June 13, 2024

Capitalism and Community Health – What We Can Learn From Indigenous Communities, Part 2 (Tony Ward)

The following is the second part in a two-part installment. The first part can be found here

Indigenous Health Epistemes

This capitalist model of health and the view of the human organism upon which it is built contrasts starkly with that of the pre-Enlightenment era. Even the words we use betray the similarities to models of health and well-being in traditional, indigenous or pre-enlightenment cultures.

  • The English word health itself comes from the Old English word ha, meaning whole, or the Old Norse word helge meaning holy or This meaning has obviously been lost in its common usage, but we will find that it is a meaning shared with many other ancient, pre-capitalist cultures.
  • The Māori word for health – hauora – derives from two roots, hau, meaning breath, vital essence, and ora, meaning life, vitality (n) or to survive (v). The emphasis here is on well-being, that is, an active state in which the person plays a central role. It is a state of being-in-the-world in which the act of breathing plays a central role.
  • The Lakota word health – zanî – means to be unmolested, whole.
  • The Cherokee word for health – tohi – is the same as the word for peace. One is in good health when one’s body is at peace. The “medicine circle” which is common to most Native American cultures, has no beginning and no end and therefore represents a concept of “harmonious unity” of completeness or wholeness.
  • In Myaamia, there is not a word that functions like the English word “health.” There is no way to say, “he is healthy,” What one would say is: nahi meehtohseeniwita, meaning, “he lives well, in a proper way.”
  • In the Dineé (Navajo) language, the prefix hózhó (sometimes translated as “health”) denotes the holistic aspect of the environment, the world, or the universe. It connotes beauty, harmony, good, happiness, and everything that is positive. The Dineé ritual healing practices or ‘sings’ seek to restore the individual’s state of balance in the universe, through multiple pathways.
  • The Sanskrit word for “health” is sáhitya, and connotes association, connection, society, combination, union with, agreement or harmony.

The following are a few models of health in the modern indigenous world. They are not all traditional models; some of them are modern attempts to describe the traditional indigenous perspectives on well-being.

Māori: Te Whare Tapa Wha (Mason Durie)

Mason Durie is probably best known for his description of Te Whare Tapa Wha – the four walls of the house – the seamless connections of spiritual, mental and emotional, physical and social well-being. All four dimensions are necessary for strength and symmetry. The model is based upon the typology of the traditional Māori Wharenui or “meeting house,” with each of the four aspects of being/experience represented symbolically as one of the walls. All four dimensions are necessary for strength and symmetry, and all must be in balance for the house to stand. It is important to know that in the Māori world, the Wharenui or Whare Tipuna as it is sometimes called, is the embodiment of an ancestor. The barge-boards are the arms, the rafters are the ribs and the ridge-beam the spine. Entering into a “house,” one enters into the body of the ancestor who watches over all activities.

Lakota: The Medicine Wheel

Similar in many ways to Durie’s four-sided Te Whare Tapa Wha model is the traditional Native American model of the “medicine wheel.” Although mainly associated with the Lakota, the medicine wheel is a cultural tradition shared with many tribal groups. Its tradition extends back at least 7,000 years. There are many versions of the medicine wheel, and not all tribal groups attribute the same characteristics to it. For simplicity, I will refer to the Lakota medicine wheel (below).

In traditional Lakota society, the medicine wheel is represented as a circle or hoop divided into four quadrants – one for each of the four directions – east, south, west and north. Each quadrant is represented by a different colour (in counter-clockwise order – yellow, white, black and red), four gifted elements, (fire/sun, air/animals, earth/minerals and water/plants), four different periods of life (infancy, adolescence, adulthood, elderhood), and (similar to Māori conceptions) four different aspects of being (spirit, mind, physical and emotion).

Medicine Wheel (Joe Gone)

Illness is seen as a state of imbalance between the four areas of life. The role of the traditional healer is to help the individual regain balance through prayer (spirit), meditation (mind), herbal medicine (plants) and getting in touch with their emotions.

In our modern world, we tend to allocate different aspects of our lives to different specialists. The spiritual aspect is assigned to the priest, the mental aspect to the teacher or psychiatrist, the physical to the physician and the emotional aspect is shared with our friends and relatives. This situates the locus of control external to the individual.

The shaman or healer in the Lakota world is engaged in facilitating the healing process, acting simply as an intermediary between the individual and the social, mental, physical and spiritual worlds with which s/he is out of balance. The onus for healing resides with the seeker. There are attempts current to integrate the medicine wheel cosmology with elements of western psychotherapy. One leading proponent of this movement is Dr. Joseph Gone, a member of the Gros Ventre Nation of Montana who specialises in finding more appropriate ways of treating his Native American clients.

