Native Voices–Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness

My passion for disability rights advocacy emerged when I realized that disability intersects with all areas of life. One such angle of life that I am very interested in learning more about is health and health care. To be more specific, I am interested in exploring how to make information about health more accessible to people with disabilities as well as to people who have traditionally been outside the mainstream–whether due to race, ethnicity, immigrant and/or refugee status, sexuality, poverty, or other marginalizing factors. I want to learn how improving access to health information could give such groups a greater voice in advocating for their own wellbeing.

To explore options for achieving this goal, I recently visited the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland. The National Library of Medicine is displaying an exhibit called Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness, that addresses these very issues. Native Voices is a compelling exhibit that features video interviews where Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians speak about wellness, illness, and cultural life, and how these three themes connect to one another. The exhibit also includes Native artifacts both historical and contemporary. I found this exhibit fascinating, and wanted to write a brief post sharing information about Native Voices as well as some of my favorite resources that convey Native Peoples’ perspectives.

To view the “Native Voices” Interviews online

National Library of Medicine. “Interviews–Meet Health Professional, Community Leaders, Traditional Healers, and others working to Improve the Health of Native Peoples.” Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness. I stayed at the exhibit for an hour, and would have easily stayed all day if I had not discovered that all the video interviews were available online at this link. The interviews with Native peoples include perspectives from health professionals, community leaders, and traditional healers, and address five themes: Individual, Community, Nature, Tradition, and Healing.

Recommended novels by Native Authors that address themes present in Native Voices

1. Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. Tayo, a young man of mixed Native and Caucasian heritage, returns to his home on the Laguna Pueblo following his service in WWII. He is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and struggling to adapt to his once-familiar surroundings. Ceremony intersperses Tayo’s voice with perspectives from other Native peoples and folktales told in collective narration. The blending of these disparate voices yields a mesmerizing cyclical story. In fact, Leslie Marmon Silko’s writing so mesmerized novelist Susan Straight that she got lost on a road trip searching for a scene in Ceremony. 

For me, Ceremony also has great significance in conveying the emotional effects of internalized racial oppression. I am especially drawn to re-reading a monologue of Tayo’s where the reader can see his mind churning through this very concept. A few years ago, I wrote out this passage in calligraphy, and designed a collage where Tayo’s words were strewn around an antique map of the world as a means of showing the global pervasiveness of this damaging ideology. If people are interested, I would be happy to revise this artwork in my Etsy Store. Due to my love of reading, much of my visual art speaks to the power of language.

2. Momaday, M. Scott. House Made of Dawn. I read House Made of Dawn and Ceremony in a college class called “Race in Ethnic American Literature.” My professor had worried that reading both novels was repetitious because House Made of Dawn also centers around a Native World War II veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. My classmates and I reassured him that the two novels are complementary. I recommend reading both books because Leslie Marmon Silko responds to the tone and structure of House Made of Dawn much like how a jazz song riffs on a classical concerto.

Recommended resources for learning more about Native Peoples’ perspectives

1. Indigenous People’s Issues and Resources. Indigenous Peoples Issues & Resources is an excellent online clearinghouse for current and historical news, articles, and videos for indigenous peoples around the world as well as those concerned about them.

2. National Public Radio (NPR) Tell Me More. Tell Me More aims to bring “fresh voices and perspectives to public radio,” and host Michel Martin has interviewed a variety of Native peoples since the show began in 2006. Recent stories featuring Native peoples are:

a. “Who Gets To Decide Who Is Native American?” August 9, 2012.

b. “Need For Speed: Native American Joins NASCAR.” November 30, 2011.

c. “Native American ‘Warriors’ Mark Military Service.” November 11, 2010.


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