On the Road to Health

Dr. W.F. Peate outlines a path to wellness using Native American wisdom.

Tucson physician W.F. Peate's latest book--a synopsis of Native American medicine--is primarily a self-help manual with an esoteric bent, giving glimpses of the mystical elements informing the work of native healers.

Peate, a graduate of Dartmouth and Harvard, was introduced to traditional healing when he was a young medical student on a Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona. He witnessed an incident in which a shaman brought an elderly Navajo man back from near-death after conventional medical procedures failed. The old man later told him that he had been "going towards a light" when the medicine man's chanting had brought him back.

Not surprisingly, this event marked a turning point for Peate. While pursuing a career in conventional medicine--he's also a professor of medicine and public health at the UA--Peate has immersed himself in the study of indigenous healing. He states that native ways can help "to enrich modern medicine or to find answers when standard treatments don't work."

He draws a clear picture of tribal healing philosophy, contrasting it with Western medicine. Believing in a sacred connection between all things, native healers affirm that psycho-social disturbances and self-destructive behavior are the sources of most illness. The body's natural healing power is released when "mind, body, spirit and community are in harmony with a natural life cycle." Peate tells us Western medicine is becoming more attuned to the mind-body connection, but doctors still tend to fixate on the physical side of illness.

He writes that before embarking on a treatment plan, native healers try to learn as much as they can about a patient's life situations. Treatment is then crafted to address not only symptoms, but non-physical problems as well.

Peate is an earnest spokesman for the integrative model. He discusses the harmful effects of stress, points to studies linking heart disease to pessimism and declares that unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, substance abuse and overeating are often kindled by "conflict with others or a lack of inner peace."

These ideas are hardly groundbreaking--reflective of themes underlying most holistic health care books--but Peate enlivens them with his enthusiasm.

He shares a number of case studies from his practice--sick people, stressed-out, isolated and depressed, who fail to respond to medical treatment. We read about a man who is unable to return to work from a minor back injury in spite of repeated treatments and normal test results. It turns out the man's wife is a cocaine addict who sells their possessions while he's at work. "I can't go back to work, or I'll have an empty house," he laments. When his wife gets treatment, his symptoms disappear.

Drawing on native paradigms, Peate maps out four pathways to good health, intended to foster self-awareness, strong social ties, good doctor-patient relationships and an acceptance of "where we stand in the larger pattern of existence." Each pathway is lined with a number of simple exercises.

Creating a personal sanctuary or writing your own eulogy are ways to "reflect on what is truly important to us." Filling out a genogram, a family tree of personality traits, can help a person "to recognize the influence of your past on your present." Communication may be enhanced during family gatherings by passing around a "talking stick," a Native American symbol of the right of every person to speak.

Peate's depictions of native healers, though mostly brief, are fascinating. We read of medicine people who can "reach into the innermost person and enhance their innate abilities, hopes and dreams." In a convergence of cultures, a white woman with chronic pain visits a Navajo sweat lodge. Her pain is relieved. and she receives help with her troubled marriage during a ceremony in which the medicine woman looked into her eyes with such intensity that she felt "as if she saw into my core."

We hear of shamans who seem to harness cosmic forces by taking patients into a mysterious light "where broken hearts and bodies are healed, and where many times the true cause of an illness is found."

Additionally, there's a riveting account of a medicine man's vision at the moment of a patient's death, in which "a whirling mass of roundish lights appears" to gather up the person's spirit.

Peate has a way of writing passages that move. In one evocative vignette, he describes time spent with a dying woman who asks him to pray for her. Rather than an exchange of dogma, we witness a tender meshing of two spirits.

This book covers a lot of ground, and it can be a bit sketchy. Several topics, including vision quests and the healing light, could use more illustration. Nevertheless, its wide sweep and open-hearted approach is a recommended introduction to a world view and healing style unfamiliar to many westerners.

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