Shamans in the U.S./Western Hospitals

The article I chose for this week’s reflection post is “A Doctor for Disease, a Shaman for the Soul.” The article explores the integration of traditional Hmong healing practices and some other belief systems into Western facilities in the United States. It specifically highlights the role of shamans in the healing process both at the home and at the hospital. A shaman, Mr. Lee, sums up his role by saying “Doctors are good at disease. The soul is the shaman’s responsibility.” Mr. Lee is one of the first shamans to be invited to Mercy Hospital in Merced to aid in the healing of people from the Hmong community. Many of the people in the community were suffering from chronic/long-term diseases that became long-term because of a fear of medical intervention. Hospital staff believe that trust has been built both ways and immensely aided in the hospital’s ability to combat those widespread health issues among the Hmong community.

The shamans themselves appear to have similar, but different social statuses in the two communities (Hmong and at the hospital). Both communities acknowledge that the shaman fulfills the need of the patients for healing within their cultural belief system. They also both offer a location where ceremonies may take place like at the home of the Hmong people or at the hospital itself next to the patient. This illustrates that both groups respect the shamans enough to allow them to, at the very least, use their facilities. However, it appears that shamans are more highly valued within the Hmong community as they are allowed to perform many more ceremonies and are often the first and only person the people consult for health concerns. They are the doctors and the clergy within that community. The hospital limits the type of ceremonies that can be performed by the shamans and they are never the only person consulted for the patient. The doctors remain the primary person in charge of a patient’s overall health. Here, the shamans are considered to be similar to other clergy.

Shaman techniques described in the article include the wrapping of a coiled thread around a patient’s wrist, the use of gongs, the use of finger bells, the walking of roosters across a patient’s chest (which is not allowed by the hospital), and the placing of long swords at the entrance of patients’ rooms to protect the soul and ward off evil spirits. The shamanas are allowed to be with the patients and must ask for permission before using the accessories listed above. They also have nine ceremonies available to them that are pre-approved by the hospital. Shamans have many more ceremonies that they can perform at the actual home of patients including entering trance-like states for hours at a time and negotiating with the spirits in return for sacrificed animals brought to the home. A large feast is prepared by the families during the home ceremonies for consumption afterwards.

It appears that shamans are invited by Hmong families into their homes to perform both preventative healthcare and primary healthcare. This again reinforces the role of shamans as both clergy and doctor. The hospital allows them to perform certain ceremonies at the patient’s request, but the hospital primarily considers them to be clergy. In both situations, shamans do not accept insurance or currencies, but they may accept live chickens. It appears that both systems allow the shaman to tend to a person’s soul by communicating with spirits and performing ritualistic ceremonies. Through their eyes, a patient’s symptoms are often manifestations of something wrong with their soul or of the encroachment of evil spirits upon them, neither of which is usually tended to by the typical physician.

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  1. Drew Selden says:

    I think this review does a good job of showing how traditional shamanistic healing can be effective in providing healthcare when used with modern biomedicine. However many Western facilities in the U.S. treat patients with a wide variation of cultural backgrounds. I feel like it would be extremely difficult for most hospitals to provide the required shaman-healer or clergy for all these different types of cultural backgrounds. It’s probably why most Western hospitals do not provide much when it comes to any thing other than the healing and treatment of the body and disease.

    I definitely think these healers seem credible and legitimate. The one example of the man living through the gangrenous bowel after shaman intervention is all it took for the Western physicians at that facility to believe in its legitimacy. That is just one example with a single person, there are many more ‘miracles’ that can only be attributed to the healing a shaman can do. I think the healing a shaman provides is best used in addition to modern Western biomedicine. Also, the article about the clown doctors, the author states that we should reexamine the question of whether or not shamanistic healing is effective but rather how does the efficacy of biomedicine increase when used in addition with the healing shamans provide.

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