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.