Federal government taps ancient healing methods to treat native American soldiers
The veterans administration teams up with medicine men to use sweat lodges and talking circles to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rock Spring, N.M.
In a dusty lot on the Navajo reservation, a cleansing ceremony is about to take place. Women sit on rickety chairs outside a hogan, (a circular, squat Navajo home with a dirt floor). A line of parked cars sizzle in the Southwestern sun. Suddenly, a pack of horses rushes into view. They stop just short of the hogan, their hooves beating up a cloud of dust.Skip to next paragraph
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A man appears in the doorway – an unassuming figure, dressed in a work shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. He is a medicine man who has spent decades learning ancient Navajo healing techniques. He waits for the lead rider – the patient – to dismount and then ushers him inside.
For the next hour, the spiritual leader, Alfred Gibson, conducts an "enemy way" ceremony, a form of Navajo therapy that cleanses physically and mentally ill individuals by forcing them to confront their pain.
The technique is increasingly being used across the American West to help native American soldiers deal with the traumas of war.
While healers on Indian reservations have always employed such methods, the government offers most returning native American soldiers standard Western psychological counseling and medical help. Now, however, native American leaders and the Department of Veterans Affairs are teaming up to use both approaches in hopes of better serving the needs of Indian soldiers.
Mr. Gibson, for one, works during the week as a counselor at the Na'nizhoozhi Rehabilitation Center, a treatment facility in Gallup, N.M., run by tribal entities and the local county government. To help patients battle addiction and psychological trauma, Na'nizhoozhi often pairs psychotherapy and medication with sweat lodge ceremonies and drumming sessions. But the goal, Gibson says, is always to "do away with the medication – to help patients learn the traditional ways of healing."
Similarly, Veterans Affairs hospitals throughout New Mexico now run special programs for native American vets that include talking circles, sweat lodge ceremonies, and gourd dances. "We have to allow native Americans the opportunity to explore the culture that has been damaged, if not taken away," says Dr. James Gillies, a psychologist in the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) clinic at the VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, N.M. "To be a soul doctor is to embrace the souls of the people you work with."
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Native American vets have a real need for this kind of attention. Tribal members join the military at higher per capita rates than almost any other minority group. They also tend to suffer disproportionately from the effects of war – as evidenced in high drug-abuse and suicide rates among returning soldiers. Studies have shown that native Americans who served in Vietnam were far more likely to struggle with PTSD than white soldiers.
Counselors and tribal leaders believe a more "holistic" approach to treating the problem – combining traditional and modern methods – should help a new generation of soldiers now returning from Iraq.
"The 'enemy way' ceremony rejuvenates them," says Gibson. "The songs, prayers, drumming, and herbs we use cleanse the body from the effects of war."
The morning after the ceremony, Gibson and I sit on a sagging couch in the empty hogan. I ask if he believes one healing ceremony can provide a long-term release from the psychological imprint of combat. Gibson says that a series of ceremonies are often required, each addressing a different aspect of the patient's illness. "And it depends on the individual," he says. "It's just like a person who's addicted to alcohol. If he wants to get help, he will get better. But if he's two ways about it, it won't help him."