Hogans in Hospitals: Navajo patients want the best of both worlds

Nov 15th, 1993 | By | Category: 5-3: Medicine, Features
By George Hardeen

Teri Larrison, RN, at the Chinle Indian Health Service Hospital nursing station. Photo credit: George Hardeen

When Kentucky native Connie Taylor first arrived for work at the Chinle Indian Health Service Hospital in the center of the Navajo Nation, she thought the place was on fire.

“I just sort of walked in there and smelted something smoking,” the nursing director says.

Her first impulse at the odor of scorched wood in the maternity ward was to grab a fire extinguisher and shoot.

Now, two-and-a-half years later, Taylor’s alarm at the smell of smoke in the hospital is long since gone. But the sweet scent of burning cedar is still there in the ward whenever Navajo women are preparing to have their babies.

Smudging with the smoke of sacred cedar to induce good thoughts and serenity is just one of numerous traditional Navajo heal­ing methods used here and at the other four IHS hospitals across the huge southwestern reservation.

In the birthing rooms, red and white woven sash belts, usually worn with traditional dress, hang from the ceilings. Mothers-to-be hold onto them during labor, pulling to help push their babies into the world, and allowing good thoughts to flow from the sash into them to ease the delivery.

Once a baby is born, Navajo mothers often ask for the meconi­um—the infant’s first stool right after birth—which they spread on their own faces to help remove what they call the birth mask.

The placenta and umbilical cord are commonly requested by the mother or grandmother, and so are saved as standard procedure by the staff.

“That’s taken home and given back to Mother Earth,” says obstet­rics head nurse Linda K. Begaye. “It’s taught we come from Mother Earth and we give back to Mother Earth.”

If the baby’s a girl, she says, these often are buried by the south side of the hogan where the weaving loom is set up. In this way, she will grow up with the skills of a weaver and always have a home. If it’s a boy, they’ll be placed in the corral or cornfield so he grows up close to the livestock or appreciative of growing things.

Here, where the native culture is still strong and the Navajo language is spoken everywhere, these old Navajo practices and values have been embraced almost as much by modern care givers as by their tradi­tional patients. Even in the glisten­ing setting of a modern Navajo IHS hospital, they go almost unnoticed by all hut the freshest newcomers.

It is the patients who have pushed for the change. They grew up with traditional healing methods and now want it to complement their modern treatment. So it’s not uncommon to see traditional healers—Navajo medicinemen, the healer-priests of the tribe—practicing their art within Navajo hospitals.

“Our beliefs are all different,” says Navy James, a well-known medicineman from Ganado, “but we all use the Western medicine.”

Medicinemen continue to carry on the rituals, ceremonies and prayers that, since time immemorial, have prepared Navajos for the birth of their children, entry into woman­hood, cleansing of returning sol­diers, and preparation for stepping into the next world. They also help restore balance and harmony for those who have become ill or violat­ed a tribal taboo.

But James says medicinemen today acknowledge that there are health problems that indeed are bet­ter handled by Western medicine. “They cure sometimes,” he says. “If they can’t cure someone, we do a ceremony for that person and some­times that will cure the illness. It’s good that we all work together.”

The Chinle Hospital has gone so far as to construct a “healing room,” a specially-built round room designed in the shape of Navajo hogan. A fireplace in the center and a square foot of sand before it cre­ates an uninterrupted connection to the earth beneath the building.

It’s here medicinemen can per­form ceremonies or prayers to help their patients who have been admit­ted to the hospital. Brief healing prayers may also be done right in a hospital room.

It’s also common for doctors to release patients for a night or a few days specifically to have a ceremony done at home.

“If we really want to bridge Western medicine with traditional medicine, (the doctors) really have to respect the Navajo people and this is one way to do that,” nurse Linda Begaye, a Navajo, says. “Combining the two is practicing holistic medi­cine which is how Navajos practice their medicine anyway.”

Dr. Ron Smith, a pediatrician at Chinle, says there’s a huge differ­ence between the notion of doctors seeking to cure an illness and heal­ers trying to heal an entire person.

“Western medicine has a great deal to learn,” he says. “The doctor mostly talks and acts on you. The healer mostly listens and allows the patient to heal themselves.”

While the concept of healing through traditional spiritual approaches is long established on the Navajo Reservation, it’s gradual­ly gaining currency all ewer the country as it becomes better under­stood and, more importantly, better respected.

For far too long, doctors simply ignored the spiritual belief systems of their Indian patients just because they didn’t have a demonstrated sci­entific basis in improving health, says Dr. Joseph Jacobs, a Mohawk and director of the Office of Alternative Medicine for the National Institutes of Health.

“It’s very important for the physi­cians and nurses and other health care providers to try to understand and work with the traditional heal­ers of the communities,” Jacobs says. “If you don’t consider the belief sys­tems of people, then you can’t ade­quately integrate Western medicine into the care of indigenous people. It’s foolish not to do it.”

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