Tradition says that some patients require some “helpers” (friends, family, herbs and charms) to aid them in seeking balance and self-healing. Others need the Medicine Man for protection with “blessing” and “give-away” ceremonies. Today, the guidelines of self-care and self-healing are very similar to the traditional concepts taught in Indian Medicine Ways.

“North is adult. We adults know it all, right? No. Not so. As a matter of fact, in the oldest of teachings, there’s something that I call the rule of opposites, because once you spiral to the direction of the adult, then you share and your learn, and you share and learn – you get to a point where you hopefully will become wise, and can spiral to the direction of the East. Well, once you spiral to the direction of the North and spiral to the direction of the East, then you’re ready to come back to life itself. And of course, passing over is just the creation of a new life.”

The Sundance

The Sun Dance is a tribal gathering, a tribal beseechment, and a ceremony of thanksgiving to the Great Being (Wakan Tanka), where healing for the tribe or specific individuals may be sought through the rededication of oneself. It involves a tribal gathering that lasts for four days and was traditionally held after the summer buffalo hunts, when the buffalo meat was cured, dried and readied for the winter provisions. Now it is held in late July or early August.

On the day before the ceremony, a felling party goes out to cut a cottonwood tree. usually an elderly female is chosen to speak to the tree, telling it that her people are sorry to have to take the tree’s life but it is a necessary component of their ceremony, which is “highly important, for by doing it, the people will live.” The tree is brought back and decorated with cloth banners in the colors of the four directions along with green and blue banners representing Mother Earth and Father Sky. Other symbolic items are also attached, a peace pipe is placed in the hole, and then the tree is planted and raised.

On the evening of the tree planting, a Sweat Lodge Ceremony is held for all of the Sun Dance pledges. The previous year the pledged dancers have usually taken a vow to avoid disharmony and strive to conduct themselves accordingly. They do so knowing that they will be dancing the ceremony before the people, the spirit world and ultimately the six powers of the universe and Wakan Tanka. The pledges also reiterate their promise to pierce on the fourth day, and may do so only if the Sun Dance chief and the senior dancers deem him worthy.

There is no rehearsal fro a Sun Dance. It is a ceremonial prayer, and, like all Indian prayers, is a spontaneous but still has forms that are adhered to. The first three days of the ceremony consist of dances, prayer, speeches on morals and values from the holy men, and time for reflection. The ceremony itself varies little from day to day during this time. The dancers, both men and women, pay respect to the four directions, and look to each of them for knowledge and understanding.

Because four has a special meaning in Sioux spirituality, the fourth and final day of the ceremony brings the culmination of the ceremony – the piercing. The piercing enables the pledged to give something so that the people, and their way, may live. Women do not get pierced because they have already given their pain for the tribe while going through childbirth. Childbirth may bring death to some women, and death is considered the greatest challenge. The piercing is the male’s effort to experience a comparable pain, though the Sioux consider the woman’s pain greater than that of the sun dancer.

After the four direction have been faced and the dancers have seriously contemplated the six powers of the universe, a pledge is led to a bed of sage at the base of the cottonwood tree. The holy man makes two parallel cuts in the chest with a blade or sharp skewer and then thrusts an awl into the first cut and out the second. (Only the skin is pierced, not the muscle or connective tissue. Since the skin is strong, there is no need to pierce deeply.) A wooden peg is inserted in the holes and a leather thong is then attached to the ends of the peg. A rope tethered to the Sun Dance tree is then tied to the thong. The Sun Dancer rises from the sage bed and with help returns to the circle. The dancer slowly lets the weight of the rope attached to the tree ease onto his pain-filled chest. He is now feeling and bearing the pain of his people.

After all dancers have been pierced, the drums pulse louder and the dancers shuffle inward to touch the tree of life, which connects them to their mother, Mother Earth. Four times they move back and forth towards the tree. The gathered tribe is deep in prayer at this moment, and energy is sweeping in over the backs of the dancers, into the tree and sent upward to the Wakan Tanka.

After the fourth touching of the tree, the dancers lean back, putting tension on the ropes. The dancers now are free to seek their own Sun Dance vision. After a while, the dancers lean back further to break the umbilical with Mother Earth, sometimes leaning so hard the peg tears through the skin. When all dancers have ended their connection to the tree of life, they are gathered into a line and leave the circle. The Sun Dance is over.

It is not the piercing of the chest and breaking the connection that makes the ceremony important. It is the gathered community acknowledging the spiritual and physical relationship to all in the universe that is the heart of the Sun Dance.

Use of the Sweat Lodge

Building a sweat lodge

Sweat lodges are simple structures made of saplings bent and tied together with twine to form a dome. They can be built in a couple of hours. A pit is dug in the center for heated stones to be placed. The structure is then covered with a tarp or blankets. In times past, buffalo robes or hides were used. The earthen floor is strewn with sage, flat cedar, flowers, grass or reeds. Participants gather within the darkened interior to endure the steam generated by water poured over the hot stones. There is no particular location or direction of the door to the sweat lodge. Except when used in the Sun Dance Ceremony, most lodges are held in the evening.

