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Medicine Women, Curanderas, and Women Doctors

Medicine Women, Curanderas, and Women Doctors

by Bobette Perrone, H. Henrietta Stockel, Victoria Krueger

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
``When we do not communicate, we are ill,'' asserts Navajo medicine woman Annie Kahn. Her belief that interpersonal relationships, good or bad communal energies, affect one's physical health is echoed by Hispanic curanderas , or women healers, interviewed for this cross-cultural report. Both the Amerindian and Hispanic traditions agree also that the transgressing of spiritual laws causes illness. Most curanderas , it seems, believe from an early age that they were predestined to channel the healing graces of God or the saints, using medicinal plants, herbs, charms and rituals. Counterposed to these traditions are what the authors call ``AMA American Medical Association medicine,'' yet the white professional women physicians interviewed here appear to be moving beyond a mechanistic, clinical approach. Instead of dissecting female healers under an anthropological microscope, the authors of this rewarding survey approach traditional medicine as a living entity with its own internal laws. Perrone is a photographer, Stockel a New Mexico Human Services administrator, Krueger a psychologist. Photos. (Oct.)
Portraits of 10 women healers working in native American, Hispanic, and AMA traditions. Based primarily on interviews with the subjects. Compares the differences and similarities of philosophical approach, spiritual and emotional elements, techniques, and relationships to patients and communities. An advocacy for "alternative" medicine rather than a rigorous scientific study. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

University of Oklahoma Press
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Medicine Women, Curanderas, and Women Doctors

By Bobette Perrone, H. Henrietta Stockel, Victoria Krueger


Copyright © 1989 Bobette Perrone, H. Henrietta Stockel, and Victoria Krueger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8858-4



An Introduction

There are bridges in geography
... from Manhattan to Brooklyn
There are bridges in music
... from B flat to C
There are bridges in life
... birth
... graduation
... marriage
... death
There are bridges
... between genders
... between cultures
... between philosophies of healing

The first premise of this book is that each of the different cultural approaches to healing presented in this volume has something to contribute to the goal of wellness. Western, scientific, or what we will call "AMA medicine" (medicine as practiced by members of the American Medical Association) has provided surgery, x-rays, lasers, antibiotics, vaccines, and many more procedures and products that have extended the lifespan of most Americans into their seventies. It must be acknowledged, however, that there is a growing and uncomfortable realization within the realms of AMA medicine about healing practices. Doctors themselves are criticizing some areas within their profession that they now believe require and even demand change. Medical journals have spoken out and acknowledged the serious difficulties in the delivery of health care. And the consumer-patient is voicing similar objections, both verbally and in the form of malpractice suits. The medical profession has been put on notice.

What is needed to correct the problems? Many elements missing in AMA medicine can be found in the cultures we present here, and in the women we studied. The traditional and contemporary ways of healing are not in conflict with each other, not antagonistic; rather, they can be complementary, and they can work together toward a single purpose of curing the patient. The model for healing can be a syncretic model, a fusion or union of originally differing and even conflicting components. The either- or position is an adversarial model. One of the main arguments of this book is that the traditional healing practitioner uses techniques and a pharmacopoeia (herbs and other sources of medicine) that are the foundation of modern medical practices. Such contributions have been valuable, and more can be learned from them than has been to date.

Assumptions and values about healing can be reevaluated and perhaps incorporated as well. For example, traditional cultures demonstrate a partnership, a connectedness between the healer and the patient. In contrast, if satisfying healing by a physician consisted solely of an examination and then a prescription for the correct medication, the vanishing of a doctor-patient relationship would not be so loudly decried. The best from each of the three cultures should be studied, with the insights and information obtained incorporated productively into the delivery of health care. This synergistic vision is the authors' first premise and a worthy goal.

The second premise is that women have particular characteristics (not necessarily unique to women) that make important contributions to healing. They bring skills such as touching, hugging, talking, and paying attention to the "other" (the patient), and they are good at verbal and nonverbal communication. They bring empathy and attention and a sense of connectedness, caring, and community. Psychologist Judith Jordan, of Harvard Medical School, states that "studies of sex differences in empathy show that while both sexes are equally good at noticing and labeling affective states in others, women are more motivated to respond." Carol Tarvis and Carole Offir summarize the classic experiments of Bem in which subjects were asked to listen to apparently spontaneous conversations of another person (who was actually a confederate of the experimenters delivering a memorized script regarding personal problems). In the results, "it turned out that ... women reacted with more concern than did men." Robert Rosenthal and his associates found that "women excel at decoding nonverbal signs of other people's feelings." M. Hoffman states, "There is some evidence ... that girls are more likely to share in the emotions of others—to feel happy when others are happy, distressed when they are distressed." Rosenthal's study on nonverbal cues and their relationship to empathy points to the need of women to attend accurately to an infant's nonverbal communication: "If women, as well as other oppressed groups, must 'read' the expressions of others with great accuracy in order to advance or even survive, then they could become nonverbally sensitive at an early age ... when one is powerless, one must be subtle."

