Respecting Indigenous Medicine

Levi writing from Quito in the his MAP International internship.

As I wrote my last post, MAP seeks to respect local indigenous medicinal practices by genuinely learning and engaging with promoters and practitioners in the remote villages of Ecuador.  There is a vast body of therapeutic, diagnostic, and dietary knowledge in indigenous communities of the world.  On a number of levels, it benefits everybody to recognize the legitimacy of this knowledge.

First, an attitude of respect facilitates positive relationship-creation between indigenous and non-indigenous.  Many outsiders seem to fail in this regard.  I heard this account very vividly when I traveled to Napo, one of the selva (jungle) Ecuadoran provinces in the Amazon River basin.  There I met Miguel, a local Amazonian who has been a dedicated MAP promoter for 10 years.   Long before MAP partnered with Miguel, his grandfather passed onto him a wealth of shamanistic knowledge and training.  In his youth, Miguel was taken far into the jungle away from the village for days at a time to learn from his grandfather about the hundreds of plants and animals that can be used for phytotherapeutic ends.  He also witnessed countless healing rituals performed by his grandfather within a carefully prepared room.  In the years before MAP´s presence, Miguel grew disillusioned with various other health NGOs who arrived and condemned the local medicine as unfounded, harmful, and misguided.  They came bearing pills, shots, gadgets, scientific vocabulary, and strange dietary suggestions.  The village couldn´t relate to the ideas, couldn´t grow the new foods, and couldn´t use new gadgets.  Eventually, MAP arrived and began inquiring about the ancestral practices and understandings.  MAP conducted interviews about plants, rituals, and medicinal understandings.  With local leaders and healers they opened discussion so as to see how to integrate and augment each other’s knowledge and present it accessibly and sensitively.  And so Miguel began his relationship with MAP and has served as a liaison for the Napo communities ever since.

Second, there is great value in indigenous knowledge for its chemical and scientific value.  After having taken organic chemistry, I can see that everything in the natural world contains organic chemicals, sometimes with impressive biological power.  I perused countless chemical structures and corresponding captions in my O-Chem textbook:  Chemicals extracted from the juice of the rare X-plant from Papua New Guinea…isolated from secretions of the beetle found in the jungles of X…discovered as the active chemical in the X-animal´s neck glands.  Really, ancestral wisdom sheds insight into this incredibly potent and varied world of creation chemistry.  A drug that is synthesized in a laboratory and enters your body as a pill finds the same bodily manifestation as the same organic chemical found within the leaf of a jungle tree that is crushed and taken as tea.  It really seems impossible to say that which approach, or which person gives you that medicine, has a more legitimate knowledge base.

Third, learning about ritual and ancestral practice helps us to deepen, broaden, and embody our own medicinal worldview.  I am amazed at the rich trust, community flavor, and spiritual sensitivity expressed in the indigenous health rituals.  And really, ritual is in everything we do for our health in “developed nations” also, whether we realize it or not.  The healthy habit of eating three meals a day shared with family and friends; the regularity of sleeping when the sun is on the other side of the earth; the kind words and handshakes between co-workers and acquaintances—these are all rituals that bring health and balance to our physical and mental well-being.  Even in the doctor’s office, there is a powerfully codified rhythm to a clinical health consultation with a physician.  Without the private space, trusting atmosphere, and implicit legitimacy of the practitioner, healing would not happen.  A practitioner must have the confidence of the patient in order to do his or her work.  Indigenous practitioners are very explicit that the patients would come to them with a proper attitude and open trust.

Critiquing these rituals as psychosomatic is too simplistic, I am beginning to think.  As a child of western thought, I have often perceived ritualistic healing with a very specific, narrow, and dualistic worldview.  Because, as I wrote in the previous post, occidental medicine often separates the spiritual and physical world, opting for a very empirical, abstract approach to physiological models of illnesses and conditions.  Yet, in reality, it might be better to view our bodies both ecologically (in community) and spiritually, acknowledging that our bodies are fruits of the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs between humans and the natural world.  And especially if we are people of faith, we should truly believe that God works through our bodies all the time, creating instruments of peace.

Well shoot, I didn’t get to talking about the guinea pig ritual (Sobada de Cuy) that I’ve been researching.  But this background seems important.  Keep reading the posts!



2 responses to “Respecting Indigenous Medicine

  1. Levi – I’ve enjoyed reading your posts so much. Really. Every post I read I think, “I have the best cousin in the whole world. He is so kind and smart and intuitive and balanced and humble and … ” How does a young man like you have such wisdom (must be in the genes)? Your patients will be lucky and blessed to have you as their physician someday.

    To the rest of your co-riders/writers — you all are pretty special guys. You write beautifully and humbly, with respect and admiration for the people and cultures you come in contact with.

  2. Levi- (and all) Your posts are all incredibly thought-provoking, fascinating and thoughtful. There’s so much I’d love to respond to. But until there’s time to email– Just wanted to say I spend a lot of time thinking about indigenous (or ancient) medicine and alternative treatments/therapies also, due to my massage practice. Much of it becomes very hard to dismiss when you’re open to learning the origins and history of certain techniques/practices. Recently I’m testing out some incorporation of Chinese traditional techniques & just being open to whatever outcomes I discover. So thanks for the timely post!! Love to all of you. Every word & photo bring us great joy! –Anna Lisa

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