Traditional Healers in Indian Healthcare
As the largest nonprofit rural hospital system in the nation, Sanford Health is striving to bridge the gap between indigenous healing and Western medicine. Sanford Health is hiring two traditional healers who will be training medical staff at Sanford clinics in MN, ND, and SD. The hope is that their medical staff will become more versed in issues unique to Native American patients and able to consult on whether traditional healing may aid a patient’s treatment. They will also learn about traditional values of the Dakota/Lakota and Ojibwe.
Second only to the Indian Health Service (I.H.S.), Sanford may serve the largest Native patient population. If one looks back on the history of federally-based Indian healthcare and the health challenges facing Natives today, having traditional healers involved could improve the overall healthcare experience of Native Americans.
A number of factors come into play here. Contemplate the history between the federal government and Native American tribes. Think about the broken treaties, unmet treaty obligations, and crimes against humanity inflicted on Native Americans by the U.S. government. What reasons do Native people have to trust federal or mainstream healthcare systems? For example, only a generation ago this was happening in a federally-funded program: 25-50% of Native American women had been forced or coerced into sterilizations from 1970-1976, according to independent research. This was not in the era of the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee but in the 20th century. (The past wasn’t so long ago.)
Cultural, financial, and logistical factors impede proper healthcare for Native people living in rural communities. Mobility and transportation greatly hinder healthcare when the patient has to travel extraordinary distances to get treatment. The fuel cost alone is prohibitive when living in poverty, and temporary lodging often becomes an additional factor. For instance, people on the Rosebud Reservation travel 3 hours to Rapid City or 4 hours to Sioux Falls for specialized care. Distance from healthcare is even an issue on the reservation. The 35-bed I.H.S. Hospital on the Rosebud Reservation is tasked with serving 11,000 people in 20 communities spread over 1382 square miles. Mix in language barriers with some tribes, a lack of health literacy in reservation communities, and cultural perspectives on health and illness that differ from Western understanding, and Indian healthcare only gets more complicated.
The doctor-patient relationship also affects how a patient feels about their healthcare. A Commonwealth Fund study found that minority patients often rated their care better overall if received from physicians of the same ethnicity. Unfortunately, as the study also points out, “While Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans represent more than 25 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise fewer than 6 percent of doctors and 9 percent of nurses.” In light of this, Sanford Health is taking progressive measures to better serve their Native patients.
Dr. John Molina is Executive Director of the Phoenix I.H.S. and a long-time Program Partner of National Relief Charities. Dr. Molina has authored several articles on blending indigenous perspectives with modern medicine and noted that traditional healers serve as a link between spirit and community. Thus, traditional healers can empower and engage both patient and physician while serving as an interpreter for the patient. They can help both doctor and patient better understand how to give and receive care in a socially, culturally, and spiritually relevant way. Since many of the major illnesses afflicting Native peoples are largely preventable, such a healer-doctor-patient relationship can help break down barriers to healthier Native communities, while delivering treatment that compliments Native American culture and spirituality.