The Dineé (Navajo)

Similar to the Four Directions/Sacred Hoop model suggested by Gone, the Dineé or Navajo model of health usually is in the form of a circle or square, symbolising the Four Directions, often in the form of sand paintings.

Unlike Gone’s model, they involve multiple symbolic representations, each expressed differently and used in differing ritual practices to achieve ‘balance’ in the universe. The many complex Navajo healing ceremonies or “ways” use songs, chants, sand paintings, sacred objects, and dance to recreate or enact stories and events that link ceremonial participants to their sacred origins, thus connecting them to the spirit world where balance can be restored.

Each different design or model is used for a different ceremony, officiated and facilitated by a hataali (singer). Ceremonies or ‘sings’ can take days and may involve the entire extended family of the seeker in the process. Preparations can take months, and the process of bringing everyone together plays an important part in the reestablishment of balance in the social realm. Raymond Friday Locke noted how such ceremonies are time-consuming, expensive and are rarely performed in modern times, save in times of dire need.

Eastern Systems

There is an interesting relationship between the Four Directions/Sacred Hoop model of the Lakota, the sand-paintings of the Dineé ritual practices and the Mandala (a Sanskrit word meaning “circle”), commonly associated with Tibetan Buddhism. Mandalas are used in ritual practices to “restore balance” – in this case through an identification with and ultimately the achievement of a transcendent state in which Maya – the “veil of illusion” is removed and the ultimate reality of the universe is apprehended.

Thus, the mandala operates as a gateway or connection between the macrocosm, or outer world, and the microcosm, or inner world of the individual. Mandalas are key instruments in creating a sacred space for the practice of meditation, or trance-induction. The goal of this practice is the attainment of a state of Enlightenment through offering access to progressively deeper levels of the unconscious, ultimately assisting the experience of a mystical sense of oneness with the ultimate unity from which the cosmos in all its manifold forms arises, discussed by Fontana.

Mandalas have been adopted into Western psychoanalytic methods. Taking his lead from the ancient Taoist text, The Secret of the Golden Flower, the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung saw the mandala as “a representation of the unconscious self.” Working with schizophrenics, he believed his paintings of mandalas enabled him to identify emotional disorders and work towards wholeness in personality. He also believed that the construction of mandalas enabled individuals towards a state of individuation through a process of action and reflection.

Similarly, Wilhelm Reich’s theories of the seven body-armouring zones bears a striking correspondence to the Chakra Centres in Hatha yoga, while his concept of orgone energy or bioenergetics, discussed by Lowen, is very similar to the notion of Prana or “Vital Energy” in yogic systems.

Chinese Systems

In traditional Chinese conceptions of health, the principal of Yin-Yang reigns supreme. The Yin-Yang symbol (below) symbolizes the duality and interrelatedness of opposites.

Taoist Yin-Yang Symbol

  • Yin is seen as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive, associated with water, earth, the moon, femininity and night time
  • Yang is fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and aggressive; and is associated with fire, sky, the sun, masculinity and daytime.

The concept lies at the origins of many branches of classical Chinese science and philosophy. In addition, it is a primary guideline of traditional Chinese medicine and a central principle of different forms of Chinese martial arts and exercise, such as Tai Chi. This paradigm describes how opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world and on this basis, good health (as in Lakota, Navajo and other indigenous cultures) is achieved through the balance of these opposing elements.

Unlike these other systems, however, the Yin-Yang symbol suggests a dynamic relationship. Each element contains within it the seed of its opposite and each appears to be in a process of rotation. Jung’s analytical psychology borrowed much from Chinese theory and practice, not least his interest in the Yin-Yang symbol. (below) This symbol represents the dual nature of existence, the male and the female as unconscious archetypes, the animus (the male character-part of a woman) and the anima (the female character-part of a man).

Herbal Medicine

Traditional Chinese herbal medicine also draws on the same Yin-Yang principle and seeks to restore a balance between these opposing systems within the body. Herbal medicine is as old as humanity itself, tested over thousands of years and millions of human trials to produce an incredibly sophisticated system of diagnosis and treatment. Many of our modern medicines derive from research into ancient remedies, and the value of this knowledge is implicitly recognised in the “bio-prospecting,” privatization, commodification and patenting of indigenous knowledge systems by “big pharma.”

System Similarities and Differences

Several commonalities stand out among these pre-capitalist systems.