Summarizing the issue of empathy, Jordan states: "Empathy is a complex process that relies on a high level of ego strength and development and involves a balance of thought and feeling. Men and women differ in their ability to respond empathetically. Men tend to have difficulty with surrender and the act of temporarily joining with one another. It implies for them passivity, loss of objectivity and loss of control. Women, on the other hand, are conditioned to be more empathetic." Thus research substantiates differences in male and female empathy and nurturing, showing that women possess these characteristics and attributes, making them especially skilled healers.

The stories of women healers have rarely been told and need to be. Carol Christ says:

Women live in a world where women's stories have rarely been told from their own perspectives. The stories celebrated in culture are told of self and world, and their most profound stories orient them to what they perceive as the great powers of the universe. But since women have not been told their own stories, they have not actively shaped their experiences of self and world or named the great powers from their own perspectives.

The female-oriented approach to problem solving has not been adequately explored, examined, or incorporated. Important studies are now being done that may change this. One purpose of this book is to contribute to a broad spectrum of investigations of the benefits of a female-oriented approach to healing. We hear many things about medicine men; what do we hear about medicine women? Moreover, we ask you to examine your own choice of a male or female physician.

Relevant questions about male and female healers may reveal much about gender assumptions. Culturally, the same questions apply. Whom would you choose? A medical doctor, an herbalist, a midwife, a Native American medicine person? What are your assumptions and what are your reasons?

Every system of operations makes assumptions, and healing is no exception. Sometimes these assumptions are overt, sometimes covert; sometimes a culture is conscious of the assumptions, but most of the time it is not. Before we can understand the healing systems of the Native American, Southwest Hispanic, and Anglo cultures, we must understand the assumptions on which they are based.

AMA medicine, the dominant method of Western healing for many decades, assumes that physical illnesses are the result of physical causes only (viruses, organ malfunctions, bacteria, genetics, and biochemical agents). Although Western medicine has increasingly recognized psychological factors as contributing to the cause of ailments (e.g., stress as the cause of ulcers), the primary assumption still is that the basic causes of physical illnesses are, in fact, physical.

In contrast, a Navajo medicine woman might say that a person has become ill from looking upon the face of a dead one; a Hispanic healer (la curandera) will say that illness is frequently a matter of chance and that "chance" is somehow associated with the will of God. One fundamental assumption in both Native American and Southwest Hispanic cultures is that physical diseases can be caused by the violation of spiritual or religious laws. A spiritual dimension or concept of bewitchment (such as the Hispanic theory of embrujada) as an active source of some illnesses is a foreign idea to Western medical practitioners and is not given much credibility by those who believe truth resides in a microscope. When one seeks to discern why healers approach the task of healing so differently, it is crucial to understand such cultural differences. A Navajo medicine sing, for instance, makes little sense as a curative procedure if one assumes that only bacteria and viruses cause diseases.

To understand the healing practices of other cultures, the reader is asked to consider unfamiliar healing assumptions with an open mind (even though they differ a great deal from the premises of Western medicine) and to weed out unconscious bias. We are asking the reader to suspend assumptions just as we as authors had to suspend our own standard language and training. A difficult task is presented. How does one weed out unconscious bias when, by definition, "unconscious" means that one is not aware. This approach is suggested: practice free association. What do you, the reader, feel when you experience any of the following: a Harvard degree hanging on your doctor's office wall; the smell of alcohol or antiseptic; the hum of the x-ray machine; the sting of a hypodermic needle or the burn of iodine; the wooden taste of a tongue depressor. For most people accustomed to Western medicine, these experiences create a sense of trust and belief that the doctors know what they are doing and will impart health. These procedures or experiences foster an assurance that the physicians using them have access to the "truth" of healing. Actually, these are learned responses, evidence of one's unconscious, automatic biases and assumptions about "science" and "medicine."

Do you believe that all doctors are equally competent any more than you believe that all plumbers or all auto mechanics or all secretaries are equally competent? If you have been brought up in scientific, Anglo, academic cultures, you may assume that physicians are equally competent, whereas you would view as ludicrous the idea that all electricians are equally skilled. Why this discrepancy? Do we think as we walk into the doctor's office, "Aha, I smell antiseptic, therefore I trust this professional?" Is that not an assumption? Is that not a belief system? It has nothing to do with truth. This doctor could be totally inept. Yet, we tend to trust because of the familiar smells and sights in the doctor's office.

