Indigenous Healing

The term indigenous has been used primarily in anthropology and social sciences to refer to customs or people who are native to a specific region. In this context, indigenous implies a cultural referent that is non-native; this perspective has been characterized traditionally as Western European to the extent that most early anthropologists were European. Thus, people and ways of life that were characterized as indigenous were markedly different from those of the Western European orientation. Furthermore, in the context of anthropology, designation as “native” or “indigenous” implied deficiency, a premise that served to reinforce colonialism and oppression.

Recently, mental health researchers have applied indigenous to various forms of emotional, spiritual, and physical healing practices. Indigenous healing can be defined as beliefs and practices that originate within a culture and are designed specifically for the needs of cultural ingroup members. The notion of healing may imply specific roles and expectations of the helper, including the use of intuition, inspiration, or both; being chosen, gifted, or called to be a healer; manipulating higher energies through applying specific knowledge; and being a conduit between tangible and spiritual worlds.

Characteristics of indigenous healing and healers have been offered in the literature. Some theorists have described the “universal shamanic tradition” to outline intrinsic qualities of indigenous healing: reliance on use of community, group, and family networks to protect and reconnect individuals and/or problem solve to address pressing concerns; community participation in spiritual and religious traditions intended for healing; and a consideration of healers as keepers of spiritual wisdom, empowered with transcendent skills. Other characteristics of indigenous healing include metaphysical etiology of illness (e.g., influence of deities, figures, or energies), harmony between universal contrasts (e.g., male-female or good-evil), energy and motion (e.g., laying on of hands), and the involvement of the collective (e.g., families, tribe, or community). Lastly, indigenous healing practices tend to define wellness as the homeostasis of physical, social, personal, and spiritual dimensions of the human experience and the holism of mind, body, and spirit. Thus, unlike counseling and psychotherapy, healing methods that have been steeped in the cultural worldviews of Western Europe and reflect consonant values (e.g., individualism, linear thinking, internal locus of responsibility, and separation of mind and body), indigenous healing methods are thought to originate outside of Western frameworks and operate from contrasting values (e.g., collectivism, circular thinking, external locus of responsibility, and the essential interconnection of mind, body, spirit, and the universe).

Examples of indigenous healing practices salient for specific cultural groups have been presented in the mental health literature; within-group differences, such as acculturation level, ethnicity, and adoption of diverse worldviews, are to be addressed with clients when mental health practitioners consider integrating indigenous practices in the context of counseling and therapy. For example, indigenous Native American healing practices include the Vision Quest, which is a rite of passage that serves to elevate the individual to a different plane of consciousness through the concentration of life energy in the sweat lodge and herbal treatment from a medicine man. Healing practices that can be considered indigenous for people of African descent can include practices endemic to the Black church, such as prayer, collective readings, and unique relationships between a higher power, the community, and the self.

Among Latino/a populations, the practices of yerberos (i.e., herbalism) and Santeria (i.e., a religion in which Christian deities have been ascribed unique powers and which is characteristic of native African and Caribbean belief systems) may be applied to restore balance through the application or ingestion of liniments and/or herbs, lighting candles or burning herbs, or prayer. Indigenous healing practices of East Asian and Indian cultures (e.g., kampyo or Chinese herbal medicine in Japan, or ayurveda in India) similarly apply herbs and dietary considerations to restore balance between the energy counterparts.

Manipulation of energies through acupuncture, physical movement (e.g., yoga, tai-chi, qi-gong, and reiki), or diet are other methods of restoring balance and regularity to the flow of universal energies in the body.

Counseling professionals are encouraged to build their familiarity with indigenous healing practices relevant to diverse cultural groups in an effort to promote their multicultural counseling competence. Donald R. Atkinson and his colleagues presented a three-dimensional model, in which counselors are advised to consider liaising with indigenous healers when clients indicate that such methods of healing are salient to them. Furthermore, counselors can familiarize themselves with diverse indigenous healing methods through building connections with local healers.


  1. Atkinson, D. R., Thompson, C. E., & Grant, S. K. (1993). A three-dimensional model for counseling racial/ethnic minorities. The Counseling Psychologist, 21, 257-277.
  2. Frame, M. W., Williams, C. B., & Green, E. L. (1999). Balm in Gilead: Spiritual dimensions in counseling African American women. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 27, 182-192.
  3. Garrett, M. T., & Wilbur, M. P. (1999). Does the worm live in the ground? Reflections on Native American spirituality. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 27, 193-206.
  4. Lee, C. C., Oh, M. Y., & Mountcastle, A. R. (1992). Indigenous models of helping in non-Western countries: Implications for multicultural counseling. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 20, 1-10.

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