Native Voices

A unique, new exhibition opened last October at the National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health: Native Voices: Native Peoples‘ Concepts of Health and Illness.  This is exciting, even groundbreaking.  It examines the concepts of medicine and health among contemporary American Native populations  – American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians – and explores the many connections between illness, wellness and cultural life with a combination of interviews, interactive media, artwork and other objects.

Native Voices issues some challenges as well.  It speaks to the accountability of all individuals, to themselves and to their communities, and of the interconnectedness of those communities; it speaks of tradition, of reverence for Nature, of the Great Spirit.  It addresses, too, the necessity of balancing Western medicine and traditional healing.

America’s  Native communities and the National Library of Medicine have a history of working together over the years as the Library strives to honor its commitment to making health resources available to people wherever they live and work.  Native Voices came out of meetings with Native leaders in Hawaii, Alaska and the contiguous United States.  According to Donald A.B. Lindberg, MD, director of the National Library of Medicine,

This exhibition honors the Native tradition of oral history and establishes a unique collection of information….We hope visitors will find Native Voices educational and inspirational, and we hope Native people will view it with pride.  The Library is excited to open this exhibition, and to do it during our 175th anniversary year.

The exhibition features many important and timely topics: Native views of land, community, earth/nature, food and spirituality as they relate to Native health; economic and cultural issues that affect health; the relationship between traditional healing and Western medicine in Native communities; efforts of Native communities to improve health conditions; and the role of Native Americans in military service, as well as healing support for returning Native veterans.

Yvette Roubideaux, MD, MPH, Director of the US Indian Health Service, is a Harvard-trained physician and member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.  She considers herself to have a dual vision of Native health care, “seeing the importance of both traditional medicine and modern technology in healing and promoting wellness among Native people.”  And yes, some improvements have been made in the health status of Alaska Natives and American Indians.  But there remains a major disconnect between what is available to Native Americans compared with the rest of the population.  Dr. Roubideaux observes that:

For instance, life expectancy is still more than five years below that for the general population.  Diabetes mortality rates are nearly three times higher, and suicide rates are nearly twice as great.

We are grateful for this exhibit, as it will help to educate the general public, legislators, and researchers about the health challenges in Indian Country and the need for appropriate resources and knowledge to meet those challenges.

Our lives are so much richer when we broaden our bases, open our minds (and hearts) to other possibilities, other approaches, other communities.  Real health and well-being are so very much more than prescription medications, doctors’ appointments and stints at rehab clinics.  We need both, of course, access to modern care, access to healing and sustaining traditions and beliefs.

For instance, think about the traditional double-hulled canoes that were used for long-distance travel across the Pacific Ocean.  Would you have the skill or courage or stamina to make such a journey?  Could you manage without fancy navigational and communication instruments? The Polynesian Voyaging Society is today helping young Native Hawaiians reconnect with their ancestors and to their own natural environment by teaching them to sail, using their latent observational skills, seeing that they understand the value of respecting and nurturing both their spirituality and their physical health.  Generations of American Natives have sustained their strength and health through diverse lifestyles and shared experiences – an invaluable lesson (and template) for us all.

To learn more about this terrific exhibit, check out the website: Native Voices.


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