Healers find much common ground at conference

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, August 29, 2013

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B arbara Cooke-James rode the Amtrak from Washington D.C. to attend the 2nd annual Gathering of Healers event at the Navajo Nation Museum over the weekend, and learned from Navajo hataalii Johnson Dennison that to heal you have to "look back to move forward."

Upon hearing Dennison's teachings, in a session titled "Navajo Healing Ceremony," Cooke-James quickly came up with a Ghanaian proverb that expresses the same philosophy.

She summed up Dennison's teaching with the Twi word "Sankofa," which literally means, "Go back again and bring it," meaning there are many useful lessons in the past.

Cooke-James, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, was among many international healers from throughout the U.S. and various countries to gather in the tribal capital from Aug. 22-25.

Sponsored by the Tsehootsoi Medical Center in Fort Defiance, the three-day healing event was a way for healers of both traditional and Western background to network, collaborate and blend their knowledge of renewing a person's mind, body and spirit, said organizer Mechelle Morgan-Flowers.

Navajo medicine men and women like Dennison, and Havasupai traditional practitioner Uqualla, as well as healers from Germany and Spain and the Community Sacred House of Energy were present throughout the three-day healing event.

To kick it off, there were traditional Navajo blessings - one for women and one for men in two separate hogans - held on Aug. 22. The event concluded with a camping trip to Chaco Canyon National Historical Park on Aug. 25.

Morgan-Flowers, a nurse at Tsehootsoi Medical Center, said as a health practitioner, it's important to restore a person's mind, body and spirit with holistic techniques, much like the ones Dennison and others shared with attendees of the healing event.

From her perspective, prayer is important. "Be an open spirit," she said.

In Dennison's Navajo Healing Ceremony session, attendees like Lisa Kula, of Phoenix, learned about the emphasis on positivity.

"The healing can only begin once the positive attitudes have been adopted by the patient and they take responsibility for their healing," said Kula, who works as a professional education coordinator for the Donor Network of Arizona.

She also learned from Dennison about his battle with an illness that eventually led him to become a specialist in the Navajo Blessing Way and Navajo Wind Way ceremonies.

"I really enjoyed his personal journey of how he became a medicine man," she said, adding, "He became ill."

Dennison shared with Kula and Cooke-James how central prayer, singing and chanting to the Navajo deities - the continual motion of the universe - are important to restoring a person back to balance with nature.

"You go by the spirits of the universe," Dennison explained. "We talk to the plants, earth, moon, sun, stars and animals. We call it holistic healing."

Dennison also talked about the bijii part of the Hoozhojii, or Beauty Way Ceremony, which is form of therapy for patients because they're interacting socially and laughing with family, relatives and friends, while the ceremony is going on, to restore happiness.

Kula also took of note Dennison's journey and what he had to overcome, before becoming a Navajo healer.

She saw parallels with her son, who suffered from auto-immune diseases and diabetes while in high school. She added that after her son overcame his illness, he decided on medicine as career path.

Kula's son currently attends Columbia University School of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, where he is in this third year.

"It was through his illness he reconnected with his family, as well as the spiritual and medical part of it," Kula said of Dennison's healing journey. "So far, it's really interesting."

Though the ritual of ceremony is important in Navajo healing, Dennison said it also comes down to the person - whether they want move forward from bad habits that caused illness through disharmony, or keep living according to those bad habits.

"Medicine men only walk with you halfway," he said.

Diagnosticians known as hand tremblers in Navajo medicine and psychologists in Western medicine, only show the path a patient should take, he noted.

In both traditions, healing begins with the individual.

He provided the example of those who suffer from diabetes. When these patients seek help from traditional practitioners and get the help they need emotionally and spiritually to cope with their lifestyle, and once a ceremony is completed on them, they return to bad eating habits, he said.

"Your life doesn't belong in the hands of a medicine man or physician," he said. "You have to decide it belongs to you. The will to live takes you a long way."

The medicine man also said that people have "this belief that once you're healed that's it, but that's not the case."

For those who suffer from depression, Dennison recommended focusing on the present - not the past or future.

"A lot of illness comes from the past," he added. "A lot of people are living in fear of the past and future. Why don't you be happy now? Then you will see the beauty of life."

Havasupai traditional practitioner Uqualla, who performed a morning sunrise ceremony Aug. 23 for the healing event, said Dennison's teachings show how all indigenous groups have an understanding for all of life.

"What is refreshing is how individuals, tribal groups and various clans observe this from various standpoints, with the understanding of bringing goodness and healing to the two-legged, or people, as whole," said the Sedona-based healer.

He liked how the healing event just didn't focus on indigenous healing, but how it promoted spirituality among all walks of life.

Participants also attended sessions on topics like, "Energy Medicine and Homeopathy Foot Steps," by Dr. Grey Meyer; "Live Your Authentic: How Shaping Your Words and Thoughts Can Change You," by Jay McKeral; and "Discover the Beauty of the Universe Thru Navajo Eyes" by Navajo medicine woman Gloria Begay.

Contact Alastair L. Bitsoi at 928-871-1141 or email at abitsoi@gmail.com.