Exploring Indigenous and ancient health traditions, medicinal plant use and healing ceremonies

By Erin Blakemore,

The traditions of Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians date back thousands of years.

How do they affect their concepts of health and wellness — and how have conditions such as colonialism, forced assimilation, land removal and bias influenced native health?

“Native Voices,” an online exhibition from the National Library of Medicine, explores those questions, which are as complex as native cultures themselves.

Through an exhibition, extensive timeline and a variety of learning resources, the library tells the story of Indigenous peoples and their health traditions, such as the use of medicinal plants and healing ceremonies.

Disruption and colonization are part of the story. European contact brought diseases that ravaged native communities, and as native groups were forced off their traditional lands, their health was affected. Congress has funded Native American health care since the 1920s, but those funds are still inadequate.

A 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found continued funding shortfalls and noted “significantly higher” rates of depression, suicide, alcohol and substance abuse in the Native American community.

Yet the communities remain resilient, and the exhibition documents how they heal in community. One part of the exhibition highlights the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, with clinics in Oahu that combine Western medicine and traditional healing practices that include spiritual healing, family conflict resolution, Hawaiian massage and herbal medicine.

In interviews, native health professionals, community healers and others highlight the importance of pride and tradition in healing.

“We all come from somewhere, and searching out those roots can only help and instill a sense of constructive pride, and that translates into holistic health,” says Benjamin Tamura, a Native Hawaiian physician. “I’ve been impressed how powerful culture health is.”

Visit the exhibition at bit.ly/NativeVoicesNLM

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