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November is Native American Heritage Month. “It is a great time to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions and histories, and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people,” according to the NCAI. I recently participated in the World Massage Festival, which is an international gathering, providing a variety of indigenous educational and cultural offerings. While there, it occurred to me our need to acknowledge and honor the many healing traditions that massage therapists have been permitted to learn and integrate from native cultures.

My whole life I have been exposed to and studied many indigenous healing traditions. In the last four years I have dedicated myself to being a student and Certified Ambassador for Sacred Stone Medicine. During this time I have learned a great deal about what respectfully learning and integrating really means. Participants in my classes often confess feeling an awkwardness about navigating the waters of sensitivity, correctness and supporting the people who where first on these lands. (Been there, done that, still doing it) So I wanted to share some of my lessons about respectful learning and encourage you to open your hearts and minds to the wealth of wisdom available thru native teachings. 

Listen, observe, and when an Elder speaks…. be silent. Only when you have invested in this, will the opportunity come to ask questions. I remember, early on, when a Mayan healer from Belize looked me right in the eye and asked me “Brat, have you come to learn or to entertain?” I am eternally grateful to Hortense for the lesson that has stayed with me these many decades. And now I pass it on to you.

Study the culture: it’s all about educating and not shaming. I love leaning about the contributions that indigenous people have made and their cultural celebrations of their culture. But if I’m going to learn the traditions then I need to study all of the history. I personally detest brutality and it is a real effort to faithfully expose myself to atrocities that were perpetrated against the original peoples. I do it not out of penance but out of respect. I find I make better decisions about appropriateness and it helps me understand the source of cultural sensitivity. I specifically read the works of Native writers.

Avoid the empty recycled attempts of appropriation. Some of the training I have been to where just short introductions with emphasis on technique and very little cultural references. But if you decide to really study it, then understand the linage of the teachings and the credentials of the teachers. At the World Massage Festival I had the privilege to observe two great teachers interact together in the same workshop. One was my Sacred Stone Medicine Elder Jenny Ray and the other was Kuma Brenda Mohalapua Ignacio, of Lomi Lomi and Ho’oponopono traditions.  Both showed so much respect for each other and where delighted by the similarities of their paths. But they were adamant about keeping their particular traditions separate and the linage clear. They warned all of us to avoid those who present a watered down version of these traditions with no honor or respect to the ancestors.

Don’t be afraid to step out there but check yourself.  When engaging with culture, always question your motives and put in the work to be respectful, appreciative and critical. My experience so far is that a respectful, even if awkward, authentic attempt is more appreciated than a slick recitation of someone else’s interpretation. Find a mentor that will correct you. You will survive the embarrassment and you will remember the lesson. Asking for forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, but respect. I have tried to make the most of my opportunities by showing gratitude and respect to all those who sacrificed to save these traditions for future generations.  For me this was a gift with a covenant - that when I represent it, I will do just as I have been taught. I will not change it or appropriate it in any way. I am willing to honor this strict code because I feel the responsibility of trust that was given me with the sharing the traditions in the first place. I honor the covenant with strict adherence.

 

The bottom line is to respectfully acknowledge and learn from indigenous cultures and help others do the same. And really, why limit these lessons to indigenous cultures. Respect and gratitude can always be applied across our world.

 

Be well, Do good work.