Tribes blend modern, traditional treatments to improve health

  1. Joellene Adams is nearing 70 and sees her doctor on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation regularly for her diabetes medicine.

    She also is a faithful follower of the tribe's traditional healers and sees no conflict with turning to them for treatment of other ills.

    "The medicine is the only way to treat the diabetes in my body but the old ways also help the mind and the spirit. Life requires balance," said Adams, one of 150 Iroquois elders at a recent health conference for American Indian senior citizens at the Oneida Indian Nation in central New York, cradle of the powerful Iroquois Confederacy.

    American Indians have long experienced more health problems compared to other groups of Americans. Inadequate education, disproportionate poverty, discrimination in the delivery of health services and cultural differences are among the factors contributing to their poor health, according to the U.S. Indian Health Services.

    "We have more access to doctors and drugs now than we've ever had. We need to find different ways to heal," said Dr. Marilyn Cook, a Cree who practices on the Canadian side of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation.

    "Western medicine is good. We can't do without it," Cook said. "But we have our own ways of healing. We have our own ways of looking after ourselves. We sometimes forget that."

    At St. Regis, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border, traditional healers no longer work in secrecy but instead work out of the reservation clinics, alongside western-trained doctors like Cook.

    "We consider our traditional medicine man an integral part of our health services," said Debbie Terrance, health director of the clinic on the New York side of the reservation, which serves more than 8,000 Mohawks.

    At St. Regis, traditional healer Richard Cook - who is not related to Marilyn Cook - works in the clinic's mental health department, Terrance said.

    "There's not enough of him. We could keep four more of him busy," said Terrance, who has proposed building a new wing for just traditional treatments, which include pipe ceremonies, sweatlodges, herbal remedies and retreats with elders.

    While Richard Cook is the only traditional healer on staff at St. Regis, there are others living on the reservation, often with their own specialties, Terrance said. Just like western-trained doctors, Cook will frequently refer patients to other healers with different expertise.

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