I recently travelled to New Mexico on a research trip for BCA’s Navajo Healing Project*. I had some concerns about bringing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to Navajo Lands. Is it beneficial for the Navajo people overall? I wanted clarity before moving forward.
I arrived in Albuquerque past midnight and was grateful to see Justice Robert Yazzie at the airport. I was tired, but we ended up talking into the wee hours about health and justice. My intention was to introduce TCM to the Navajo population as an effective alternative to alleviating many common ailments. To make it sustainable, we would integrate self-care and train local practitioners in basic acupuncture procedures. I was also interested in integrating native healing practices into the education because I was deeply concerned about the survival of Traditional Native Medicine. Less and less healing knowledge was being handed down and more people were moving towards modern medicine. I was afraid that native wisdom would be lost forever.
The next morning we set out to meet as many medicine people as he could find. Driving to Gallup, my senses were flooded with the painted landscapes and expansive skies. I didn’t know yet then, but it was only the beginning of what would be a most magical trip. As the days unfolded, I would meet and spend time with people and places that would address my deepest concerns about bringing TCM to Navajo Lands and how to preserve Native knowledge.
I wanted to get to know the people I was introducing TCM to in order to understand if it would be an acceptable medicine. While I felt good about the project, there was a part of me still unsure it is the right thing to do. “Right” being respectful, a good fit, sustainable and beneficial.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to meet 4 Medicine people, attend a medicine ceremony and talk to many Navajo people about healing: young folks and elders, men and women, city folks and Navajos on the reservation. As with many populations, there is a variation on beliefs and lifestyles. Even amongst the Medicine people, outlooks and understandings differ. There are 4 primary avenues of medicine that the Navajo population use: Native American Church which uses peyote as a sacrament for healing, Navajo Traditional Medicine which uses ceremonies by a Medicine person to promote healing, traditional medicine based on folk knowledge of local herbal medicines and Western Medicine (which one medicine man referred to as “everyday” medicine). The population in general is moving away from traditional native healing knowledge and practices towards Western Medicine. Very few people know anything about Traditional Chinese Medicine beyond having heard of acupuncture.
There were moments during my trip that gave me pause, Like when I suggested to one medicine man that acupuncture would help the knee pain he complained about. He shook his head. I pressed on. He said, I can’t do that medicine because it would mean I don’t have faith in my own. Or when I was told by medicine people that one cannot elect oneself to study medicine. It’s a gift endowed upon a person by the Creator. I wondered how this would impact my idea for training Navajos in basic acupuncture.
As I collected information, I thought about my own relationship to the medicine I practice. And then it dawned on me why this Navajo Project was so important to me and what I have been trying to do all this time. Back in the day, TCM was not taught like it is today. Similar to what the Navajo Medicine people were telling me about Navajo Medicine, TCM apprentices in ancient times were chosen or had to prove themselves worthy in rigorous ways. At that time medicine was intimately connected to, in fact inseparable from sacred knowledge of the world. Today sacred knowledge is interpreted as theory and principles to be implemented towards practical knowledge of curing disease. TCM has been through many different ruling systems, governments, revolutions, practices and popular thought and each time has changed and adapted itself to the times. Is it a coincidence that In my own personal journey to uncover the sacred roots of Traditional Chinese Medicine, I find myself connected to the Navajo community where medicine is still being practiced upholding sacred principles?
During one meeting with a medicine man, he told me that there was no one to pass sacred knowledge on to because there is no one eligible for the rigorous training he had in mind. Up until then, I shared little of myself, always keeping in mind to listen. But something took over me during that conversation and I shared with him my personal journey. I told him I was always searching for sacred knowledge, but as a young person, the closest thing I could find was to enroll in an institution that taught TCM. In retrospect, I can see that my education was extremely reductive, distorting and perhaps even misleading about the full depth and breadth of TCM. Despite that, I am very grateful for the training I did receive---breadcrumbs that allow me to pursue a path of deeper knowledge if I so desire. At the very least, I have a medicine I can practice that can be more effective and less damaging than modern medicine for many common ailments.
I told him that maybe there is no one worthy for him to pass total knowledge to, but if there are no breadcrumbs left, the knowledge may disappear altogether. The young people need some breadcrumbs. He listened quietly and we were interrupted by someone coming into the room. The conversation turned to something else. Even though I felt disappointed for the interruption, I did not feel it was appropriate to force the conversation. When it was time to leave, the medicine man turned to me and said, I want you to know I heard what you were trying to say to me. That simple acknowledgement encouraged me to stay my path. The introduction of a completely foreign medicine (TCM) and the suggestion of passing on knowledge different from what has always been and considered right are very sensitive, complicated matters. I didn’t know if the mere suggestion of doing things differently would be an offense. The best I could hope for was a consideration of what I was proposing.
After that, things fell into place one by one. By the end of the trip, I was sitting in a room with Justice Yazzie, his son and another medicine man working out the details of our return clinic and making plans for a future training and certification program. When I returned home, things continued to fall into place. 6 members of the BCA team - 3 acupuncturists, 2 bodyworkers and one sound healer - agreed to accompany me at the end of October to do another pop-up clinic and initiate an education and training program. This year, with the help of our Navajo friends, we will integrate traditional native healing into the clinic. There will be a sweat lodge concurrent with acupuncture and body work. Local herbal medicines will be provided and traditional healthy Native foods will be prepared. Also, an emphasis on reverence, intention and the power of words will be part of our clinic procedures. We look forward to creating this healing space that will heal, connect and grow all communities and peoples involved. Thank you for being a part of this!
*The research trip was made possible by BCA donations. Thank you!