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Native American Medicine Men Use Inner Healing Power in Wyoming Hospital - 2003-02-19

When a chaplain visits a hospital patient, sometimes their interaction boosts that patient's power to heal. The same is true when a Medicine man visits a Native American patient. But for years, Medicine Men were not welcomed in most U.S. hospitals and even on reservations, federal authorities used to ban some indigenous healing ceremonies.

As respect for native traditions grew, along with an appreciation of their healing benefits, most of those restrictions were lifted. A few reservation communities today even have Medicine Men on the hospital staff, and elaborate facilities for their healing ceremonies.

As Director of Community Relations at the Lander Valley Medical Center, Sandra St. Clair promotes community building through hayrides, ice skating and cultural events that bring Native Americans from the Wind River Reservation together with the mostly white population in Lander.

When she joined this small hospital 12 years ago, the staff was unfamiliar with Native American healing traditions. Mrs. St. Clair is half Indian herself, and married to a Shoshoni elder, so as part of community building within the hospital, she led orientations to explain the "medicines" Indians might bring along for a hospital stay. Even today, she's always ready to open a drawer in her office desk and lift out a box of native medicines. They include a green braid of sweetgrass that smells like licorice, and fragrant cedar harvested from evergreen bushes to use in incense "cedarings."

Mrs. St. Clair says a cedaring ceremony offers a reminder of nature that's as uplifting to Native Americans as stained glass windows are to someone who prays in a Christian church. The Lander Hospital includes a room reserved as a chapel. Since nearly half the facility's patients are Indian, one of Mrs. St. Clair's first projects was a similar room for Native American healings.

"Some of our Indian people they still rely on Indian ways," said Bobby Joe Goggles, an Arapaho Medicine Man who often uses elements from nature to strengthen people's inner power to heal. "That's one reason we tried to work with the doctors and the nurses."

He says that inner healing power can compliment Western Medicine. Unfortunately, he says, some people unfamiliar with his methods consider them superstitions at best - and evil black magic at worst.

"They label things that's out of context of what's really taking place. A lot of that is this misunderstanding because of what we know works and what doesn't," Bobby Joe Goggles said.

These fears made many whites at the Lander Hospital uneasy about creating a Native American Healing Room. There were misconceptions about practical matters as well, such as the Fire Marshall's concerns about cedarings.

"They thought there was going to be this gigantic, Weber Barbecue fire, when we said we were going to burn a little charcoal," he explained.

Former hospital administrator Bruce Kline worked closely with Mrs. St. Clair to promote a Native American healing room. He says that a simple explanation took care of the fire safety issues. Health concerns were another matter. Some physicians did not want any smoke near their patients with lung problems. But Mr. Kline say others viewed it like chicken soup the home remedy used by generations of Jewish mothers for whatever was wrong, from a stuffy nose to a broken heart.

"Jewish penicillin is chicken soup. The cedaring in a sense is like Jewish penicillin," Mr. Kline said. "It's good for them and the doctors would say, yeah it's a lung problem, but I know that cedaring is spiritually, psychologically really good for them."

Bit by bit, Mrs. St. Clair says, they worked through issues such as these.

"It took us a year of meetings between the elders from the reservation, administrators from the hospital, caregivers from the hospital, doctors, who all talked together and came up with, we can have this room, and this is how we can use it," Mrs. St. Clair added. We go down a hospital corridor to what seems like a regular patient room. But it's decorated with several paintings of mountains, streams, wild animals and Native American tipis. Instead of a bed, the room is furnished with a couch and chairs. Mrs. St. Clair says these make it easier for family members to join in a healing ceremony.

"I know a lot of people are disappointed when they see, it's just a room," she said. "But it's a room that really does mean something to the people when they use it. And when they close it up and turn the lights off and use the cedaring. It's what it has to be. It's what it needs to be."

She goes to a cast iron pot in one corner of the room.

"You can see where people have used it to do cedarings. It's got the charcoal in there. How many people, I don't know, but that's what it's here for," said Mrs. St. Clair.

Sandra St. Clair says the biggest proof of the healing room's success is its acceptance as an ordinary part of the medical center.

"This hospital belongs to this community that we serve. Part of it's the reservation, and we want people to feel, 'this is my hospital,' not their hospital or anything," she added. "We don't want the people on the reservation to think 'the white hospital.' It's also their hospital."

This year marks the 10th anniversary for the Native American Healing Room at the Lander Hospital.