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Navajo project to bring back medicine men

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PHOENIX -- For years, the wind, water, earth and sacred traditions were all the Navajos believed they needed to prevent illness and heal themselves, spiritually and physically.

That was before advances in Western medicine, before the number of Navajo medicine men began to decline and before young Navajos began to discredit the old traditions.Now, through a pilot project aimed at training young people in traditional Navajo healing methods, the Navajo Nation hopes to revive the health-care system they say works best for them -- and save the ceremonies on the verge of extinction.

The Navajo Traditional Apprenticeship Program, implemented in December, chose seven applicants to train with traditional ceremonial practitioners -- also known as medicine men -- and absorb the closely guarded knowledge handed down only through family and clan members.

The survival of the medicine man is vital if the Navajo language and culture are to survive, said Alfred Yazzie, a Navajo language instructor at Arizona State University.

"Medicine men are, for the most part, the people who hold all the teachings and spiritual aspects of the community," Yazzie said. "They still hold a lot of the history -- undocumented history."

That makes learning the ceremonies a difficult and lengthy process. Depending on the ceremonies learned, training can take up to 10 years. And because ceremonies are not taped or written down, they must be learned orally.

As an incentive, the program awards a monthly $300 stipend to apprentices and $350 to teaching practitioners. It may not seem like much, but time to teach the traditional ceremonies is running out, community leaders say.

Eddie Tso, the program's director, said six traditional ceremonies are almost extinct and will be the primary focus in the apprentice program. Not many Navajos with the knowledge remain, he said.

"If we don't do anything about it and look back in 20 years there won't be any ceremonies left," Tso said.

There are about 34 traditional ceremonies left in all, Tso said, only a handful of medicine men left to perform them and a growing population of Navajos. The Navajo Nation sprawls across remote areas of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

"When there are less doctors, how are you going to maintain a balance of wellness?" Tso said. "The Navajo people still rely on these ceremonies today for their health care and their mental care as well."

Supporters of the program are hoping to boost the number of medicine men, despite an apparent lack of interest from Navajo youth some think resulted from the integration of Western ideas.

"Our ceremony was classified as superstitious, taboo. Therefore our younger people sort of look down on these ceremonies," said state Sen. Jack Jackson, also a Navajo.

The solution, Jackson says, is for the state to treat the Navajo's traditional health-care system equal to Western medical traditions.

"What we have to do is give our traditional ceremonies a higher level of dignity -- give these medicine men names equivalent to doctors," he said.

In 1980, the Tribal Council turned down a request to charter the medicine man's association, saying that Navajo ceremonies were a religion and that it wouldn't be proper to mix church and state, Jackson said.

Jackson argues that while the ceremonies are spiritual in nature, it is important to distinguish that they are part of the Navajos' actual health-care system and not a religion.

"We have to grasp what tradition still means," Yazzie said. "If we lose that there will be a higher degree of a feeling of hopelessness."