  • Indigenous systems conceive of life as a sacred phenomenon, a mystery that cannot be known but that can be experienced as a vehicle to right-living and health.
  • Indigenous concepts of health are based on the belief in metaphysical or supra-physical energy systems.
  • Indigenous conceptions of health are essentially holistic.
  • They embrace and include all aspects of life and existence and see them as interconnected.
  • They all stress the individual’s relationships to the outside universe, and, in particular, to the material world.
  • They all stress the importance of balance between the four aspects of existence: body, mind, spirit and emotions.
  • They are also usually preventative, rather than curative.
  • Where curing is involved, they infer an active participation by the individual in his or her well-being. The “healer” is merely an intermediary or facilitator rather than the creator of the establishment, healing and maintenance of relationships.
  • They include aspects of life that the Western materialist model is unable to grasp – specifically the notion of spirit or life force, that is seen as permeating the universe and at the core of each individual’s inner state.
  • They exhibit a reverence for life, for difference and for that which is unknowable.
  • The “healer” rarely expects and often refuses economic or material compensation for his or her engagement since humility in the face of The Great Mystery is a fundamental requirement of success.

In the realm of mental or emotional wellbeing Western models run counter in two important ways to basic beliefs and assumptions that are common to most indigenous cultures.

  1. Western models of mental health are based upon a model of an individualised self – independent of social, cultural, economic or environmental factors. This is largely because much of the foundational work – like that of Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget – were developed through work with white middle-class members of nuclear families. The models conceive of the self as an autonomous (rather than relational) being whose development follows predictable and uniform patterns that bear no relationship to the context in which they are shaped. Deviations from the developmental pattern are automatically labeled “abnormal” even though, in a different cultural context (let’s say a tribal setting with extended families and very different cultural and ritual practices) they may be very normal indeed. An acceptance of this Western model automatically predisposes a colonising Eurocentric interpretation (and imposition) of normality across cultural boundaries.
  1. The exclusivity of the Western model ensures that the physical aspect assumes prominence in the diagnostic equation. Other, alternative diagnoses are automatically excluded. For instance, a person who hears voices of people who are not present is labeled a schizophrenic, for which the medical remedy is a prescribed drug. To an indigenous person engaged in ritual practices, the hearing of voices may signify the beginning of dialogue with ancestors or spirit guides which might be extremely beneficial to that person’s life and future actions.

Commodification of the Sacred

While it is true that Western medical practices have absorbed, assimilated or copied some traditional Indigenous practices, the practices themselves (yoga, meditation, acupuncture, Tai chi etc.) are still considered to be “fringe” activities within the health field. The rationality on which they are based recognises the existence of phenomena that confound western notions of the rational. Many of them are useful to some seekers, but many are also commodified as “New Age” practices that operate to the exclusion of the profound underpinning beliefs and cosmologies of their indigenous origins.

Lakota Inipi Ceremonies or “Sweat Lodges,” Hembleciya or “Vision Quests” and the other five sacred ceremonies of the Lakota may still occasionally be found in the non-Indian world, but as from 9th March 2003, non-Indians are prohibited from participating in any of these ceremonies. On that date, at a grand council of the bundle keepers of the five major tribal groups of the Plains it was decided that:

Discussions in the meeting included the molestation taking place in ceremony, indecent mockery, mixing of new age beliefs, charging for ceremonies and death, which was never heard of before in our ancient ceremonial history. There was also discussion of the use of other “medicines” (drugs) in and around our ceremonies. [Consequently, it was decided that] …there will be no non-Natives allowed in our sacred Ho-c’o-ka (our sacred alters) where it involves our Seven Sacred Rites.

Here is a stark reminder of the indigenous perspective on having their sacred knowledge appropriated, stolen and misused, often for profit, by practitioners in the capitalist world. The Plains Indians see only too clearly the futility of sharing their treasured ceremonies with those who cling to the colonial ways. So, we should not perhaps get too excited about what we might learn about sustainability from the indigenous world unless we are willing to accept their whole message.

On the other hand, they are perhaps even more aware than we are of the urgency to reverse the impending collapse of our environmental systems. Many indigenous communities have developed their own forms of resistance and action. Indigenous

communities across the world celebrated and expressed solidarity with the peaceful demonstrators of the Canadian Mi’kmaq and Elsipogtog First Nations in their recent confrontations between and the RCMP (significantly under-reported in Western media) over attempts by the Texas SWN Resource Company’s fracking explorations on Indian land, according to Kraus. Indigenous communities, through organisations like Idle No More, are on the forefront of the struggle against resource exploitation and state-sponsored and corporately-funded environmental hooliganism.

For indigenous communities, the relationship to place is inviolable and they take their role as guardians of the natural world very seriously. For Māori, it is a question of whakapapa. They have no choice. As Dakota/Dineé Elder Tom Goldtooth, the Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, has pointed out, the European concept of the natural world has become a dominant concept worldwide. It holds that knowledge and culture are property, with the attitude that commodities are to be exploited freely and bought and sold at will. It has resulted in disharmony between beings and the natural world as well as the current environmental crisis affecting all life – a concept that is completely at odds with the indigenous worldview.

