North American Indigenous healing traditions and HIV

Many cultures; common ideas

The Indigenous peoples of North America represent diverse cultures. Consequently, there is no single healing tradition that can be called North American Indigenous medicine, but many Indigenous healing traditions share common world views and concepts. For instance, healing as a holistic process is a central belief in most Indigenous healing traditions. In other words, physical healing often requires spiritual, mental and/or emotional healing as well. Indigenous healing practices have been described by some as mind–body medicine because they are grounded in the belief that the spiritual, emotional, mental and physical aspects of life are connected. For example, the four elements of the medicine wheel, which is used by some Indigenous peoples in North America, represent these four aspects of health as well as other dimensions of human life and the environment.

Healing circles

The circle symbolizes another important feature of many Indigenous healing traditions. As a health-giving practice, healing circles allow participants to speak with others and find, as well as offer, support. The healing circle reflects the emphasis many Indigenous healing traditions place on connection to one’s community, however that might be defined. Many Indigenous traditions teach that personal or physical healing is more likely to occur when people work to heal their relationships with others and with the world around them.

Group processes and ceremonies such as sweat lodges, dancing, singing and chanting might also be used in the healing traditions of Indigenous cultures. The way each ceremony is performed varies across North America and depends on the Indigenous people and culture involved.

Medicinal herbs

Medicinal herbs are widely used by Indigenous healers. Four herbs used frequently at gatherings in the southern part of Canada are tobacco, cedar, sage and sweet grass. These herbs can be used to smudge, meaning they are burnt to release them into the air. There are many beliefs about the purpose of smudging. One is that it helps to integrate the herbs with the surrounding environment as well as to link participants with that environment and each other. Participants become linked when they breathe in the herb, making it a part of their bodies. Sage can also be burned to cleanse the area before ceremonies begin, and sweet grass can clear the mind of negative thoughts. Cedar is sometimes used to cleanse the body and protect it from illness, and tobacco can be used to thank the Creator for many things, including healing and providing food and medicine. Often used together in healing ceremonies, each of these herbs can also be associated with one of the four directions on the medicine wheel.

Beginning a healing journey

In some Indigenous North American cultures, a healing journey begins when someone approaches an Elder or healer for guidance. Contacting an Elder from one’s own community or nation is often a good place to start. Indigenous people across Canada are served by a network of Indigenous community agencies, clinics and healing centres offering support and treatment to Indigenous people with HIV, and these can be an alternative place to start for Indigenous people without close links to their home communities. Many of these agencies offer access to Indigenous healers and help Indigenous people find a range of services to holistically deal with their illness. In some cases, such agencies may also help HIV-positive people access conventional Western treatment, if individuals desire such assistance.

For a listing of HIV services for Indigenous people, contact Communities, Alliances & Networks at