WHAT IS MEDICINE?
have gone by since my Arikara grandparents passed into spirit.
Memories, however, of my eighteen years of living with, and learning
from, them remain as vivid and absolutely clear as if they were
still here on our precious Earth.
was an incredible medicine woman. She was our Nishu, Arikarak
Village, medicine doctor. The nearest western hospital was twelve
miles from our village and there was only one western doctor for
hundreds of people.
my youth, Grandma's doctoring was experienced not only by my own
family members, but also the village people. Grandma's medicine
included both her very substantial intellectual knowledge of our
Earth mother's medicine, and her firm belief and faith in our
Creator, Nashanshu. There was no separation between our religion
and our education for our way of life. Grandma knew that the twoknowledge
and faithwere one and the same, and she knew that medicine
would not work in a holistic manner if she didn't utilize both.
While we were maturing and growing, Grandma would tell us, "Medicine
is a way of life. Our ceremonies are our medicines. Never forget."
Her prayers were always devoted to giving thanks. She truly understood
that our Mother Earth was and is the true Medicine Woman and Giver
of Life. She would tell us children, "Always trust her and
always trust Nashanshu, our Creator. Have faith that your prayers
are always heard and that whatever you pray for will come to pass.
It may not come to pass in the way your linear mind prays, but
it will come to pass in the manner it is heard in the universe."
were two kinds of purification ceremonies that regularly took
place in our village. One was performed by the men before they
made decisions that would affect the people in our village or
in the world, or before they went hunting. They called this ceremony
a "sweat bath." We were told that when they went into
the sweat bath they purified their minds, bodies and spirits so
they could gain clarity, insight, and access to their knowledge;
so they could speak directly to the Creator and to the life force
of the deer, elk, buffalo, antelope or rabbit that they were going
to hunt. They would pray and ask each animal to give of their
life so that human children and people could live. During the
sweat bath, they washed away their fears, anger, self-doubt, or
whatever they might have been carrying in their being, so they
would be pure when they spoke to the essence of the animals. When
they returned from their hunt, they told the people of how the
animals would come to them and give of their life. The animals
that gave up their lives were held in great reverence. Every part
of their material being was used by the peopleand used in
the most sacred manner.
second purification ceremony was conducted for the healing of
a person who was either physically, mentally or spiritually unhealthy.
My people knew that purifying the "full being" would
help that person let go of all that made them sick, and bring
to them understanding of how they should change their way of life.
for ceremony was simple, yet profound. My Arikara grandparents
understood that all of life evolved in a circle. We were taught
that all of life is connected within this circle; there are no
corners. They taught us that life evolves along with the cycles
of the moon, and they informed us that every cycle brings changes.
Preparing us children for the ceremonies, Grandma would tell us,
"You are going into the Sacred Womb of our Universal Mother.
We enter her womb from the east, like you did when you came into
your biological mothers womb." Listening closely, we watched
every move Grandma made as she carefully explained our traditions.
She would say, "Our ceremonies are our medicines; they teach
us who we are; they teach us how to stay in balance. They teach
us how to live in wholeness."
learned from Grandma that there are seven directions to each cycle
of life. Each direction carries specific knowledge and wisdom.
Each direction carries prophecies. The cycles run from east to
west, from north to south, from above to below and all around.
When we are born we come from the East. We are born pure. Our
being is innocentfilled with unconditional love, trust,
compassion, honesty and forgiveness.
life journey starts in the far southwest corner of the first cycle.
