Religion, Medicine, and Native Peoples in the Pacific Northwest



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Today's guest post is from Suzanne Crawford O’Brien, Associate Professor of Religion and Culture at Pacific Lutheran University, where she teaches classes in Native American religious traditions, religion and healing, religious diversity in North America, and comparative theories of religion.  Her book, Coming Full Circle: Spirituality and Wellness among Native Communities in the Pacific Northwest will be released by University of Nebraska Press this fall. Suzanne also contributed the essay on Native American Religions for my anthology Columbia Guide to Religion in American History.

Suzanne Crawford O’Brien

In 1883, Reverend Myron Eells ordered a sixteen year old Skokomish Indian girl, “Ellen Gray” confined to her room.  (The Skokomish are part of a larger cultural and linguistic group known as the Coast Salish, which stretches from British Columbia, through Western Washington to the Tillamook on the Oregon Coast.)  Eells set guards at her door, and ordered them to keep out any Native healers, friends, or family members who might try to see her. The girl was sick, suffering from congestion, a chill, and what he referred to as “suppression of menses.”  Her real sickness, he was certain, was entirely psychological, brought on by a superstitious certainty that a dangerous spirit power (“tamanawas” in the local trade jargon that Eells used) had entered her, and needed to be removed.  Finally, one night Eels reports that she “threw off the clothes, took cold, and would not make any effort to cough and clear her throat and on the twenty-second she died, actually choking to death.” He concluded that “it was a tolerably clear case of death by imagination.” 

Eells’ story highlights the ways religion and medicine intersected in the colonial Northwest—and how that intersection impacted the lives of Native people.  Following a century of epidemic diseases (the first wave of smallpox likely hit the area in the 1780s, before the arrival of any Europeans), missionization, and the creation of reservations, Native communities like those of Ellen Gray were demographically and culturally devastated. Their traditional healers were floundering, unable to address new illnesses and social conflicts. Long term poverty and hunger were being experienced for perhaps the first time by a people who had lived for millennia in an environment rich in abundant resources.  Euroamerican settlers had outlawed Native religion and healing practices, actively suppressing and imprisoning ceremonial leaders, and enforcing the conversion of Native people through mandatory boarding schools and other forms of coercion.  The story of Ellen Gray exemplifies this moment of history, and the way it played out upon the body of one young girl. 


Her story is also striking because of what was soon to follow. The Indian Shaker Church (no connection to the East coast Shakers) was taking shape in 1883.  The Indian Shaker Church was a prophetic and charismatic healing movement that combined Catholic ritual, Protestant doctrine, and indigenous approaches to healing, spirituality, community, and ethics.  The movement quickly spread throughout the Northwest, sparking religious and social revitalization.  Had Indian Shaker healers been allowed to see Ms. Gray, her outcome may have been very different. 

And, her story is particularly poignant as a contrast to the contemporary context.  The 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act paved the way for tribes throughout the United States to acquire control over their own medical and social services.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a growing number of tribal groups contracted with the federal government to provide their own care.  In Washington State tribes like the Skokomish, of which Ellen Gray was a member, now have their own wellness centers, providing holistic care that runs the gambit from biomedicine, mental health care, drug and alcohol counseling, vocational rehabilitation and training, education assistance, and complementary and alternative medicine such as massage and acupuncture. It is not at all unusual for such wellness centers to include ceremonial spaces where local religious leaders can hold ceremonies for patients, or to refer patients to local religious specialists who can provide such care.  Such ceremonies might be as simple as a smudging ceremony (brushing sage smoke over a patient, which requires the temporary disconnecting of smoke detectors), or a complex all-night healing ceremony in a Shaker church or longhouse. 

The way in which biomedicine is being integrated alongside traditional healing traditions provides a fascinating window into the ways in which religion and healthcare intersect, and how “tradition” can take surprising new forms.  From 2000 to 2006, for instance, I volunteered with Native communities in the south Puget Sound as they coordinated their annual Intertribal Intergenerational Women and Girls Gathering. The four day weekend—which took place at a 4-H camp on the shores of a lake surrounded by second growth forest—provided workshops on basketry, beading, drum making, herbalism, a sweat lodge and a traditional giveaway.  It also provided free mammograms, pap smears, diabetes screening, lessons on self-breast-exams, nutritional guidance, tai chi, massage, Reiki, and reflexology. For the women at the Gathering, such seemingly divergent activities flowed smoothly together. If they promoted a healthy person within community, if they strengthened women to uphold their families, communities, and cultural traditions, then, the women argued, they fit within Coast Salish traditions of health and wellness.

While Eels and other missionaries sought to stamp out Native religions and impose their own exclusive version of Christianity, Native communities have carved out a space for spirituality that is inclusive and strikingly ecumenical. A Coast Salish person might participate in traditional spirit dancing in the winter, be part of the Indian Shaker Church on occasions through the spring and summer, and attend a Pentecostal church at other times of year.  Consider for instance in 2005 when the Skokomish nation dedicated a new addition to their Wellness Center: the structure was blessed by the local Assembly of God pastor, elders from the Indian Shaker Church, and a traditional spiritual leader from the longhouse spirit dancing tradition.

Since the 1970s, Native communities of the Pacific Northwest have experienced a dramatic revival of religion, culture, and political agency. They have regained treaty fishing and gathering rights, have gained control over their education, healthcare, and social services, and are fighting (sometimes successfully) to protect sacred sites and resources.  Each summer, tribal communities in western Washington and British Columbia join together in Tribal Journeys, an intertribal canoe journey, wherein “canoe families” paddle hand carved canoes sometimes hundreds of miles, meeting up at traditional village sites along the way.  The Journey concludes with a week-long gathering of thousands of Native people, welcoming the canoes and celebrating traditional culture. Members of each nation make passionate speeches, offer their songs and dances, and celebrate their traditions.  This year, the final week’s celebrations take place August 1-6 in Tahola, WA on the Quinault reservation.

The focus of Tribal Journeys is healing, sobriety, and cultural renewal.  As Charlene Krise, a tribal council member of the Squaxin Island nation has put it, the Canoe Journey is a modern day soul retrieval ceremony.  Traditionally, illness could be attributed to the loss of one’s soul: perhaps it had been spirited away to the land of the dead. A healer was employed to make the spiritual journey, and retrieve that person’s soul. Often, that ceremony took place in a symbolic canoe, the healer “paddling” in spirit to the other side. Today, in contrast to the tragic experience of Ellen Gray, sixteen year old Skokomish girls can be found paddling their tribe’s canoe, making the arduous (and sometimes dangerous) journey.  It is a labor of prayer, song, reflection, and celebration.  And in the process, they are retrieving and renewing not only their own soul, but the soul of their nation.

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