Joe Martin Cantrell

Lesson 3: The Caretaker


Understand that traditional medicine assists in helping people overcome the negative consequences of trauma and strengthens the cultural practices of all Native people.


Participate in traditional healing ceremonies as an individual or as a member of a group.

The Caretaker

Being the caretaker means placing others (or someone) front and center in your life.  It means caring for someone else’s needs or safety, even before considering your own.  Being a caretaker is a selfless act; a caretaker makes the statement, “I care enough about you to place your needs before my own.”

Healing Traditions

“But I think Indian vets potentially have special tools, like a sweat lodge, or any number of special practices that may do a better job of putting us back in touch with our essence.”

Joe Cantrell

A primary function of many tribal ceremonies is healing -- to cure illnesses of the body and mind.  Traditional healing ceremonies and curing practices are considerably diverse from tribe to tribe and from one cultural region of the country to another.  While some traditional ceremonies were banned in the previous century and are no longer practiced, many aspects of tribal ritual thrive today on reservations and in urban settings across the nation.  Some nearly lost are being revived.

Indian people share a heritage that accepts the power of ritual as a force against illness and a pathway toward wellness.  Healing ceremonies might involve a combination of activities -- dancing, drumming, singing, prayer, recitation.  Ceremonies may be performed outdoors, in special ceremonial chambers, or perhaps in structures built especially for the occasion.   Some ceremonies are conducted at certain times of the year, others happen when the need presents itself.

A feature common of many tribal Nations is the sweat lodge.  In some tribes the lodge is only large enough for one or two people while in others, the sweat lodge may accommodate many.   No matter what the tribal custom, the sweat lodge is primarily a place to cleanse the body, the mind and the spirit.

Healing ceremonies conducted to restore balance vary in form and focus; such practices may include fasting, dancing, shaking rattles, sprinkling ashes, chanting songs.   Herbal remedies and medicinal roots are used by Indian people everywhere to cure the sick and strengthen the spirit.

Many traditional rituals evoke the protection of spirit helpers.  Spirit helpers may take many forms -- animals, plants, birds, even inanimate objects like clouds or rocks.  Whatever the form, the spirit helper confers special powers or qualities that insures the individual’s success in life.  Spirit helpers offer healing and peace.

Sacred objects confer power, comfort, or security.  Many tribes have their own sacred objects.  Some use prayer sticks to call the spirits.  Bones, claws, eagle feathers are sacred to many.  Medicine bundles carry powerful symbols and provide protection.  Fetishes, which are objects believed to possess power, bring good fortune.

Communicate Healing Messages

“He is a World War II vet and he has spent all this time suffering from PTSD, but through ceremony, he’s finding recovery at 86 years old.”

Joe Cantrell

People suffering the effects of PTSD, of alcohol and drug addiction, of wounds both visible and invisible -- may also be wounded in spirit, much like the elderly World War II vet Joe refers to.   Treating only the physical wounds or addiction may not “cure” the trauma that has infected the spiritual self.  Treatment that recognizes and incorporates traditional Native practices is another way to communicate healing messages to those needing care.

Not all of the old ways have been abandoned and now some tribal rituals blend elements of old and new.  Share your own tribal rituals or draw upon the wisdom of other cultural traditions to identify healing practices that can bring about positive changes.

Joe talks about ways to help others when he says, ”approach them, contact them, be in touch with them . . . help them find their peace.”

How would you go about restoring harmony and reviving a sense of wholeness?   Here are ideas you might consider as you embrace the role of Caretaker . . .

  • Invite others to join with you in a healing ceremony.
  • Enlist the help of other Indian people to expand the repertoire of curing practices aimed at relieving the pain of trauma.
  • Make a commitment to consciously share your cultural practices with others.  Then acknowledge and respect the cultural practices of people whose Native medicine practice differs from your own.  Everyone gains strength from this kind of sharing.