Goldtooth holds that the sacred responsibility is to safeguard and protect this world. Pointing out that human beings are not separate from the natural world but were created to live in an integral relationship with it, Goldtooth states, “we can fashion sustainable solutions and re-sacralize our relationship to Mother Earth. That’s what we (indigenous people) have to offer.”

Community Health: The Global versus the Local

While there is widespread agreement that we are facing potentially catastrophic social, economic, climatic and demographic crises, there is no agreement about how we should shape our collective responses to avert the worst consequences. Capitalists suggest that the whole system is basically sound and that improved technology, coupled with a modification of our patterns of consumption will solve our problems. Marxists generally believe that the abolition of capitalism is a necessary precondition for a solution. Both still believe that it is the destiny of homo sapiens to exercise and to exploit its power over nature, that is seen as a natural birthright and as a result of evolutionary progress, as noted by Woods.

What neither seem to understand is that we are entering End Game where we have neither the time nor luxury to continue either with our present means of production or with our disregard for the environment with our paradigm of dominance and exploitation. We already know, for instance, that if we do not immediately and completely cease the extraction and use of existing in-ground fossil fuels, global temperatures will probably reach 4o C above preindustrial levels within decades (that is, within the lives of our children!), bringing unimaginable and probably irreversible consequences. It’s simple math: we can emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming over preindustrial levels – anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth.

The only problem? Total known fossil fuel reserves in the world, if burned, would add 2860 gigatons of CO2 to the atmosphere – more than 5 times the safe amount. Thus, simple math indicates that almost two-thirds of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain unburned if global temperatures are to remain habitable. And these are optimistic estimates.

Faced with these stark realities, either we can kiss goodbye to life as we know it (or probably at all!), or we must collectively intervene to prevent the major corporations from plowing ahead with their extraction and exploitation model. This will, of course, bring potentially dire confrontations with the military-industrial-state complex. If we, the people, are to prevail, we will only do so if we can develop our collective relationships to each other and to the environment. Only mass public pressure and activism will succeed.

How, then, are we to accomplish this? Indigenous communities may have already taken the lead. It is they who are organizing active resistance to fracking and tar-sands pipelines. It is they who are facing down the drilling crews, the police and the corporations. It is they who (like the Mayans in Chiapas), are developing their own health, education and economic development systems, and it is they who are telling us that we must abandon our supposedly superior ideology of dominion and exploitation of the earth. In non-indigenous cultures, too, there seems to be a growing resistance to both capitalism and resource exploitation.

As the world economy approaches collapse, as our environment becomes increasingly ravaged by industrial and corporate greed, as health systems break down and become unaffordable, as our food becomes increasingly poisoned by the unrestricted use of pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilisers and GE technologies, there is a growing trend in the world of direct mutual support and action. Farmers markets, bartering, alternative currencies, local economies, organic food co-ops, shared knowledge systems and community education initiatives are proliferating.

The growth of these alternative systems has been exponential over the last twenty years. Community initiatives that do not require government management or ownership and do not rely on corporate support are emerging, and are operated by the community for the community, sharing skills and knowledge in pursuit of an improved community.

At the present moment, these disparate community initiatives have not consolidated into a global movement to tear down capitalism, but that movement is growing as more and more communities recognise the underlying capitalist causes of their suffering. The emergence of increasingly politicised movements has been noticeable – particularly around environmental issues that have been spearheaded by indigenous communities and taken up by westerners.

These are the signs of a healthy democracy and healthy community that are emerging as previously non-political grass-root movements find each other and build relationships and solidarity. We of the political left have spent too much time talking to each other rather than engaging in relationship-building and dialogue with those of a different mind. Yet, if we are to really impact upon the global scene, we must, of necessity, focus our attention on building relationships at the local level and forming collective strategies of resistance.

The sad truth is that over the last forty years, opportunities, resources and places to do this have been disappearing as we have drifted into patterns of individualised passive consumption. The shopping mall is not a location for building sustainable anti-capitalist dialogue or social movements. We, therefore, need to build and create places for public discourse that are operated by the community for the community as a basic requirement for building a social(ist) movement.

Tony Ward is Lecturer in Education at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology, New Zealand. He was
Distinguished Visiting Professor in Education, Psychology and Architecture, at Miami University in Ohio from 2009-10 and Associate Professor of Education at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, New Zealand from 2000-2006.  Director of Programme Development at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, New Zealand 2000-2006. He was a practicing architect in Britain, the USA and New Zealand until 2005.

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