Doctor in the (Sheridan Opera) House | Lakota Healer Urges Union of Science, Holism
by Peter Kenworthy
Oct 05, 2006 | 151 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The history of medicine, according to Lakota medicine man Dr. Donald Warne, who received his medical degree from Stanford and a master's in Public Health from Harvard, has made a long loop back to its roots. Warne spoke about the contrast between traditional Lakota healing and modern medicine at the Sheridan Opera House last Friday evening and made the case that "science and holism should be married." One of the slides he showed datelined the evolution of medicine:

2000 BC – Here, eat this root.

1000 AD – That root is heathen. Here, use this prayer.

1800 AD – That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.

1900 AD – That potion is snake oil. Here, eat this pill.

1950 AD – That pill is ineffective. Here, eat this antibiotic.

2000 AD – That antibiotic is unnatural. Here, eat this root.

A facetious summary, perhaps, but the circle motif is an important one, symbolizing connectedness and integration. The Lakota icon for healing is, indeed, a circle, or wheel, that connects mind, body, spirit and emotion. Like traditional healers of other native cultures around the world, Warne believes that good health results from a balance of all four forces and that each must be attended to in curing illness. Modern healthcare, he contends, is incomplete because it focuses almost purely on the physical and defines patients by their "disease process," rather than by all of the forces and effects that truly comprise their identity.

Traditional medicine, Warne said, "is a spiritually-based healing force" that healers use "to channel energy." Such healing involves a deeper understanding of the patient than mere physical symptoms and evolves from "respect, ceremony and prayer." It also centers in a focus on community health, not just the individual.

"The role of the family and the community in the health of the individual is critical," Warne said. "And the health of the individual is important to the community. The two affect each other." Warne contrasts this approach with the modern one that is built on confidentiality and privacy, effectively isolating the patient from vital sources of healing. It is an outgrowth of two very different value systems, one exclusive, the other inclusive.

Other contrasts are as stark. From the very name for doctors – physicians (dealing with the body), versus healers (taking a holistic approach) – to the way patients are talked to and treated.

"Modern medicine has a very arrogant, linear way of talking to patients," said Warne. "The traditional way is circular, empathetic. Healers let people tell their story."

Modern medicine is also predicated on the patient being passive, doing what the doctor says, taking prescribed pills and observing regimens that are often little understood or questioned. The traditional approach is to make patients active in their own healing.

"You have to address illness from the patient's perspective," he said. "And they have to be fully engaged in their own treatment. They have to believe in it and take the lead. The power of belief guides everything we do."

In modern medicine, the physician is honored for curing illness. In traditional medicine, the patient is honored for wellness.

Even the modern and traditional symbols for medicine are studies in polarity. Against the traditional wheel that connects the four directions, the four elements and the four arenas of human experience, stands the caduceus, a winged staff with two snakes wrapped around it, an ancient Greek symbol that actually stood not for medicine, or healing, but for commerce. A staff with a single snake, and no wings, the Rod of Asclepius, was the true Greek symbol for medicine. Confusing medicine and commerce in Western symbolism is an apt metaphor for the state of modern healthcare, Warne said, and he avers that the caduceus, in its earliest origin, was actually the sign of "traitors and thieves."

Modern medicine and healthcare, he said, is all about money, a wholly western invention. "It is private sector-driven," he said. Private sector, in turn, translates to business and bottom line.

"The focus of the medical system is not on intelligent primary prevention, like healthy food and exercise, but on making money. And the patient is the customer."

The result of such an approach is that roughly 85 percent of healthcare costs in the United States are expended during the last six months of patients' lives, an irony that clearly rankles Warne, as does the fact that the highest incidence of Type II diabetes in the world, by far, is suffered by the Native American customer base of his Phoenix practice. The affliction of diabetes, Warne said, is not just a matter of blood sugar levels, the endpoint of modern medical prescription. It has to do, instead, with people being severed from their traditional environment, with the loss of their land and the loss of their culture that has led to low self-esteem, anger, depression, and alcoholism. It has to do with social injustice, an aftereffect of the "genocide and holocaust" that America's white settlers wreaked on the nation's native people. It has to do with traditional native religious practices being outlawed, as they were in this country until an Act of Congress reversed legislation during the Carter administration.

Quoting Euripides, Warne said there is "no greater grief than the loss of one's native land." From growing healthful vegetables, hunting wild game and catching fish in free-flowing rivers, Native Americans have subsisted for the past 75 years on "government commodity food: bleached flour, white bread, white sugar, tinned meat."

The biggest loss, however, has been the loss of spirit in healing, Warne said. And in this, modern medicine stands alone compared to world traditional systems.

"Only modern medicine ignores spirit," he said. "Modern medicine is the aberration."

Like his ancestor Black Elk, a famous Lakota healer, Warne is unequivocal that "healing has to be in the spiritual world." And the chief virtue of a healer is humility.

Warne quoted Black Elk in his closing remarks: "Of course it was not I who cured, it was the power from the outer world that came to me as if through a hole. If I thought it was I, the hole would close up and no power would come through."
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