Nuwati: Native American Medicine, Healing, and the Sacred Way of Being

Michael Tlanusta Garrett. Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy. Editor: Arri Eisen & Gary Laderman. Volume 1. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

Everyone knows that grandparents and grandchildren often have a very special bond that goes beyond words. Still, from time to time, the way grandchildren act can get on the nerves of grandparents (and, of course, the way grandparents act can get on children’s nerves too). When he was a child, my father, Tsayoga (Bluejay) as his grandpa called him, was a good little boy, sensitive, quiet, inquisitive, but also very stubborn. He was a good boy, but he had to do things his own way, and he couldn’t always understand why things weren’t the way he thought they should be. “But why?” he might ask his grandfather—over and over and over. Sometimes, Grandpa would get a little frustrated with the boy, who might be busy listening but not hearing.

“Tsayoga,” the old man would say abruptly sometimes. “Does the worm live in the ground, or does the worm fly in the sky?”

“Grandpa,” the little boy would answer, “the worm lives in the ground …”

“Well okay then,” Grandpa would reply.

Native American Spirituality

There seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding these days as to what Native American spirituality actually means and what it involves. This misunderstanding in mainstream American culture has developed for a number of reasons, including the historical exploitation of Native culture, and the often-stereotyped portrayal of Native Americans in the media as faithful side-kick to the white hero, or as noble savage with mystical power, or hostile Indian bent on destruction. Also, more recently, misunderstanding has developed as a result of non-Native Americans attempting to interpret or conduct Indian ceremonies or spiritual practices without always having a true understanding of the meaning or power of those ceremonies or practices for the Indian nation from which it comes, or without being “qualified” to do so (i.e., being trained as a Medicine person).

For this and other historical reasons, many Native American traditionalists often share very little of the “true knowledge” of certain beliefs or ceremonies for fear that this knowledge will be misunderstood or misused as it has been historically. Bear in mind, it has only been since 1978, with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, that Native Americans were able to legally practice their spirituality and traditional ways in this country for the first time in over a century. That is not a long time. Moreover, many Native elders are the products of decades of governmental abuse through forced boarding-school experiences, the relocation programs of the 1950s, the intentional exploitation of Native lands and resources, and the abuse of Native legal rights. Then there are the day-to-day experiences of racism in general. Given this history, trust is a critical aspect of life when it comes to preserving all that is sacred. For Native American traditionalists, protecting the sacred ways is a matter of survival, but it is also a matter of respect for the power that is involved in such ways. This power goes beyond any one individual and, according to the traditions, must be respected and treated with great care so as to not do harm.

So who are Native Americans, and what is this power to which we refer? Across the United States, there are more than 558 federally recognized and several hundred state recognized Native American nations. Given the wide-ranging diversity of this population consisting of 2.3 million people, it is important to understand that the term “Native American spirituality,” encompasses the vastness and essence of more than 500 different tribal traditions represented by these hundreds of Indian nations. Navajo, Catawba, Shoshone, Lumbee, Cheyenne, Cherokee, Apache, Lakota, Seminole, Comanche, Pequot, Cree, Tuscarora, Paiute, Creek, Pueblo, Shawnee, Hopi, Osage, Mohawk, Nez Perce, Seneca—these are but a handful of the hundreds of tribal nations that exist across the United States. Is it possible to grasp the essence of so many rich and diverse spiritual traditions? One wonders how Grandpa might respond.

In order to better understand some of the basic concepts relating to Native American spirituality, and Cherokee Indian Medicine more specifically, it is necessary to consider some of the underlying values that permeate a Native worldview and existence. Several authors have described common core values that characterize “traditionalism” across tribal nations. Some of these values include the importance of community contribution, sharing, acceptance, cooperation, harmony and balance, noninterference, extended family, attention to nature, immediacy of time, awareness of the relationship, and a deep respect for elders. Overall, these traditional values show the importance of honoring, through harmony and balance, what is believed to be a very sacred connection with the energy of life; this is the basis for Native spirituality across tribal nations.

Different tribal languages have different words or ways of referring to this idea of honoring one’s sense of connection, but the meaning is similar across nations in referring to the belief that human beings exist on Mother Earth to be helpers and protectors of life. In Native communities, it is not uncommon to hear people use the term “caretaker.” Therefore, from the perspective of a traditionalist, to see one’s purpose as that of caretaker is to accept responsibility for the gift of life by taking good care of that and all gifts of life in the surrounding beauty of this world in which we live. Among the basic cultural elements that underlie Native American spirituality as a way of life are medicine, relation, harmony, and vision. But it is important to begin by considering what it means to “walk in step” from a traditional Native American perspective.

