Cultural Approaches to Healing: the Community’s Responsibility


This is an article I wrote and submitted last night to a writing contest with Hektoen International.  I thought it deserved to be reproduced here as well.


It was well-known in the ‘60s, when I was a pre-teen:  young men only a few years older than me would go to the jungle to fight, and if they managed to come back home alive, they returned to a greeting of angry long-haired youth in the streets holding up signs protesting the war, shaming them for wearing a uniform. Few veterans received a thank-you for putting their lives on hold for years in order to serve the goals of the government, and most soldiers relived the war horrors daily for years after their return home.

What happened, I wondered, with the soldiers of the time before Europeans came to this land? How did tribal people resolve conflict? How did they deal with the killing of humans that they considered their enemy?

Native people considered it serious business, the taking of another human life, in timesfile0002039844849 before rifles and bullets and gatling guns and bombs falling from the skies, and developed an agreement called “counting coup.” Who was the greatest warrior?  The greatest warrior was the one who could fearlessly sneak up on the enemy and, unharmed, touch the enemy and get away and live to tell about it.1

For the one who had indeed killed an enemy, there were ceremonies.

The Dakota speak about the old-time striking-pole ceremony.2 It was known that those returning from battle needed to clear the emotional poison they were carrying inside before they returned to camp. At the striking pole they would meet in ceremony outside camp with a spiritual healer and talk about what happened. Between the warriors, the medicine man and the world beyond this one, they brought balance and harmony back to the soldier and the spirits of those he killed and the community, family and loved ones he was about to rejoin.

I asked a young traditional friend of mine if he’d ever heard of the striking pole ceremony. No, not really; but there still exist threads of this within modern-day followers of the old-time traditions. Someone with blood on his hands may not hold the traditional pipe in a sweatlodge, where small groups of men or women sit on the earth in a low wooden structure that fills with steam, praying and singing and connecting with the spirit world; there is a separate pipe for him to hold in ceremony. He remembers a friend of his who came back to the community after killing nineteen; he couldn’t talk about it. He did tell my friend and some others what happened — to a point. It took six more years for him to talk any more about it with a counselor. I asked him if talking about things helped his friend. Was he able to release the demons through talking, or through ceremony, like a sweatlodge, or by working with a medicine man? He didn’t know. This is known only to the person carrying the story.

At the modern-day traditional powwows I’ve attended, veterans typically carry in the flags at the beginning, are honored at various times throughout the events, and dance the powwofile00045432769w to a close four days later. Jingle dress dances for healing are danced by young women dressed in special dresses decorated with flat round tobacco can lids shaped into cones, sewn on the dress in such a way that when the dancer walks or dances, the cones make a jingling sound. Sometimes there are soldier dances, where powwow dancers dance the story of the battle they were involved in; sometimes these are dance-stories handed down through the family generation after generation so that a man may be retelling his great-grandfather’s story.

Reflecting on what I’m writing, I see a pattern. How does it work, for the original people of this continent? How do they heal the trauma of killing another human? What is the difference between the Native approach to life and death and the non-Native approach? The difference is community:  community and ceremony; ceremony with community.

The current preferred treatment for PTSD includes according to the Defense Centers of Excellence website “psychotherapy (i.e., talk therapy) and/or psychopharmacology” and also cognitive restructuring, relaxation techniques, discussion of the traumatic event orally or in writing, and EMDR — eye movement therapy.3 All of these approaches are between the therapist and the individual in pain. With non-Native people, healing is done alone. With Native people, healing is done in community and in ceremony.

Western culture has us divided from one another, separated from each other in every way possible. We elevate those who are good at something, and judge and compare this one to that one constantly. Even our very language separates; consider the fact that we can make separate lists of nouns, verbs, adverbs, pronouns, and adjectives. These words can stand alone and make sense.

Native culture is very different, beginning with the language. Native culture is about community and relationship. The Lakota language, described by Albert White Hat, is a language of context. The speaker must know who is speaking, who is being spoken to, and the interrelationships involved, to know what word to use.4

Native people have ceremonies that remind them of their connection with their earthly home.  These ceremonies remind the people how dependent they are on the environment and how precarious and sacred their connection is and that they must renew their connection every so often. It can’t be ignored. It has to be fostered and appreciated and not forgotten. Ceremonies honor the seasons; call the fish, the bison; connect to the ancestors; celebrate clean water.  Native people live with their extended family close by. The Lakota have their tiospaye, relatives living in houses in a circle around them; the Hawaiians have their lahui, their circle of extended relatives, for their support. Ceremonies and community remind the people how dependent they are on a healthy environment and collaborative and productive relationships with one another.

Think just a little bit about the differences in the ceremonies themselves. Native ceremonies connect; western culture ceremonies separate. A Native dance involves many people dancing in a circle and all are welcome; in western culture we have “reality” shows where only the really good dancers get chosen to participate, and they get judged on how well or how poorly they dance. At a powwow, men sit in a circle around a drum, give gratitude symbolically, and drum and sing the songs as the dancers dance. The more drum groups attending a powwow, the better the powwow; one drum group will inspire the next one to be better yet. It’s a friendly competition, a supportive competition. In western culture, singers get on the Top 10 list and sell a million copies of their recent album to get attention and the respect of their audience. Western culture awards people for being the best and the highest and the most separate. Native culture awards people for their humility, for being one with the people, for serving the people, for their connectedness to community.

file000715965133A Native person who needs to heal has an entire community that will work with his healing. The society is intentionally built that way.5 He knows he exists; he belongs; he is an important a part of a family, a clan, a tribe; his friends will be there for him in ceremony; he will go to a powwow and be honored just for being a veteran; there will be people dancing the soldier dances who understand the experiences he’s been through because they’ve been through the same thing, or their uncles have, or their grandfather was a great warrior back in the day. There will be dances just for the veterans to dance and be honored. There will be jingle dress dances for healing. He will be invited to sweat and will be doctored by a medicine man. In ceremony he will feel his renewed connection to the earth, the sky, the four directions, the Creator, and the entire tribe, those living, and those who passed on many generations ago.

A soldier from the western culture — he’s on his own. This soldier has no built-in support network that makes him feel a part of the community from even before the time he’s born. Between he himself and his psychotherapist and his drugs, that’s how he’s supposed to heal from PTSD. He did the killing on his own; he’s now left to do the healing on his own.

But is killing really done alone? Is the taking of another human life really the total responsibility of the one doing the killing? What about the politicians who created the war in the first place? Where do they stand in the circle of responsibility for the soldier returning home with PTSD? What about the soldier’s fellow combatants? Where do they stand in the circle of responsibility?

And what about the soldier’s home community? How has this person decided to become a soldier in the first place? To what extent is the soldier’s community, family, history, culture, government, politicians, or peer pressure responsible for the returning-home soldier’s PTSD? And when the soldier develops PTSD, is he expected to shoulder that burden alone? Should the soldier’s entire community, from the top to the bottom, take responsibility for what they’ve created?

The western culture could learn much about healing from the inclusiveness and connectivity and taking responsibility for what they’ve created as a community, inherent in Native culture.

Roberta Jestes.  Counting Coup. Native Heritage Project:  Documenting the Ancestors. Published October 5, 2012.  Accessed March 31, 2016.

Renville German, F. Editor’s note. Ikce Wicasta, 2000; 3(10): 4.
Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.   PTSD Treatment Options.  Accessed March 15, 2016.

White Hat, A., Sr. & Kampfe, J. (Ed.). Reading and writing the Lakota language. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press; 1999.

Monture-Angus, P. Thunder in my soul. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing; 1995.


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