Ghost Sickness among Native Americans

Ghost sickness is an illness acquired by Native Americans when funeral taboos are violated, dreaming of dead relatives or friends occurs, or an individual is touched by a ghost.  Not being able to let go of a lost loved one can also be a cause.  People with ghost sickness are weak, do not have an appetite, cannot sleep, have nightmares, are afraid of the dark, cry for long periods of time, and experience feelings of suffocation.   By using witchcraft, a shaman can also produce these symptoms.  In some cases, ghost sickness is believed to not only cause illness, but death as well.

In my opinion, the biological dimensions of this illness are purely psychological.  I think that symptoms are the result of one’s superstitious beliefs or inability to cope with the death of a loved one.  One one is afflicted with this syndrome that can have hallucinations, nightmares, anxiety and even become depressed.

Native Americans have a very cyclical world view.  This means that all events, no matter when they occur in time, affect each other.  For example, if proper burial procedures and rituals do not take place the deceased cannot be at peace in their new environment.  When the deceased are not at peace the living are affected both physically and mentally (ghost sickness).

Elaborate rituals take place to defend against the spirits of death.  To avoid ghost sickness, some Native Americans go out of their way to make sure that a ghost cannot find its way back to the home that they once lived in.  To treat ghost sickness, family members gather together and perform a peyote ceremony.   Peyote is a plant that has been used for spiritual purposes among Native Americans for many years.  It has psychoactive properties when ingested, and is thought to help cure one with ghost sickness.

Fathauer, George H.. “The Mohave “Ghost Doctor”.” American Anthropologist 53: 605-607. (accessed July 18, 2014).

Jackson, Yo. Encyclopedia of Multicultural Psychology, ed., s.v. “Culture Bound Syndromes: Ghost Sickness.” Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2006.

This Post Has 1 Comment

  1. Breanna Ramsay says:

    As we learned in this course “Culture is a learned patterns of thought and behavior shared by a social group.” To me though culture is much more encompassing than that. Culture may be learned patterns and behaviors shared by different groups of people, but these cultures shape the way different social groups view the world and live in it. Culture shapes individuals and how the live and interact in the world.
    Having had a couple courses regarding religion and American Indians, Ghost Sickness should be regarded as a Culture Bound Illness. The Ghost Sickness meets the requirements that would register it as a Culture Bound Illness (CBS) under the DSM-IV definition. The advantages to this registration of being a culture bound illness could be that there is already rituals set in place to defend against spirits that create the taboo that leads to the ghost sickness (aka there is a way to protect oneself and to seek treatment for ghost sickness) in American Indian societies. Disadvantages would be that those outside the American Indian community would not fully understand Ghost Sickness and how it effects and individual and their family as well as how it should go about being treated.
    Spirit or soul procession might be another way other cultures or societies would think of it or even just bad dreams or hallucinations in others. With symptoms of those of Ghost Sickness there are more psychological explanations that would be given by biomedical culture.

Leave a Reply