What is Medicine?

by Marilyn Youngbird
Article #4 in our series:
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Marilyn Youngbird,
Chief Woman Among Chiefs, lectures internationally on the Native Way. She is a healthcare practitioner, teacher and workshop facilitator whose message of peace and healing is heartfelt and endearing.

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Years 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.

Grandma 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.

During 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 two—knowledge and faith—were 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."

There 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 people—and used in the most sacred manner.

The 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.

Preparation 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."

I 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 innocent—filled with unconditional love, trust, compassion, honesty and forgiveness.

Our 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.

The 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.

When we reach the far northwest corner we start understanding—becoming 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.

When we reach the far southeast corner of our cycle of life, we can look back in time—at our life—and 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 grief.

When 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 want.

When 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.

Grandma's 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.

I 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.

This 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.

When 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.

When 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 generations—the 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 substance—spiritual and complete confidence in who we are and why we are on this planet—the most powerful medicine that serves to keep our spirits shining, and our focus clear.

As children, we were not afraid when we became physically unhealthy. The reason, I believe, is because our caregivers—our 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."

In 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 being—we 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.

Native 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.

When 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.

Universal 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 air—their 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 life—we 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 life—our medicines.

When 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.

In 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 body—her 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.

Even 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.

Marilyn Youngbird

©2002 Marilyn Youngbird

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