Walking in Step

As you hear the sound of the drum rumbling low to the sharp, impassioned cries of the singers, the vibration moves through you like a storm that rises in the distance, building slowly in the azure sky, then unloading in a rhythmic yet gentle pounding of the soil. Anyone, Native or non-Native, who has ever had the opportunity to experience the colors, movement, sounds, tastes, and smells of the powwow (a pantraditional, ceremonial giving of thanks) understands the feeling that passes through you. It is different for every person, but if you really experience the feeling, you know that it is connection. For some, it is a matter of seeing old friends or making new ones. For some, it is the image of the dancers moving in seemingly infinite poses of unity and airy smoothness to every flowing pound of the drum. For some, it is the laughter and exchange of words and gestures. For some, it is silent inner prayer giving thanks for another day of life. For some, it is the delicious taste of your second and third helping of that piping hot fry-bread. Whatever it is, in the end, it is coming together on one level or another, and walking in step with the Greater Circle.

As one reads the above description of what it is like to experience a powwow, it becomes easier to relate to the experience of someone who might actually be there by paying attention to the senses and to the resulting emotional experience of the event. The powwow, though originating with the Plains tribes of the Midwest, has been adopted by many, many tribal nations as a way of celebrating what it means to be Indian. The powwow, then, offers important insights into a traditional Native worldview, both in the symbolism and deep cultural meanings associated with the experience as well as in the importance placed on the sensory experience of the event. More or less, the essence of Native American spirituality involves feeling a sense of connection with oneself, with one’s family and community, and with one’s surroundings, all as integral parts of one’s spiritual existence. That feeling of connection is available to all of us, though it may be experienced in differing ways. However, for many Indian people, that feeling of connection is completely central to a life directed at seeking harmony and balance in all things.

It is important to note that the spiritual beliefs of Native Americans depend on a number of factors, including level of acculturation (traditional, marginal, bicultural, assimilated, pantraditional), geographic region, family structure, religious influences, historical context, and tribally specific traditions. However, it is possible to generalize, to some extent, about a number of basic beliefs characterizing Native American traditionalism and spirituality across tribal nations. The following, adapted from Locust, elaborates on a number of basic Native American spiritual and traditional beliefs:

  1. There is a single higher power known as Creator, Great Creator, Great Spirit, or Great One, among other names (this being is sometimes referred to in gender form but does not necessarily exist as one particular gender or another). There are also lesser beings known as spirit beings or spirit helpers that can exist in many forms and even take different forms.
  2. Plants and animals, like humans, are part of the spirit world. The spirit world exists side by side with, and intermingles with, the physical world. Moreover, the spirit existed in the spirit world before it came into a physical body and will exist after the body dies.
  3. Human beings are made up of a spirit, mind, and body. The mind, body, and spirit are all interconnected; therefore, illness affects the mind and spirit as well as the body.
  4. Wellness is harmony in body, mind, and spirit; unwellness is disharmony in mind, body, and spirit.
  5. Natural unwellness is caused by the violation of a sacred social or natural law of creation (e.g., participating in a sacred ceremony while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or having had sex within four days of the ceremony).
  6. Unnatural unwellness is caused by conjuring (witchcraft) from those with destructive intentions.
  7. Each of us is responsible for our own wellness by keeping ourselves attuned to self, relations, environment, and universe.

This list of beliefs in Native American spirituality crosses tribal boundaries, but it is by no means a comprehensive list. It does, however, provide a great deal of insight into some of the assumptions that may be held by a “traditional” Native person. In order to better understand more generally what it means to “walk in step” according to the perspective of Indian Medicine, it is important to discuss individually the four basic cultural elements: medicine, relation, harmony, and vision.


Everything is alive. Walk into any classroom of children these days and ask them playfully, “Have you had your Medicine today?” and many of them will tell you yes. If you ask them what kind of Medicine, sadly, they will tell you Ritalin, or aspirin, or some type of cold medicine. In Native tradition, the concept of “Medicine” is starkly different from what medicine has become in mainstream American society. So what is Medicine? Here are the words spoken in 1890 by Crowfoot, a Blackfoot leader, as he lay dying: “What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the Sunset.”

