The concern for human health and solution top illnesses and disease among humans is widespread. There are concerns raised by a section of health experts that, some forms of medical health systems are no longer useful, and that biomedicine, is the only system that can be trusted. There is however evidence that diverse ethnomedical healthcare systems can complement. This paper is an analysis of anthropological researches on diverse health care systems, based on the challenges faced by a Navajo woman, working in the western healthcare system, and her attempts to fit in the modern system, in the film Scalpel and the Silver Bear.
Challenges faced by Dr. Alvaro
In the story the Scalpel and the Silver Bear, Dr. Alvaro, explains, her journey towards becoming the first woman from Navajo, to become a surgeon. In her journey, she faces the first challenge of changing her mentality, from the one of believing, that she too was tied to the culture of her native people. She grew up to witness the practices of spirituality in the process of healing. She felt, a disconnection with modern medicine(Alvord&Van,1999). The second challenge faced by Dr. Alvaro was the implementation of her knowledge in the traditional concept of healing to a modern medical situation. She was afraid of the criticism as a result of combining western medicine with the traditional Navajo healing practices. There were challenges in proving that there existed a miraculous healing procedure of the native people that were way beyond modern medicine, that relied on evidence of pathology and technological devices. She faced resistance from the traditional healers and the patients during her research, back at home. She narrates about the patients that we're scared of the modern procedures such as organs transplant and even establishment of eye contact. To win the trust of the patients she had to embrace their beliefs and their customs. Her discoveries include the concept of walking in the beauty of a traditional healing philosophy, concerned with the harmony of the mind, body, and spirit. The traditional healing concept is based on the deep-rooted belief that people are connected to the universe and should always strive to be in harmony.
Cultural Anthropology and Ethnomedicine
The understanding of the diverse medical health care is established by comparing the modern systems and the old ones. Ethnomedicine refers to the study of the traditional health care remedies and the use of active compounds from plants and animals, among various ethnic communities. Traditional medicine was initially a remedy due to the absence of modern western medicine. The indigenous people for example widely rely on these systems, due to lack of access to modern medicine. Anthropological research into these traditional healing practices, referred to as ethnomedicine, has had a great contribution to biomedicine, a field in modern medicine concerned with the use of principles of biochemistry and biology, in the research and practice of medicine.
Applied anthropology, applies the knowledge in anthropology, to the needs in a given society. It is a branch of anthropology, interested in various issues such as colonialism, weapons of mass destruction, and their testing, and a subfield of medical anthropology. This field attempts to define sickness and how it is understood by the people suffering from the disease, the social networks, and all the healers that could offer a solution. The other important section of the field is the understanding of the relationship between sickness and the social beliefs in the immediate society.
The discoveries made by the surgeon, are more likely to fall under the category of ethnomedicine. The importance of cultural elements such as singing and chanting during a healing process is recognized in the study of medical anthropology.
In the film, Split Horn, a Hmong shaman, lives in Wisconsin with his family. It presents a man, struggles with the family especially the children, in an attempt to maintain their belief in the traditional methods of healing, even as American modernism prevailed.
It is a story, dating back to the Vietnamese war, where the Asians, that had participated in the war, fighting for the Americans, were displaced. Paja Thao is a spiritual leader and offers help to people of the community. The children slowly lose touch with the spiritual chants, and on one occasion, watch the TV as their father performed spiritual healing.
The emphasis on the spiritual and traditional medicine causes great confusion, among the children, especially the elder daughter, named Chai. The shaman falls into depression until his children leave their different views on their culture and perform a traditional healing ritual on the leader. The same situation is narrated by Dr. Alvaro, who uses an example of an old man who had been diagnosed with cancer. The man, could not heal until a trusted spiritual leader performed a ritual on him.
Cultural diversity is essential in understanding the communities of the world from a deeper angle. It provides a lens, through which people can understand, concepts, and philosophies of life as held by different people. An example of this worldview lenses is the understanding of various views on the cause of sicknesses, either germs and pathogens or witchcraft and evil beings(Foster,1976). Culture is a way of life of a people and is connected to the health systems of individuals in society. Culture, has several attributes, include, its ability to be shared, being dynamic, and involving a strong sense of symbolism and power. An example of the interrelation between culture and health life of a community is the swastika cross emblem, found in ancient ruins of Rome and Greece. The L-shaped cross is believed to have symbolized love, light, and luck. It had an impact on the psychological thinking of the people who possessed them. It is a factor that cultivated ethnocentrism among the people of a particular community. They believe that culture was more valuable than the other has an impact on the well-being of a person. Dr, Alvaro explains that the man, who gets healed through the chants, received hope and an inspiration to stay alive. Modern medicine, cannot offer hope, which is an important step towards the recovery process. The study of the traditional medicine systems was highly biased in the past(Helman,1981). Many articles described the African native healing services as savage and based on religion. Cultural anthropologists have however determined that many aspects can be borrowed into the western health care system.
Dr.Alvaro proves that there are several aspects of tradition that can be combined to heal. She had several challenges in convincing the world about the interrelationship between diverse ethnomedical health care. Cultural Anthropologists focus on the etiology of any disease is the only way of understanding the different health care systems and finding a common idea between them.
Alvord, L. A., & Van Pelt, E. C. (1999). The Scalpel and the Silver Bear. The First Navajo Woman Surgeon Combines Western Medicine and Traditional Healing. Bantam Books, 2451 S. Wolf Rd., Des Plaines, IL 60018.
Foster, G. M. (1976). Disease etiologies in nonwestern medical systems. American anthropologist, 78(4), 773-782. https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1525/aa.1976.78.4.02a00030
Helman, C. G. (1981). Disease versus illness in general practice. The Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 31(230), 548-552. https://bjgp.org/content/31/230/548.short
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