For Decades the U.S. Punished Indigenous Healers. Now the Indian Health Service Wants to Hire Them

Sydney Akridge May 27, 2020

Students in Cheryl Morales’ ethnobotany class at Aaniiih Nakoda College add moisture to the soil to achieve ideal conditions for transplanting.

Edi­tor’s Note: This sto­ry was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by Kaiser Health News.

Cheryl Morales start­ed the med­i­c­i­nal gar­den at the Aani­i­ih Nako­da Col­lege demon­stra­tion farm with only four plants: yarrow, echi­nacea, plan­tain and licorice root.

After 10 years, the cam­pus gar­den with­in the Fort Belk­nap reser­va­tion in north­ern Mon­tana now holds more than 60 species that take up almost 30,000 square feet. Morales adds new plants annu­al­ly. This year, she is test­ing Ore­gon grape root and breadroot.

Such plants have been used as med­i­cines for gen­er­a­tions by the Assini­boine and Gros Ven­tre tribes who live on the reser­va­tion. Echi­nacea is used to help boost the immune sys­tem. Valer­ian pro­duces a strong seda­tive that can address ner­vous­ness, ten­sion and stress. Licorice root acts as an anti­his­t­a­mine, which treats aller­gy symptoms.

Like many peo­ple in the Fort Belk­nap com­mu­ni­ty, Morales, 60, is work­ing to teach her­self and oth­ers the tra­di­tion­al Indige­nous health knowl­edge that was large­ly lost because of fed­er­al policies.

Our ances­tors, did they know they were sci­en­tists? No. They were just tak­ing care of their body, tak­ing care of their peo­ple,” said Morales, who teach­es eth­nob­otany at the col­lege. All this knowl­edge, they knew it. They hand­ed it down, and for years and cen­turies. We took it for grant­ed. And here we are try­ing to teach our­selves, try­ing to learn.”

Now the Indi­an Health Ser­vice, a fed­er­al­ly fund­ed and treaty-promised health care ser­vice, is also start­ing to embrace such knowl­edge. The Fort Belk­nap IHS hos­pi­tal is seek­ing job appli­cants for two tra­di­tion­al prac­ti­tion­er posi­tions, offer­ing up to $68,000 a year. While the health ser­vice has filled sim­i­lar posi­tions across the Nava­jo Nation in the past 15 years, these would be the first IHS posi­tions of their kind in Montana.

The move is sur­pris­ing because the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment would essen­tial­ly be pay­ing for med­i­cine men, or women, to help treat IHS patients, despite pun­ish­ing and malign­ing such exper­tise for generations.

But, per­haps in a sign of how much trust needs to be rebuilt and knowl­edge regained, the IHS has yet to fill either posi­tion, despite post­ing the list­ings twice since late 2019.

Still, the job announce­ment itself is caus­ing rip­ples else­where in the state.

D’Shane Bar­nett, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Mis­soula Urban Indi­an Health Cen­ter, said he was able to use the Fort Belk­nap job list­ing to cre­ate a sim­i­lar posi­tion. The cen­ter, which receives fund­ing from IHS but is run inde­pen­dent­ly, cre­at­ed a job descrip­tion for a part-time tra­di­tion­al heal­er in late March.

Tra­di­tion­al heal­ers at an IHS hos­pi­tal or an urban Indi­an clin­ic could work with ill­ness­es or prob­lems that affect the com­mu­ni­ty in a way that West­ern-based clin­i­cians might not, Bar­nett said. Dis­eases like dia­betes and heart dis­ease, as well as prob­lems like domes­tic vio­lence, require lifestyle changes, not only a clin­i­cal solu­tion, he said.

Pre­serv­ing Tra­di­tion­al Knowledge

Because tra­di­tion­al heal­ers were forced to go under­ground in the past, and the com­mu­ni­ty is pro­tec­tive of tra­di­tion­al health knowl­edge, it can be dif­fi­cult to deter­mine the qual­i­fi­ca­tions of tra­di­tion­al heal­ers. They are not cer­ti­fied or licensed posi­tions, like those held by oth­er health workers.

Yet the two IHS tra­di­tion­al heal­ers would need to fill many roles to help with phys­i­cal, men­tal, emo­tion­al and spir­i­tu­al needs of the Fort Belk­nap com­mu­ni­ty of 7,000 enrolled trib­al mem­bers. They would edu­cate hos­pi­tal work­ers about tra­di­tion­al health prac­tices and cul­tur­al sen­si­tiv­i­ty, con­nect patients with resources, and use tra­di­tion­al native diag­nos­tic and treat­ment pro­ce­dures like cer­e­monies, bless­ings and sweats.

As an advo­cate and liai­son between patients and providers, their work will enhance com­mu­ni­ca­tion and under­stand­ing of the cul­ture and life­ways of the local com­mu­ni­ty,” IHS spokesper­son Mar­shall Cohen wrote in an email.