If, however, one says, "I am not that trusting, I am always careful, and I always get a second opinion," then first, one is not in the majority. Many Americans believe that entering a doctor's office will automatically provide them the best healing or treatment available. Even when a second opinion is sought, however, if two doctors (both trained in the same principles) reach the same diagnosis, are they not most often believed? This assumption that two similar opinions represent the "truth" could also be a bias. Someone who does not believe in medicine women or curanderas, for example, would not consider even ten similar or identical opinions to constitute the truth.

Imagine looking back from a vantage point of one thousand years in the future, retrospectively evaluating our current, "sophisticated" medical and scientific procedures. One might see today's physician waving laser beams over a patient's body as a primitive, archaic, and incomprehensible healing technique, just as from some perspectives a medicine woman waving eagle feathers, or a curandera holding a crucifix over a patient, is viewed by some as archaic. The similarities are striking and compelling. Future generations may lose touch with the major assumptions underpinning contemporary western medicine, just as many of us have now lost touch with the assumptions integral to older cultures that continue to practice the ancient healing ways. Forgetting the assumptions on which a procedure is based may make the procedure incomprehensible, but it does not make it invalid.

Most readers make assumptions about the concept of objectivity. It is an assumption that one can be objective. Yet, the mere choice of selecting what will be observed is a bias. As viewed by Hager, "objectivity" is a myth because it is simply another system of belief, in this instance the system adhered to by scientists. It is not the truth, although it is assumed by many to be so and is no longer a questioned assumption. A dilemma arises when scientists delude themselves into believing that their own opinions and beliefs play no role in their pursuit of objectivity.

One example of nonobjectivity (bias) is sexism in science. States Londa Schiebinger, "Scientific knowledge cannot be neutral because it is structured by power relations—and they examine the masculinist values practiced within the context of the norms of scientific inquiry." The vast majority of research studies, for example, have been based on white, male choices of the topic, male selection of subjects, male interpretation of the data, the establishment of norms based on those interpretations—and the subsequent application of those norms to the entire population. Carol Gilligan states, "There's been a sort of coming forward from other researchers who've told me about studies where women were dropped from the sample because their responses were complicating the situation." These reports indicate that there are good grounds for challenging the myth and assumption of objectivity in science.

In addition to sexism, "scientism" is a bias. For example, a 1980s television show host kicked off a discussion by physicians of assumptions in medicine with the question "Are hospitals killing us?" Dr. Robert Mendelsohn replied: "I refer to hospitals as the temples of the religion of modern medicine because modern medicine isn't a science, it's really a belief system. There's practically no science in medicine." In other words, modern medicine and science are a belief system based on the myth of objectivity.

In contrast to the assumption of objectivity, consider the premises other cultures have long held about the connection between spirituality and healing. In the practice of Western scientific medicine, the ability to heal is earthly, but in traditional Indian and Hispanic cultures, the power to heal is divine. A medicine woman's power comes through her spirituality, evidenced in the healing ceremonies she performs. A curandera's power comes from her religion and her deep belief that God has selected her to heal on earth. These are very different assumptions about healing from that of "scientific objectivity." Where do such assumptions come from?

The assumptions of a culture have their foundation in cultural myths. Myths are any body of stories and information believed to explain how things work or how they happened. Western science uses the myth of objectivity as one of its founding principles. In contrast, when asked, "What connection has the Biblical creation myth to healing?" a docent at liturgy in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said, "Everything." She talked about the perfection of Adam and Eve, "created in God's image." She stated that when Adam and Eve, having been perfect according to the myth, "were cast out of Paradise, they became mortal and hence, they fell heir to the ills of the flesh and to the ills of the world." Thus, illness came into being because of original sin. This is an assumption about what causes illness, based on Biblical myth.

In addition to myths defining causes of illness, myths are related to healing as well. Healing in the Catholic Southwest Hispanic culture is related to getting out of a state of sin. Therefore, healing often includes the process of confession, asking forgiveness and penance, which puts one back in compliance with the rules of the God-given myths and opens the way for saints or God to grant healing.


Excerpted from Medicine Women, Curanderas, and Women Doctors by Bobette Perrone, H. Henrietta Stockel, Victoria Krueger. Copyright © 1989 Bobette Perrone, H. Henrietta Stockel, and Victoria Krueger. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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