The Role of Traditional Indian Medicine in the COVID-19 Pandemic

April 6, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic in Indian Country provides many opportunities for Modern Western Medicine (MWM) to work with Traditional Indian Medicine (TIM) healers as they treat Indian patients and their families. In pre-Columbian times, TIM was a health care system that met the physical, mental and spiritual health needs of Indian people. Currently, TIM holds a place of high respect among Tribes across the United States. Most of the nation’s nearly six million Indians, both on and off reservations, consult traditional healers for their health problems.

With the Coronavirus in Tribal communities, we will need to encourage TIM healers to utilize telephones and computers as they interact with Indian patients to minimize person-to-person contact when that is feasible. The healers may also need to consider video interactions instead of in-person ceremonies when that is possible. If personal contact is required by the healer, MWM will need to make PPE available for healers to prevent self-infection with the Coronavirus. MWM will need to educate TIM healers on how to safely interact with Indian patients suffering from COVID-19 or those that may have been infected.

Practitioners within the Indian/Tribal/Urban (I/T/U) health systems are becoming increasingly aware of Indian patients who have substantial TIM use rates and are also using western allopathic medicine for their health problems. Estimates of the Indian Health Service (IHS), however, range from 70% to 90%.

Thankfully, there is data from case studies that demonstrate the positive effect of TIM when coupled with MWM. The data shows how TIM led to successful health outcomes because it dealt with the needs of Tribal patients when MWM did not. The TIM integrated a Tribal belief system about illness that dealt with modalities relevant to the Tribe’s concept of illness which contributed to the eventual healing of Tribal patients.

European contact with Indians in the Americas and the subsequent establishment of the U. S. government effected TIM in many ways. In the early contact period, TIM was openly practiced by Indians and was their sole source of health care. In 1887, the U.S. Congress passed the Dawes Act, making it illegal for Indians to practice TIM. TIM was covertly practiced by Indian people from 1887 until 1978, when the Indian Religious Freedom Act made it legal for Indians to use TIM.

During this public health crisis, TIM can and will help meet the mental and spiritual needs of our Indian patients suffering from the COVID-19 epidemic. It is my hope that all Indian patient’s needs will be met with better collaboration between MWM practitioners and TIM healers. Western medicine should make a commitment to develop a cooperative spirit to create opportunities in which traditional healers can work side-by side as peers in the care of Indian patient

Walter Hollow M. D.

President, Association of American Indian Physicians

Faculty , Puyallup Tribal Health Authory, Family Medicine Residency Program

Clinical Association Professor, Dept. Family Medicine, UW School of Medicine