I Visited a Chickasaw Healer

As American alternative medicine grows in popularity, I decided to experience an even older style of nontraditional treatment.
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Outside Oklahoma City, the day after Christmas, I found myself lying on a massage table draped in Native American quilts. No sooner had a bear blanket covered me than the Chickasaw medicine man began dusting my body with a feather covered in white sage powder.

Through my squinted eyes, I could make out a chalky nimbus surrounding my torso and, past it, the rabbit and raccoon pelts against the yellow walls, the horns and hides, the copious dream catchers. I was not in a teepee, as I half expected when I made the appointment, but instead a mansion with fine cabinetry and plush furniture. Once through the varnished front doors, I entered the healing man’s therapeutic lair.

Perhaps it's no surprise that my surroundings were so luxe: alternative medicine has reached an all-time high among ailing Americans. And it's not just hippies on podunk ashrams–the government, too, has taken note. U.S. taxpayers have devoted $1.5 billion to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health, a center that researches techniques like acupuncture, yoga, and tai-chi. The University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Medicine has received $25 million from the NIH for research and offers a treatment in which a healer floats his hands over a patient's body, as my medicine man did.

But is this all pure snake oil? I wanted to find out if there's some truth to a therapy that doesn’t rely on traditional biological mechanisms.  

I sought the medicine man’s healing touch therapy out of curiosity, and holiday time spent with my wife’s parents in the Sooner State allowed me to make it a reality. I come from a New York Semitic provenance whereby a therapy session on the couch and healthy dose of SSRIs can solve most maladies.

Still, the experience lent itself to moments of extreme clarity, and as I alternated between mental states of hypnosis and Quaalude-like sedation there on the table, I learned to temper my skepticism and embrace some of the hocus-pocus.

Away from the waiting room, co-pay, tongue depressor, cough-cough form of a checkup I’m used to, I was able to surrender myself to a kind of extreme magical healing of Southern comfort. If you were granted one wish from a medicine man regarding your physical health, what ailment would you get rid of, what would you enhance? For those of us who aren’t sick, per se, there’s still that incessant bum knee, the insomnia, the migraines, the sinus congestion. Our bodies, our vessels—they all have their things.

My one issue stemmed from my left ear, which frequent flying for reporting trips has rendered unpopped and cloudy. (In terms of severity, my complaint was about equal with “paper cut,” but I come from a nervous people and suffer from bouts of chronic hypochondria.)

“Okay, we can send a little healing energy that way,” said the shaman, who was chewing the heck out of some bear root.

He stared into my eyes as if he knew every embarrassing moment of my life. I sat there and accepted his rapt study, feeling a mixture of shame and strange relief as he set about his designs.

This type of treatment actually isn’t beyond the scope of mainstream medicine. In fact, the Chickasaw Nation Medical Center, the largest Native American hospital in the United States, opened in 2010 with state-of-the-art facilities, but also provides traditional healing arts.

“Although we rely on conventional medicine, there are still folks who believe that healing is not just for your physical body… it’s for your spirit as well,” Chickasaw nation governor Bill Anoatubby told Agence France Presse at the time of the hospital’s opening.

The Chickasaw medicine man informed me that he would be operating with the energy of an eagle (from above, with opportunity for perspective) or a bear (on my level, with greater confrontation).

After the feather dusting, the shaman lightly touched my feet, hitting pressure points such that I felt his touch in the grooves of my cranium. He would make an otherworldly noise that sounded like a hibernating bear, though there was no clear resonance from his throat, mouth, or nose. The drone-like whoosh-snore seemed conjured, as though it was summoned from a faraway forest.

He moved up to my knee and with his thumb managed to hit more pressure points so that I became exceedingly relaxed. Inside my head, it seemed as if I had a cue-ball sized sphere that was resting on a plane. If I lost focus, I felt, the ball might roll off. I tried to stay present, the way you might resist dozing off, but a few more pressure points later, and the ball rolled. I fell into a trance-like state.

That’s when the medicine man puts the blueprint of the “perfect us” on our bodies, he told me. He gets our minds out of the way so he can go to work. I was not asleep–I was aware of his breathing, his ursine sounds–but the hourlong session felt like five minutes, as, in the arcade-style of Ryu’s hadouken move from Street Fighter, he pressed energy from one ear through to the next.

To enter into this session required me, to some degree, to suspend disbelief. At one point, the medicine man pushed the air, with great deliberation, from my head horizontally down to my feet.

“What does that feel like?” he asked me.

I didn’t know quite how to respond, given that it didn’t feel like much. To an extent, I did feel the weight of the air, a certain burden lifted. It’s not all make-believe. But did I do away with the toxicity and bad energy, the congestion? I’m not entirely sure.  I played off light-headedness from the relaxation in order to avoid answering the question.

He instructed me to give the bad energy back to the earth, let it be used as fertilizer. Though this exercise seemed of hokie-Okie necromancy, there is a certain mind-cleansing element to abandoning yourself to the motions of this ritual.

The vibe felt like a spa treatment, though instead of the smell of patchouli and eucalyptus, there was that pervasive sage.

When finished, he had me rise slowly to a seated position as he hit some pressure points in my back. I felt extreme shivers and then, when he palmed my shoulder blades, flowing warmth.

I stepped on the buffalo hide rug he had on the floor and was told to absorb the energy up through my feet into my body. I crouched and strained: it was basically like taking a reverse dump.

He gifted me an elk sinew and buffalo horn bracelet in a ceremony.

I paid the suggested rate of $50–no co-pay, no insurance, no hassle.

And wouldn’t you know, that night I had one of the best sleeps of my life. My ear opened up and I felt a remarkable physical and mental equilibrium. Granted, this visit was conducted as a salubrious dalliance, not out of necessity. Yet sometimes it takes an hour of remove from daily life to cure what hurts and burns or aches and ails.

After the session, I wanted to get the medicine man's contact info in case I had any questions about the treatment.

“Do you use email?” I said.

“Oh, I’m just getting past smoke signals,” he joked.

And indeed, sometimes laughter is the best medicine.

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Ross Kenneth Urken is a writer and editor based in New York City. His work has appeared in New York magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

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