In Crowfoot’s words, the importance of experiencing life through the senses and through one’s emotional experience becomes apparent. The words give us a way of understanding Indian Medicine, or Nuwati, as it is called in Cherokee. In the traditional way, Medicine can consist of physical remedies such as herbs, teas, and poultices for physical ailments, but Medicine is simultaneously something much more than a pill you take to cure illness, get rid of pain, or correct a physiological malfunction. Medicine is everywhere. It is the very essence of our inner being; it is that which gives us inner power. Medicine is in every tree, plant, rock, animal, and person. It is in the light, the soil, the water, and the wind. Medicine is something that happened ten years ago that still makes you smile when you think about it. Medicine is that old friend who calls you up out of the blue just because he or she was thinking about you. There is Medicine in watching a small child play. Medicine is in the reassuring smile of an elder. There is Medicine is every event, memory, place, person, and movement. There is even Medicine in empty space if you know how to use it.

In many Native traditions, every living being possesses this inner power called Medicine, which connects us to all other living beings through the heart. However, if we fail to respect our relations—with all living beings, the creator, Mother Earth, ourselves, and the Four Directions—and to keep ourselves in step with the universe, we invite illness by falling out of harmony and balance, much like a dancer failing to move in step with the rhythm of the drum. A person’s Medicine is his or her power, and it can be used for creative purposes or destructive purposes—either contributing to or taking away from the Greater Circle of Life. Being in harmony means being “in step with the universe”; being in disharmony means being “out of step with the universe.”


Everything has purpose. Every living being has a reason for being. Traditional Native Americans look upon life as a gift from the creator. As a gift, it is to be treated with the utmost care out of respect for the giver. This means living in a humble way and giving thanks for all of the gifts that one receives every day, no matter how big or small. The importance of humility is illustrated in the words spoken by Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader, over a century ago: “When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”

One of the reasons it is so important in the traditional way to maintain a humble stance is not for fear of punishment by the creator, but rather, to maintain a keen awareness of all the gifts that surround you, and to keep your spirit open and receptive. In this way, you are able to be of service to others, and much more able to walk the path of peace. The person who walks with their peace is very difficult to get off balance.

Acceptance is a very important part of living in harmony and balance in a worldview, which emphasizes that everyone and everything has a reason for being. There is no such thing as a good experience or a bad experience, as everything that happens is of value in offering us the opportunity to learn and see more clearly how to live in harmony. Therefore, in the traditional way, trying to control things or people is considered a waste of energy, since it is believed that everything is as it should be at any given point in time.

Native American spirituality often places great emphasis on the numbers four and seven. The number four represents the spirit of each of the directions, east, south, west, and north, usually depicted in a circle. The number seven represents the same four directions as well as the upper world (Sky), lower world (Earth), and center (often referring to the heart, or sacred fire) to symbolize universal harmony and balance (visualized as a sphere). In the traditional way, you seek to understand what lessons are offered to you by giving thanks to each of the four directions for the wisdom, guidance, strength, and clarity that you receive. Not every tribe practices the directions in this way, but almost all tribes have some representation of the four directions as a circular symbol of the harmony and balance of mind, body, and spirit with the natural environment (and spirit world).

It is interesting to note, however, that unlike other religious traditions, in Native American spirituality, it is considered disrespectful, even arrogant, for a person to “ask” anything of the creator. Rather, people give thanks for what they do have. It is assumed with the creator, as with people, that if something is to be revealed to you, it will be revealed when it is time. This emphasizes, once again, the values of respect and humility. Traditionalists seek help and guidance more directly from spirit helpers or spirit guides. The creator is one to be honored and revered by walking the path of harmony and balance, respecting all one’s relations.


All things are connected. Central to Native American spiritual traditions is the importance of “relation” as a total way of existing in the world. The concept of family extends to brothers and sisters in the animal world, the plant world, the mineral world, Mother Earth, Father Sky, and so on. The power of relation is symbolized by the Circle of Life (sometimes referred to as the Web of Life), so commonly represented throughout the customs, traditions, and art forms of Native people. This Circle of Life is believed, in many tribal traditions, to consist of the basic elements of life: fire or sunlight, earth, water, and wind. These four points also denote, in Cherokee tradition for instance, spirit, nature, body, and mind, referred to as the Four Winds (or the Four Directions). The concept of relation is illustrated by the words of Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota Medicine man:

You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round … The sky is round, and I have heard that Earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours … Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a person is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.