The road from east to west, we believe, is the intellectual, mental
road, the linear road. This road is called the black road. When
we live only in our mind, we create emotions from our thoughts
that can be very dangerous. When we are disconnected from our
heart and only live in our linear mind, we cannot see in a holistic
manner. When our heart is not connected to our mind, we lack clarity
and insight. This can create fear, anger, hatred, jealously, and
can also destroy our self-identity and spiritual-identity.
second road runs from north to south. We call this road the red
road. This road is the compassionate road, our heart road, and
can be as dangerous as the black road if we are not connected
to our intellect. We start this sequence of life in the very northwest
corner of the second cycle. This cycle holds strength, courage
and endurance. It takes a lot of strength and courage to forgive
ourselves, love ourselves, have compassion for ourselves and honor
ourselves. It takes a lot of courage to speak our truth, walk
our truth, and become our truth. We must have a lot of strength
to endure what we have created. This cycle takes us to the far
northwest corner of the North.
we reach the far northwest corner we start understandingbecoming
clear and having insight into our experiences, our journey through
the first two cycles of life. We begin to understand how special
we are, and why we came to this planet as human beings. When we
have clarity and insight into our intellectual knowledge, we have
no fear, anger, or self-doubt, and we can claim our own identity
and our spiritual identity.
we reach the far southeast corner of our cycle of life, we can
look back in timeat our lifeand have compassion for
ourselves, and especially for our other human relatives, because
we now have an understanding of the choices that were made without
clarity and insight. We can forgive ourselves and others for our
choices and demands. We can have great humor for all the things
we took so seriously, and the choices we made that gave us incredible
we look above and below, we realize how powerful we are. When
we look into the heavens, we see the sun, moon and stars, and
realize we are a part of it all. We realize there is no darkness
in the universe. We realize that the sun, moon and stars are shining
all the time. When we touch the Earth, we come to the understanding
that the Earth is truly our Mother, the Medicine woman and the
Giver of Life. We come to understand that, whatever happened to
us during our journey, there were no mistakes. Every experience
has helped to make us who we are. We come to understand that we
are the Creator of our own reality and we can create whatever
we are truly in balance, we come to understand that we are the
axis, the center of our universe. We are the connection between
the black road, the red road, above and below and all around.
When we become the axis, we see how holy and sacred our life is;
how incredible our Earth Mother is, levitated, suspended in the
center of our Universe; and how much we are loved unconditionally.
All this I learned from Grandma.
way of thinking has become absolutely crucial to my way of life.
When we were children, we would ask her, "Grandma, what is
medicine?" Her answers were never one sentence or even one
paragraph. Sometimes it took days for her to answer, but she would
answer in the way she saw life, lived life, and knew life.
believe it is necessary for human beings to have their self-identity
and also their self-spiritual identity. These are two of the main
ingredients we need as human beings to be in balance. When we
have a strong self-identity as well as a strong spiritual-identity
we have confidence; we have a spiritual knowing that cannot be
shaken, or taken away; we have an understanding that can serve
to define and clarify who we are.
strong sense of identity has been my grandparents' legacy to me;
without them, I would not know who I am. Of the many wonderful
stories Grandma told us children, the one story that touches my
soul most deeply is our traditional Creation story. Grandma told
us that "we Native Peoples" come from the Star Nation.
Nashanshu decided that "we Native Peoples" were to come
to Earth as physical beings, Nashanshu scattered stardust from
the Star Nation and let it flow gently to our Mother Earth. When
the stardust touched the Earth, cells of the Earth embraced the
cells of the stardust. Then Nashanshu created the rain, wind,
and minerals, to bring forth the union of the Earth and the Stars.
That is how we were Created. Our skin is reddish brown like our
Mother Earth, and our hearts shine bright like our Star Nation.
Our deep, dark eyes and black hair are the same color as the night.
it was convenient, Grandma would take us outside and show us the
bright shining stars. She would say, "The stars are our ancestors,
and our generationsthe ancestors who walked before us, and
the seven generations who are coming after us. Take care of our
Earth so the generations that follow us will have a beautiful
world to live in." Our creation story, I believe, as well
as all of our ancient stories and spiritual ceremonies, help to
give my people substancespiritual and complete confidence
in who we are and why we are on this planetthe most powerful
medicine that serves to keep our spirits shining, and our focus
children, we were not afraid when we became physically unhealthy.
