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Modern Medicine Welcomes Native Healers

The Health Committee in Ko'olau Loa is seeking to integrate Hawaiian values and practices into the dominant Western medical model. For centuries, Hawaiian leaders used prayer, massage, and herbs to restore balance among mind, body, and spirit. Then, 80 years ago, it became illegal to practice native medicine. Hawaiian healers went underground. And there they remained until 1993, when President Clinton signed a bill that legalized native cultural practices.

Today, all traditions are valued by Ko'olau Loa's Health Committee. For the first time, a broad spectrum of providers is involved together in rethinking how they deliver services. "We had been walking on separate traits," said one resident. "Now a great many of us have found a common path."

"There have been specific community efforts all along. Like prenatal care and drug abuse prevention," says Laura Armstrong, a member of the Health Committee, who is chief of the Community Health Nursing Division in the state department of health. "But many people, even those with difficult problems, often don't show up at the clinic. We have to stop looking at them as noncompliant and start looking at the barriers that the system has created."

Some Western doctors, she pointed out, don't want to know what traditional practices people follow. Many patients don't tell medical doctors about the other healers they visit. "The health committee sees its work as creating an umbrella so that the values talked about at the conference come first," Armstrong adds.

"The program I run incorporates culture into native care. We have Japanese, Hawaiian, and other healers developing protocols with us for public health nursing. No longer can we say that we nurses are the bosses and we know what is best. We are changing our nursing curriculum to emphasize patients and families as partners. The Ko'olau Loa experience was the turning point. It's a whole new mindset."

In addition the community is identifying traditional healers, most of them elders who until recently were not free to pass on their practice. Creating a directory of native healers is not as simple as it seems. "You can't just list them in a yellow pages book," says Herb Wilson, a committee member and a teacher at Kamehameha School. "That would contradict how they work. How can you identify them but not violate their values?"

In parallel, young native practitioner Bulla Logan and his teacher, elder Norman Kaluhiokalani, are producing a videotape to educate the HMO system about traditional medicine. They also are working with the Board of Health on compliance standards, following precedents set by the Canadian system, which recognizes Indian medicine.

Another aspect of this effort is creating awareness that healers exist in every family. "That doesn't mean just one person," says Armstrong. "Every one takes his and her turn. For example, a child who learns that smoking is bad for you and tells the family becomes the healer." Cultural healers, she says, are an essential part of every community and of every home. Many families have passed this notion down through generations. Many others have no awareness.

"We also want to come up with what people in the community define as healing families," says Armstrong. "We want to come together with our education group and our pu'uhonua group," she adds. "The Master Plan committee is meeting with us, too, and we will make sure they don't forget about health."





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