The average size of a sweat lodge is approximately eight feet by twelve feet and can hold a group of eight to tem people, although larger lodges can be built to accommodate larger crowds. A sweat lodge should located in a quiet, secluded, remote or semi-remote area. Privacy is essential when picking a sweat lodge location. It is also essential to consider the location of the fire that is used to heat the rocks. The fire pit should be positioned so that is is sheltered from the wind and takes advantage of wind breaks.

Rocks used for heating should be of limestone or granite, and without cracks. They should be about the size of a cantaloupe. Never use sandstone or other porous or water-absorbing stones. Lava rocks are probably the best rocks to use because they retain the heat and convey unusual images when heated to a red-glow and observed within the dark confines of the lodge.

The Ceremony

The Sweat Lodge Ceremony is used to promote physical and/or spiritual healing and renewal. The participants often find a deep connection into the past, a tribal closeness. This natural bonding begins with one’s own concept of God, the Creator, and the created Mother, upon which all thrive on daily. The spiritual bond is likened to an attachment to Mother Earth as one sits within her warm womb.

The four directions are called upon within the lodge. The misty, fire-heated steam covers the participants, brining forth their own sweat. The universal lifeblood comes forth and intermingles with the waters of the brothers and sisters within the lodge, and mix with the air of the four directions when the dipper of water is poured over the hot stones. The four winds carry the lifeblood out of the lodge to the four quarters of the earth.

A peace pipe is smoked after the ceremony. The participants are refreshed, their lifeblood is traveling through the ecosystem; and their visible breath, symbolizing truth, is carried through the universe. The sweat lodge, in conjunction with the peace pipe, makes for a very powerful and healing ceremony.

Sand Painting

Used as part of Navajo healing ceremonies, sand paintings are intricate works made from colored sandstone that has been crushed into a fine powder. There are over a thousand different sand paintings. Navajo medicine men may chose from to use in a healing ceremony.

Before a healing ceremony can take place, a diagnosis must be made so the proper chant may be selected. Different chants serve different purpose, and vary in length and expense to the patient. The shortest, most general chant is called the Blessing Way. This chant lasts for two days and may be performed without a sand painting. The Night Chant lasts for nine days and includes eight or nine sand paintings, depending on the version. Navajo chants tell stories about legendary heroes and heroines who go through daring adventures to reach the gods to obtain cures for ailments. The figures used in sand paintings symbolize the people and actions in the canted myths.

The Navajo healer, who has studied for many years to become a chant singer and a sand painter, starts at sunrise on the day of the chant. There are no sketches made for the sand painting, it is drawn from memory. He begins the painting on the floor of the ceremonial hogan, or earth house. The “paining” begins with streams of crushed colored sand sliding down between the thumb and index finger of the healer’s right hand.

Although the process looks simple in its execution, there is much skill and structure in the creation of an intricate sand painting. Five main colors, each having its own meaning, are used in sand paintings:

  • White, which symbolizes the east, represents dawn, spring, youth and the higher world. It stands for new beginnings and spiritual purity, but can also stand for evil forces such as White Thunder and the Great White Serpent.
  • Black symbolizes the north and represents night, winter, old age, death and witchcraft. Although Black Clouds and Black Thunder may seem threatening, they can also bring life-giving rains.
  • Blue symbolizes the south and represents summer, middle age, and spiritual happiness. Its negative symbolism is seen as the Blue Star which brings misfortune and the Great Blue Snake which causes epidemics.
  • Yellow symbolizes the west and stands for twilight, autumn and the maturing of life.
  • Red is the only color that does not stand for a direction. It instead represents power, the life force and danger.

Around each sand painting there is a protective border. In the middle of the painting is a reference point such as a deep pool, a fire or the main hero of the chant. In Navajo legend, the Place of Emergence is where all life begins and this too may be placed in the middle of the painting.

When a medicine man has finished creating his painting for the day, he will place prayer sticks around it. These are usually reeds with pollen and fragments. of turquoise inside. Pollen, which is considered sacred to the Navajo, is also sprinkled on the painting to bless it. The patient is then called into the hogan. The patient enters bearing a gift of cornmeal which is scattered as food to the painting. The patient undresses and is led by the medicine man to the painting, where he sits down in the middle of it, facing east. The medicine man sings his chant, shakes his rattle and applies sand from the painting to the patient. In this way, positive healing energy is transferred to the patient from the painting.

Herbal drinks may be served during the ceremony. These herbs are gathered with special prayers and under special circumstances. For example, a specific plant used in the Night Chant is picked only when lightening strikes. All drinks are placed next to the sand figures before being offered to the patient, as if they come directly from the figures.

The ceremony must be finished before sunset. The healing ceremony ends in a puff of smoke, sot to speak. Coals are lit in the hogan and used as a sort of disinfectant, with everyone inhaling the vapors from the smoking coals. The medicine man will then completely destroy the painting, gather the colored sand to be carried outside and scattered in all directions.