Health and Culture
Walking in Beauty
The conflict between Western Medicine and Non-Western CultureIt is obvious that every culture has its healing rituals and customs that each healer follows in order to be in tune with what they know and believe to be right. Being in harmony with nature is what the Navajo Indians are all about. When Billy Begay, a Navajo Indian who has lived on an Indian reservation most of his life is diagnosed with a cancerous legion in his mouth, his beliefs and rituals are interrupted as doctors and anesthesiologists offer advice and suggestions regarding how to handle this unfortunate event. Does the advice and caution by the doctor create harmony or confusion with Mr. Begay and his cultural rituals? What can be done to create understanding in the health care systems when people of different cultural backgrounds seek medical attention?
“Grandfather doesn’t understand much about cancer” Ruby tells the nurse after being called in for a consultation with her grandfather. When Ruby says “We don’t have a word for cancer in the Navajo language” it is clear that the cancer is referred to as a sickness caused by one being out of tune with nature. It seems to be equated with all other sickness that occur because in life one tries to fight it’s way through without letting nature take it’s own course.
“He does not believe he got this cancer from cigarette smoking. He believes he got this sickness because his life has fallen out of balance and he no longer walks in beauty” Ruby tells the same nurse seconds later.
As the doctor consults him he uses terminologies and speaks with such hurry that Mr. Begay is unfamiliar with and feels uncomfortable because he does not understand why there described procedures are needed to take away the cancer. The doctor spoke of bad outcomes and low chances of death. In the Navajo belief system, talking about death is already a red flag. Ruby tells the nurse that her grandfather believes that one must be in harmony with nature if healing is to occur. Mr. Begay feels that Dr. York is in a hurry and has no harmony whatsoever. He does not understand the way in which the western society handles medical cases. So Mr. Begay wants to go and see the Navajo healer because he believes the healer will cure the illness and his body will be in balance once again. The mind, body, spirit and motions must all be in balance before healing can occur.
Ruby’s attempts to persuade her grandfather of the best treatment possible to cure his cancer because on the Navajo reservation women often have the last word. With this, there are going to have to be some changes in the way the doctors work with Mr. Begay.
Navajo Indians have beliefs that everything they say and do affect them and the land they are in. They believe they have a responsibility to remain on and care for the land where they were placed by the Creator. Knowledge of sacred places carries with it the obligations to care for them through the appropriate offering, prayers and songs The Navajo religion is Life and Land (“Makantuweep” 1998, p. 2).
Navajo healing ceremonies are used to cope with the uncertainties and dangers that occur in the universe. They are usually performed to bring the dangerous powers under control and to restore physical or spiritual imbalances in an individual. These curative ceremonies, which can last up to nine days, must be performed in a Hogan by a specially trained medicine person. The person usually uses sand paintings and herbal remedies made from local minerals and plants to heal the patient. Plants must be collected for each individual ceremony; they cannot be gathered in advance or stored in a kit (“Makantuweep” 1998, p. 3).
There are several other cultural values visible in the scenario. One cultural value that was noticeable was the posture of the people in the trailer. It was clear that the Navajo people were more calm and relaxed than the doctors were.
From the beginning of the trailer it is obvious that assumption are made left and right as to what is wrong with Begay. The culture in which the trailer is set is typical mainstream Western Culture with all the hustle and bustle of people running about trying to give meaning to hopeless diseases. The hospital scenario was one of much rushing around and not having enough time to do what needs to be done. No time for personal matters nor time for people and who they are. The doctors have a patient with a problem disease name the disease and automatically have a cure that includes risks which in turn leaves no room for interpretation on the part of the patient.
The patient on the other hand, has a completely different approach on life and believes in a more holistic form of healing that includes the mind, body and soul being one with his surroundings and nature. It appears that Mr. Begay is more of a personal being and communicates his beliefs to Dr. York when he refuses to sign the required documents.
Ruby is the middle woman who understands both cultures and wants the best for her grandfather. She comprehends the risks it would take if her grandfather chooses to undergo the procedure and can see that this form of healing may be quicker whereas if he chooses to be healed by a Navajo doctor, it may take awhile for nature to take its course.
The doctor’s biomedicine approach focuses on medical application, diagnosis and treatment (Wikipedia, 2008). In other words, biomedicine is more formally known as Western Medicine. In the clip the procedures the doctors took dealt with step by step procedures but had nothing to do with the actual person. The person is seen as a disease and with a disease there is a cure. The patient in the clip, though knowing that somehow his body fell out of sync with nature, understood that he had a problem.
Though the sickness or disease was known by both parties, the approaches were different leading to frustration, stress and anxiety. The root of the problem broken down is all the same, the approach however can bring people together, or split them apart.
Many things can be done to ameliorate conflicts in cultural values in the healthcare system and in any other system for that mater. It would be positive and encouraging to have open communication with the patient regarding their history and belief systems and find a compromise that would allow both holistic and professional healings to take place. A little “give and take” can go a long way and both parties care therefore benefit from each other.
- Walking in Beauty, 5 January 2008, (mov.)
- Makantuweep, 1998. Navajo Religion: A Sacred Way of Life. 5 Janaury 2008, Baca Enterprises, Inc
- Wikipedia contributors, 4 January 2008. Biomedicine. 5 January 2008, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Biomedicine&oldid=182100568