SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The country's largest rural, nonprofit hospital system is hiring two traditional Native American healers to train medical staff in the Dakotas and Minnesota in an effort to better serve the American Indian patient population.
Sanford Health is in the process of hiring a Lakota/Dakota and an Ojibwe to serve as consultants as part of a three-year $12 million Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services award, said Read Sulik, Sanford's senior vice president for Behavioral Health Services.
"Being where we're located in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota, we realized we serve perhaps the largest American Indian population in a health system outside of Indian Health Services of probably any other system in the country, given where we're located across the northern Plains," Sulik said, noting that Native Americans as a group have some of the biggest health disparities in the country. "Several of the things that keep rising up (are) how patients feel welcome and engaged and effectively communicated to in the health clinics settings."
Sulik, who is based in Fargo, said the traditional healers will act as advisers to health care workers to develop training and curriculum about the American Indian culture, and will consult with medical staff on when it may be appropriate to use traditional healing techniques in conjunction with modern medicine.
The two healers won't necessarily be performing traditional healing ceremonies, Sulik said, but advising clinics in the three states on when a ceremony may be necessary and how to use local resources to make it happen.
Oitancan Mani Zephier, a 33-year-old Yankton Sioux tribe member from Vermillion, has seen firsthand how having a Native American by a patient's side can help psychologically. While working as an Army medic in Afghanistan in 2004-2005, he came across an injured soldier who had a Native American medicine pouch around his neck under his shirt.
"I told him I was Sioux. He said, 'You're Sioux?! Now I already feel better,'" Zephier recalled. "He wasn't even Sioux. He was Choctaw."
Some ceremonies and traditions might seem odd to non-Natives, he added, such as the smudging of sage and sweet grass to purify the area around the patient. When a baby is born, Zephier's people believe that wiping out the newborn's mouth with sage can help the infant better transition from the spiritual realm of the womb.
Some patients also wrap tobacco in cloths of red, black, yellow or white and hang them on their bedposts as prayer offerings.
"It's for the spirits, or the angels, if you will, who are coming in to help heal," said Zephier, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where his uncle is a medicine man — or intermediary between the spirit world and people.
In addition to the healers, Sulik said the health system is hiring a cultural and diversity specialist to understand and serve patients from a variety of cultural backgrounds.
"We have several refugee communities in various areas that we live and there are certainly lots of cultural differences," Sulik said.
Sulik, as part of being selected for a Bush Foundation Fellowship, will visit different communities all over the world over the next few years to see firsthand how some hospital systems are able to serve indigenous communities by blending western medicine with traditional healing.
A similar initiative to blend western and traditional medicine started several years ago at Page Hospital in Page, Ariz., where up to 60 percent of the patients are Native Americans, including many Navajo Nation members. While the hospital doesn't employ traditional healers or medicine men on staff, medicine men do often come to the hospital to perform healing ceremonies or pray or bless the patient at the patient's request, said hospital CEO Sandy Haryasz.
For example, Haryasz said, if a Native American woman who follows traditional beliefs plans to have a vaginal birth delivery but for some reason must have a C-section that is not an emergency, sometimes a mother would request a medicine man come to the hospital to bless her before the operation.
"Our medical staff and nursing staff are extremely supportive of the spiritual side of the medicine men and healing ceremonies. They totally support patients' rights and respect their decision to have a medicine man come in," she said. "There's no issue between alternative medicine per se and traditional medicine."
Zephier said he knows of few Native Americans who wouldn't accept prayers of any sort — be they from a different tribe than their own or a different faith altogether.
"I've always welcomed any prayer of any faith when I've been in the hospital or for someone else. Prayers are prayers," he said.
But he added that having someone on hand to explain some of the patient's beliefs and traditions can help put everyone at ease.
"Many non-Natives don't understand where we're coming from and the things we do," he said. "Something like this could help."
Associated Press writer Amber Hunt contributed to this report.
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.