The reason, I believe, is because our caregiversour family
and community explained to us, to the best of their knowledge,
what we were experiencing. Grandma would say, "Everything
in your life is medicine. Your tears are medicine. Vomiting is
medicine. Fever is medicine. Sweating is medicine. Laughing is
medicine. Menstruating is medicine. Your smile is medicine. Listening
to others is medicine. Pain is medicine. Everything that happens
to you, and everything you do, is medicine."
western practice we have separated our way of life from our medicine.
In the process of specializing in western medicine, we have dissected
the human beingwe treat parts and not the whole. Western
culture has segregated the maintenance of wellness: We go to a
psychologist and psychiatrist for emotional help and to a medical
doctor for pain in our body. We go to the clergy and the religious
institutions for care of our spirit. We speak about "spirit,"
in a religious sense, as something that is intangible. It is not
made clear to us how the body, mind and spirit work together,
or how our emotions influence the body. We don't consider our
cells as representative of spirit. We treat everything as separate.
people know that being in dynamic relationship with nature and
our creator helps us to stay in balance. This relationship nurtures
our bodies, minds and spirits. It helps us open to the wisdom
of our cells. We understand that a strong relationship to the
Earth and the Creator is the true source of wisdom and health.
people are truly aligned, they trust their feelings and take responsibility
for maintaining their own health. They are conscious of the foods
their body needs, as well as what exercise they need, how much
sleep they need, etc. They have clarity of mind so they can make
holistic decisions that follow their innate wisdom, their cellular
knowing. Our cells hold all of our memories and all the knowledge
and wisdom in the universe.
knowledge comes to us through the air we breath, the water we
drink, the food we eat, and the minerals that are present in all
of nature. Native people know that the first medicine of life
is the air we breathe. No human being can live more than 2 minutes
without airtheir breath. The second medicine of life is
water. No human being can live more than 7 days without water;
the human body is more than 70% water. The third medicine of life
is food. No human being can live more than 30 days without food.
The fourth medicine of life is minerals. We need the minerals
that nature provides for us in order to be completely healthy.
Our bodies and minds cannot function in a healthy manner without
the minerals that come from the Earth. The fifth medicine of life
is unconditional love. Judgment and expectations are two of the
worst medicines of lifewe need love to claim our true power.
Most people do not treat their body or the Earth with appreciation
or respect. Many of us have habits that destroy our cellular and
spiritual beings. As a whole, humanity dumps harmful waste products
into and onto the Earth, into the water and air, without realizing
that we are damaging the true sources of lifeour medicines.
we pollute the water, the air, the Earth, the minerals, we become
the recipients of the diseases that are caused by that pollution.
We need to learn to follow the laws of nature like all the other
species do. They do not foul their nests by polluting the place
where they give birth to their children and where they live. When
we stop polluting the Earth and the atmosphere, and we stop taking
poor quality air and water into our bodies, we will have made
a major contribution to managing our wellness.
creating wellness a person must know, understand, and love his/her
body, mind and spirit. Human beings must understand how powerful
the influence of their mind is over their body. This is why Grandma
always said: Every thought in your mind is your prayer, and every
word that comes out of your mouth is your prayer. Prayers are
absolutely powerful and they come to pass.
Now, I understand why Grandma, in the early daybreak hours, would
give thanks to her bodyher legs, arms and all her organs.
Now I understand why Grandma would speak to Nashanshu and our
Mother Earth, giving thanks for her life, her breath, the beauty
she experienced in all of Creation, the music from the voices
of creation, and all the medicines Mother Earth produced.
today, I can still see my Grandma bending down, reaching for the
Earth and touching it. Picking up some of the Earth in her hands,
she rubbed them together, saying her prayers. After blowing her
breath into her hands four times, I can still feel her touch as
her hands flowed over my head, my arms, my body and legs, blessing
me with the medicine and love of our Mother Earth.