Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Power of Belief and Suggestion

Navajo Pictorial Basket
Navajo Pictorial Basket

Since I was first introduced to the Native American trade, I have been awed by Navajo medicine men. Stories of dramatic healing rituals and supernatural accomplishments often filter through the trading post community. These stories are told and retold by dedicated followers and true believers of these powerful Hathales; men like Espie Jones and Tom Yellowman from Montezuma Creek, John Holiday in the heart of Monument Valley and June Blackhorse who resided just south of Bluff in Color Rock Canyon. When I first caught sight of these larger than life figures, I imagined them surrounded by pure magic.

As I grew older, and began to accumulate a rudimentary knowledge of the ways of "The People", I became even more fascinated by Navajo healing arts. The book "Hasteen Klah", by Franc Johnson Newcomb, fired my imagination and gave me insight into how an individual becomes truly responsive to the natural and supernatural worlds. I soon began reading everything available on the subject. Books like "Navajo Religion", by Gladys A. Reichard, and the great little series of bulletins printed by The Museum of Ceremonial Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico; a set of wonderful explorations into a variety of ceremonies, legends and myths.

I must admit, however, that my Roman Catholic upbringing, and western, science-based, education kept getting in the way of my full acceptance of the Navajo healing arts; my view was slightly jaded. I, however, kept looking for the magic, and maintained the investigation through an incessant, probably obnoxious stream of questions directed at anyone who would tolerate my intrusions into their world.

Admittedly, I was not privy to exact Navajo ceremonial practice, substance and ritual paraphernalia, but to me there was something essential missing. I soon realized that these powerful practitioners were working mostly with local flora, along with bits and pieces of fauna, and a healthy accumulation of song and experienced historical perspective on aboriginal culture. Where was the science? Where were the cutting-edge medicines, equipment and educational degrees? My mental state was in an uproar. These rudimentary tools of the trade did not compute to someone who was taught to believe only in strict religious dogma and scientific fact.

My first genuine insight into this world of alternative medicine came from an arrowhead. For as long as I could remember, we had carried tiny arrowheads to sell to the Navajo people. These were contemporary points made by flint-napper Homer Etherton. Their purpose did not concern me as much as the revenue generated through the sale of these artifacts. One day I asked Espie Jones what he was going to do with the petite point he had so carefully selected. He looked me over carefully, as if considering whether I was worth the trouble of an explanation. He must have decided that I was ready for educational advancement, because he shared a tidbit of information. Simply put, the idea was to undertake a ceremony to remove foreign objects which were causing his patient pain and suffering.

The comment intrigued me, so I did additional research on the subject. What I found was that this is common practice among medicine men and shamans around the world. During the ceremony, the object is slipped into the mouth of the healer, along with a feather or two. The act goes unnoticed, because of the dark, smoky atmosphere. A scratch is made where the pain is concentrated, the healer bites his lip to add a little blood to the mix, bends over and sucks the terrible, troublesome mass from the patient. Smoke and mirrors? Slight of hand and mouth as it were? The most problematic aspect of the entire process for me was that the pain was almost instantly relieved; a majority of patients were entirely healed. The placebo effect?

I was devastated, and accosted Espie the next time he came into the store. I asked him outright if this was how he "healed" his patient. He smiled broadly, and shook his head in the affirmative. I must have looked crestfallen, my belief had been dashed on the rocks of reality. There was no magic here! Espie looked at me sadly, like a misunderstood parent. He touched his wrinkled, earthy finger to my chest and told me that the cure did not occur there. He then moved his finger to my temple, and said that this was where the healing took place.

Navajo Pictorial Basket
Navajo Pictorial Basket

It has taken me years to understand what Espie meant that day; he used the tools most readily available. In this case, he was talking about "faith". His patients, and those of all the other medicine men, have that intangible belief they will be healed. The power of psychology is immeasurable to those who believe. I have spoken with numerous doctors, psychologists, faith-healers and, yes, even medicine men, and they all agree that the greater the faith in the healer, the greater the likelihood of a successful outcome. All seems to be fair when it comes to helping someone feel better, even slight of hand.

If you believe, have complete faith and a firm commitment to something, that becomes your reality. I freely admit that, for me, faith is intangible. I struggle with it every day of my life, question it, overanalyze it and worry it like a bull dog does an oversized knuckle bone. I am one of those people that has to see to believe. Scientific, rational proof is my desire, but has never been my reality. Whether we are talking about medicine men, doctors, religion or even parents and spouses, "faith" seems to be where true comfort is found.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

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