Traditional Healing for Native American Communities

Traditional healing is a relatively new program based on well-established “tried and tested” methods.

The nature of traditional healing is based upon knowledge and sacred ceremonies passed through the generations, carefully taught, and intrinsically linked to the respect of the communities. The Minnesota Department of Human Services’ Traditional Healing for Native Communities program, which is entering its third year, is a step closer to acknowledging the needs of the community. It is providing support to, while following, those who know the situation best.

This is an approach to mental health and substance use disorder treatment designed and delivered by American Indians, for American Indians. Research indicates that traditional healing practices produce outcomes equivalent to conventional treatment for non-American Indians. Traditional Healing for Native Communities is among DHS’s programs and services for people with substance use disorder.

Traditional healing is proven to:

  • Address whole health and the root cause of inter-generational trauma
  • Promote self-esteem and resiliency
  • Keep families intact
  • Help with identity formation and/or reclamation
  • Be utilized as a coping skill
  • Connect children, adults and elders and promote positive community integration and presence
  • Help assign meaning and purpose to life.

Many of the issues facing American Indian communities are rooted in historical trauma, intergenerational economic disenfranchisement, and a prescriptive approach to solutions. Each of these came with their own harm, but notably in respect to this program, there is an opportunity for a shift.

The DHS program isn’t about the state mandating how these communities should use their traditional ways, but it is about working in honest collaboration as equals to help those that need it. To say that this program is special is an understatement.

Ten Tribal Nations and five urban Indian organizations have chosen to participate in the program. We are entering the second of five state fiscal years in which the state is issuing $2 million per year in traditional healing grants.

In 1978 the American Indian Religious Freedom Act made it so that Indigenous Peoples practicing their spiritual and religious practices would no longer be outlawed, that they indeed held First Amendment rights, and that the federal government should lead state and local policy to work with Indigenous communities. While the language of the act claimed many things, it is hard to claim a belief in religious freedom when the government outlawed the ancestral beliefs of the original inhabitants of this land. An edict of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” was extolled by those who believed it was more ethical to cleanse the Indigenous Peoples of their “savagery.”

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The request from American Indian Peoples is a basic ask for human-to-human respect, and that historically has been met with opposition from federal and state forces, since the founding of the colonies.

To say that having a state agency then choose to support that community, to no longer determine what is best for them from a Western lens, this is a step towards a better relationship.

What will decide the success of the Traditional Healing for Native Communities program is the ability of others to simply recognize that what Indigenous communities need cannot be brought about by foreign means. It is an internal healing that is required, a release of years of oppression, reconciling within communities the trauma inflicted upon Indigenous peoples when non-Indigenous folks thought that they knew better.

The healing that is needed cannot be found within external sources, but it must be a coming together of community for the betterment of the people it is meant to serve. What that looks like might differ from band to band, but that is the nature of traditions. These methods are not consigned to antiquity, Indigenous communities do not lack modernity, but the heart of the work must be done by the healers to yield tangible good for their communities.

The Traditional Healing for Native Communities program stands unique against the context of history, and the approach it takes. We work with our Tribal partners, we design the evaluation, respect the sanctity of their ceremonial practices, and never intrude upon the details with disrespectful requests. While oversight to funding remains uniform across all grantees for equity, and standards of reporting outcomes and data are also respected, the approach and action of these things no longer implicitly convey that the Western model is the only acceptable model to be used.

Traditional practices and teachings are living things with communities; they are not static nor dogmatic. Understandings of the culture in question permits a grasp of the intent that guide these practices, but do not confine them to one static thing. To translate the idea out of the notion that these are arcane rites that are only done through mysticism and “exotic” means, think of traditional healers as you would your own, but instead of compartmentalizing mental health, and physical health, emotional health, and spiritual health, there is an individual who has committed their life to a calling of being a healer who can help guide others along their journey of healing.

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While the Western model demands uniformity of practice, and control of the methods, these sorts of restrictive approaches cannot answer the myriad issues American Indian Peoples face as a result of the intersections of personal and communal histories, influences, socioeconomic factors, medical education, cultural repairing, and spiritual identity. This is especially true when the Western method has been directly antagonistic and antithetical to the traditional approaches.

Traditional healers are needed now more than ever for Indigenous communities, as it is only through a healing of our identity within the grand tapestry of humanity that the frayed ends of discord can be amended and brought back together, a protective shawl on our journey as people.

The act of funding this endeavor, of righting a systemic wrong, of respecting the humanity of others, is a step in the right direction, and one that instills hope for healing beyond this.

Healing the ills wrought by the past and present is not impossible, it just takes a brief moment to choose to do different. I believe this work can be that moment, and I hope it continues to nourish other choices as they grow in the minds and hearts of others.


Perry Moore, the Traditional Healing Program coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, is a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Ojibwe.

Last Updated on July 13, 2021

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