This marks a turn­around from the fed­er­al government’s his­to­ry with tra­di­tion­al trib­al prac­tices. In 1883, the com­mis­sion­er of Indi­an Affairs set up the Courts of Indi­an Offens­es on reser­va­tions across the coun­try. The office reg­u­lar­ly issued rules pro­hibit­ing reli­gious dances, cer­e­monies and prac­tices of med­i­cine men until 1921 and con­tin­ued to enforce them through the 1970s.

At Fort Belk­nap, many med­i­cine peo­ple and spir­i­tu­al lead­ers were forced under­ground to avoid pun­ish­ment, and many fam­i­lies chose not to teach tra­di­tion­al knowl­edge to their chil­dren. Mate­ri­als used for reli­gious cer­e­monies were con­fis­cat­ed, and peo­ple were tak­en to jail and some­times killed if found to be tak­ing part in any of the activ­i­ties the commissioner’s office deemed illegal.

It wasn’t until the Amer­i­can Indi­an Reli­gious Free­dom Act in 1978 that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment acknowl­edged the right of Amer­i­can Indi­an tribes to prac­tice their reli­gions, speak their lan­guages, vis­it their sacred sites and use their tra­di­tion­al health prac­tices. But the clam­p­down took a toll on knowl­edge passed down for gen­er­a­tions by the Assini­boine and Gros Ven­tre tribes at Fort Belknap.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, around 15 spir­i­tu­al lead­ers or med­i­cine men or women would have served simul­ta­ne­ous­ly at Fort Belk­nap, each with spe­cif­ic knowl­edge, said Min­er­va Allen, 86, an Assini­boine elder who learned how to use plants from her grand­moth­er. Today, there are four tra­di­tion­al med­i­cine spe­cial­ists at Fort Belk­nap; three are Gros Ven­tre spir­i­tu­al lead­ers and one is Assiniboine.

Still, the Fort Belk­nap tribes have fought hard to hold on to what remains of that knowledge.

For over 180 years, they’ve been try­ing to blend us in the melt­ing pot of Amer­i­ca and make cit­i­zens out of us, but we have held on to our own cul­ture, and we have our own iden­ti­ty,” said John Allen, 67, the Assini­boine spir­i­tu­al leader with med­i­c­i­nal knowl­edge, who is also Min­er­va Allen’s son.

He has treat­ed peo­ple with phys­i­cal, men­tal and spir­i­tu­al ail­ments for over 30 years. Today, he esti­mat­ed about a quar­ter of the peo­ple liv­ing on the reser­va­tion use tra­di­tion­al spir­i­tu­al and health practices.

Recon­nect­ing To Tra­di­tion­al Medicine

Morales said hav­ing a tra­di­tion­al heal­er at the hos­pi­tal would help com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers bet­ter under­stand their over­all health.

This would con­nect them spir­i­tu­al­ly and reunite that link with our past that has been miss­ing from our cul­ture and tra­di­tions,” Morales said.

She knows first­hand about that miss­ing link. Grow­ing up, Morales knew her great-grand­moth­er Melv­ina Horn was a well-known Assini­boine plant expert, but Morales’ grand­par­ents were afraid that the gov­ern­ment would pun­ish their fam­i­ly for learn­ing about cul­tur­al and reli­gious tra­di­tions or using tra­di­tion­al medicine.

Morales remem­bers how Horn would pick some pep­per­mint to make tea for her aunt when she was sick with a cold. That was the extent of Morales’ med­i­c­i­nal plant knowl­edge before she attend­ed a Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion pre­sen­ta­tion in 2009 in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., on med­i­c­i­nal plants that grow in the Dako­tas. Morales found that many of these plants also grew in Montana.

I was very impressed,” she said. And I want­ed to learn more and more and more.”

Today Morales uses herbs in teas and creams for many ail­ments such as colds, aller­gies, skin irri­ta­tions and joint pain. She and her hus­band are drink­ing tea with elder­ber­ries to boost the immune sys­tem dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic. She is also test­ing com­bi­na­tions of plants such as lemon balm, hops, laven­der, rose­mary and skull­cap to help with anx­i­ety and stress.

She teach­es stu­dents in the college’s Native Amer­i­can Stud­ies and Allied Health asso­ciate degree pro­grams the lost tra­di­tion­al and cul­tur­al ways their peo­ple used the plants.

It helps them to under­stand their peo­ple, how they used it, what they used it for, and gives them a bet­ter under­stand­ing of who they are,” Morales said. Med­i­cine, plants, it’s part of us.”

She also lets stu­dents take home dried plants. One year, a stu­dent brought some home to her grand­fa­ther. As soon as the stu­dent made him some tea, she told Morales, he start­ed to share sto­ries about plants and his family.

Hav­ing that med­i­c­i­nal tea from plants just woke him up, just brought mem­o­ries flood­ing back, and she was real­ly hap­py. She hadn’t seen her grand­fa­ther so excit­ed about some­thing,” Morales said. And this was over a cup of tea.”

This sto­ry pack­age was pro­duced by stu­dents in the Mon­tana Native News Hon­ors Project, a cap­stone course at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mon­tana School of Jour­nal­ism. The com­plete project is avail­able at http://​native​news​.jour​.umt​.edu.

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