The Circle thus reflects not only the interrelationship of all living beings, but the natural progression or growth of life itself. Harmony and balance are necessary for the survival of all life. Thus, living in “good relations” or giving thanks to “all our relations” are common phrases in Indian country.

Respect for Medicine also means practicing respect for the interconnection that we share. Across tribal nations, there are certain natural or social laws that must be observed out of respect for relation. These often point to restrictions on personal conduct regarding such things as death, incest, the female menstrual cycle, witchcraft, certain animals, certain natural phenomena, certain foods, marrying into one’s own clan, and strict observance of ceremonial protocol. Respecting one’s relations in Native tradition means (a) never take more than you need; (b) give thanks for what you have or what you receive; (c) take great care to use all of what you do have; and (d) give away what you do not need (or what someone else may need more than you).


Embrace your vision by embracing the Medicine of every living being. Across tribal nations, there are many different ceremonies used for healing, giving thanks, celebrating, clearing the way, and blessing. A few examples of ceremonies are sweatlodge, vision quest, clearing-way ceremony, blessing-way ceremony, pipe ceremony, sunrise ceremony, sundance, and many, many others. One of the functions of ceremonial practice is to reaffirm one’s connection with that which is sacred and keep oneself in good relations. In American mainstream ideology, the purpose of life consists of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” From a traditional Native perspective, a corollary would be “life, love, and the pursuit of harmony.” Once you understand and respect the Medicine, learn to live in harmony, and honor your relations, the final important step in the traditional way is knowing what to do with the gift of life with which you have been blessed. This can be summarized as follows:

In a conversation with his aging grandfather, a young Indian man asked, “Grandfather, what is the purpose of life?” After a long time in thought, the old man looked up and said, “Grandson, children are the purpose of life. We were once children and someone cared for us, and now it is our time to care.” —Brendtro et al., Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future

Now, that is not to say that Native Americans believe that the purpose of everyone’s life is to go out and have children. But the deeper value of the relationship as an integral part of seeking purpose is evident. In the traditional way, one moves through the “life circle” from being cared for to caring for.

It is important throughout life to either seek your vision or continue honoring your vision. In Native tradition, vision is an inner knowledge of your own Medicine and purpose in the Greater Circle revealed to you through your spirit helpers. This means connecting with your inner power and opening yourself to the guidance of the spirit world. This may happen in ceremony, or it may happen in other ways such as through dreams, particular signs, animal messengers, or certain experiences or events that come your way for a reason. Understanding one’s vision is understanding the direction of one’s path as a caretaker moving to the rhythm of the sacred heartbeat. As Black Elk put it, “the good road and the road of difficulties, you have made me cross; and where they cross, the place is holy.”

The Way of the Circle

In my family, grandparents have helped children learn a right way to live life through stories, quiet observation, and listening with both mind and heart for generations and generations. Within Native spirituality, there is a set of un-spoken rules across tribal lines for how one is to act in this world in order to respect the gift of life, and to move through this world learning what one is here to learn and contribute. These rules are not written down anywhere; often they are learned through experience and observation. And these unspoken rules don’t even really have a name, so we could call them the “Indian commandments,” but in order to capture the true essence, it may be best to just call them the Way of the Circle. They are as follows:

  1. When you first arise in the morning, give thanks to the creator (Great Spirit, Great One, Great Creator), to the four directions, Mother Earth, Father Sky, all of our relations, for the life within you, and for all the life around you.
  2. All things are connected: o Remember that all things have purpose, everything has its place. o Honor others by treating them with kindness and consideration; always assume that a guest is tired, cold, and hungry, making sure to provide him or her with the best of what you have to offer.
  3. If you have more than you need for yourself and your family, consider performing a “giveaway” by distributing your possessions to others who are in need.
  4. You are bound by your word that cannot be broken except by permission of the other party.
  5. Seek harmony and balance in all things: o It is always important to remember where you are in relation to everything else, and to contribute to the Circle in whatever way you can. o Sharing is the best part of receiving. o Practice silence and patience in all things as a reflection of self-control, endurance, dignity, reverence, and inner calm. o Practice modesty in all things; avoid boasting and loud behavior that attracts attention to yourself. o Know the things that contribute to your well-being, and those things that lead to your destruction.
  6. Always ask permission, and give something for everything that is received, including giving thanks and honoring all living things.
  7. Be aware of what is around you, what is inside of you, and always show respect: o Treat every person with respect, from the tiniest child to the oldest elder. o Do not stare at others; drop your eyes as a sign of respect, especially in the presence of elders, teachers, or community leaders.
  8. o Always give a sign of greeting when passing a friend or stranger. o Never criticize or talk about someone in a harmful, negative way. o Never touch something that belongs to someone else without permission. o Respect the privacy of every person, making sure to never intrude upon someone’s quiet moments or personal space. o Never interfere in the affairs of another by asking questions or offering advice. o Never interrupt others. o In another person’s home, follow his or her customs rather than your own. o Treat with respect all things held sacred to others whether you understand them or not. o Treat the Earth as your mother, give to her, protect her, honor her; show deep respect for the animal world, plant world, and mineral world.
  9. Listen to guidance offered by all of your surroundings; expect this guidance to come in the form of prayer, dreams, quiet solitude, and in the words and deeds of wise elders and friends.
  10. Listen with your heart.
  11. Learn from your experiences, and always be open to new ones.
  12. Always remember that a smile is something sacred, to be shared.
  13. Live each day as it comes.

As a way of illustrating the way of the Circle, let me relate a true story that my father has told me many times. It holds a special place in my heart, as I imagine my father as a little boy down by the Oconaluftee River with his grandfather (as I recount it in Medicine of the Cherokee):

Some of my fondest memories of when I was still a little one go back to times spent with my grandfather, Oscar Rogers, who was Eastern Cherokee. We would spend time sitting on the rocks by the Oconaluftee River in Cherokee, North Carolina. “What do you see when you look into the water?” he would inquire, as he sat on a rock enjoying the afternoon sun. I would look closely to see the water rushing quickly downstream. My eyes would catch the glimpse of a fish, water beetles, flies touching the water, soaked wood floating along at the will of the water, rocks, and green plants.

“I see the water,” I said. “What else do you see?” he asked. “Well, I see the fish,” I answered, because there were little minnows swimming around in the water. “What else do you see?” he asked. “I see the rocks,” I said. “What else do you see?” he asked again. My eyes began to water a little as I stared intently, wanting so much to please my Grandfather by seeing everything he saw.

“Ah, I see my reflection,” I responded proudly. “That’s good,” he replied confidently. “What you see is your whole life ahead of you. Know that the Great One has a plan for you to be the keeper of everything you see with your eyes, ‘cause every living thing is your brother and sister.” “Even the rocks?” I questioned. “Yes, even the rocks,” he answered, “because they have elements of Mother Earth and Father Sky, just as we do.”

“Remember to give thanks every day for all things that make up the Universe,” said my Grandfather. “Always remember to walk the path of Good Medicine and see the good reflected in everything that occurs in life. Life is a lesson, and you must learn the lesson well to see your true reflection in the water.”

From a traditional Native perspective, as members of the Greater Circle of Life, we each have the responsibility and privilege of being able to serve as a helper in some way as we all walk our own Medicine path, seeking our own vision. This is the meaning and responsibility of being a caretaker. Archie Fire Lame Deer, a Lakota Medicine man, described the role of the caretaker this way: “To be a Medicine person, you have to experience everything, live life to the fullest. If you don’t experience the human side of everything, how can you help teach or heal? To be a good Medicine person, you’ve got to be humble. You’ve got to be lower than a worm and higher than an eagle.”

Though it is not each person’s job to be a Medicine person in the Native traditional sense of healing, every person can serve as some form of helper, and life has a way of providing some of the most unexpected opportunities for that to happen. One wonders, as we reflect on Native American spirituality, about the question that my great-grandfather posed to my father many times when he was being a stubborn, inquisitive little boy: “Does the worm live in the ground, or does the worm fly in the sky?” Perhaps this is a question we should ask ourselves the next time a delicate, colorful butterfly wanders past us, reminding us of the intricate tapestry woven by medicine, harmony, relation, and vision. Things are not always as they seem. The limitation of human perception is the beauty of Nuwati offering us an opportunity to see things as they are in essence rather than simply the way we want to see them. Perhaps that is what makes life so worth living as we fulfill our purpose of discovering that which is true, while learning to take care of this sacred gift of life.