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50 Years Ago: IHS begins program to train medicine men

Fifty years ago this week, the U.S. Indian Health Service was looking at doing something it had never done before – setting up a program to help train new medicine men. IHS officials said they were in discussions with the tribe and leading medicine men to see if such a program could be implemented on the Navajo Reservation much like the program that already existed to train doctors to serve in the U.S.

Public Health Service and in rural areas. Under that program, the federal government agreed to pay the tuition for medical school if the student agreed to serve five years in the Public Health Service or in a rural area. The PHS had been having a difficult time recruiting doctors because of the Vietnam War. The same situation existed within the IHS, which had been having problems for years recruiting doctors to serve in Gallup, much less in places like Tuba City and Crownpoint.

By giving them a break on their education costs, the IHS hoped that after a few years practicing medicine on the Navajo Reservation, they would decide to make this their permanent home.

That philosophy worked in a few cases but it wasn’t until the Navajo Area office began encouraging Navajos to go to medical school and agreed to help with expenses that the program took off. Exactly how the IHS got the idea to get involved in training medicine men is not known but by 1970 there was already talk of an upcoming shortage of traditional practitioners as more young Navajos opted to get a regular 8-to-5 job.

Medicine man was a prestigious occupation in the first half of the 20th century when there were few jobs and most Navajos made a living raising sheep. After World War II ended and tribal leaders started encouraging young members to get a college education, the luster of being a medicine man seemed to wear off. Former Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald talked about a time in his life when he considered becoming a medicine man.

But after joining the Marines, he went on to college to study electrical engineering. Over the next 50 years, the Navajo Times would print numerous articles about the problem of getting young Navajos to become medicine men. The first obstacle was the training, which often took years of working with an experienced medicine man and becoming his apprentice.

Since there were a lot of ceremonies, each one required going over the words and protocols over and over again until you had it down to the satisfaction of your mentor. And then there was the financial aspect of the job. Unlike doctors, who made an above-average living, the Times learned that no medicine man made a fortune.

In fact, even the most popular medicine men on the reservation made not much more than a schoolteacher. And while there was a structure of sorts connected, one did not become a medicine man to become rich with each ceremony.

There were times when the family needing the ceremony would only be able to pay by other means, such as with sheep or jewelry. One of the aspects of the education process mentioned in the Navajo Times articles was that this was not an education one could get on their own. There were no books or tape recordings a student could study.

He had to attach himself to a master medicine man and attend ceremony after ceremony, memorizing the words and techniques. Another thing to factor in was reputation. Like in the world of doctors, some medicine men had better reputations than others; also, families became accustomed to going to one medicine man and they sought him out, making it harder for new medicine men to find clients.

This latter was resolved to some extant by the fact that many Navajo families scheduled ceremonies for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays so their children in college could attend when they came home. The demand for medicine men during those times became so great that even young medicine men had no problem finding work.

The Times published a story in the 1980s about concerns from officials of the Navajo Medicinemen’s Association after they heard reports that some of the newer members of their profession had shortened the length of some of the ceremonies. They called this a very serious problem because the shorter ceremonies were not considered to be as effective as the ones that had been around for generations.

Another problem that greatly affected the number of new medicine men who entered the profession was the fact that many experienced medicine men didn’t want to train an apprentice. Not only was it hard work for little pay, they didn’t see any benefit to train someone who eventually would be trying to get their clients. That was one of the benefits of the program the IHS would finally establish.

Not only did the prospective student get a stipend each month but so would the medicine man. When the program started, the stipend was $390 a month but it was later increased to $500 in certain situations.

The program also took into account the type of ceremonies the student would be taught. Special emphasis was placed on learning ceremonies that were being offered by only a couple of medicine men so the ceremonies would not be forever lost. The IHS program lasted several years and was eventually taken over by the tribe.

About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.


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