Healing Traditions in Multi-Cultural America

Deborah F. Corkindale

Capella University, Minneapolis, Minnesota


The increasing use of alternative healing methods by Americans from all cultural backgrounds is evidence of how culturally diverse a nation we are. Additionally, there are other indigenous healing practices that have not reached mainstream America that are used by people of certain cultures and backgrounds in this country. A study of those healing practices used by our country’s culturally diverse populations offers useful background information to the mental health counselor who provides services to those populations.

Healing Traditions in Multi-Cultural America

Alternative medical health and mental health treatments have become increasingly more popular over the last few decades in this country. Americans are looking to European herbals, Chinese medicine, Buddhist meditation, Native American sweat lodges, Asian acupuncture, and sound healing, which includes Tibetan singing bowls, gonging, and drumming as ways to cure their health problems. The list of therapies can go on and on. Americans who are not from these specific cultures are making use of these alternative healing methods in great numbers. The use of these healing methods by Americans from all backgrounds is both evidence of how culturally diverse a nation we have become and also of how inclusive a society we are.

There are also other indigenous healing practices that have not gained the acceptance or prominence in mainstream America but are used by people of certain cultures and backgrounds in this country. A study of all of these healing methods used by those populations would offer useful referential information to the mental health counselor who provides services to those populations. Inherent in just about all of the indigenous traditions specific to the different cultures is an element of the spiritual, at least to some degree. Understanding the fundamental role that spirituality or religion plays in each person’s life is rather important, but it is even more important to know and understand those religions that are not mainstream America. There are also certain therapies and activities that have developed more recently within those cultures. That is, there are a few Asian based psychological counseling therapies that have developed at the same time that our Euro-American therapies have developed and that are worth exploring.

All of these elements highlight certain aspects of each culture and all are important as an aid to understanding the culture. They also provide a vast array of information that allows for a personally rewarding and enlightening research project. However, making this research all inclusive could fill volumes, so some of the more representative practices and interesting structures are included here. This will serve as an overview of some of the main therapies, indigenous healing practices, and spirituality of different cultures.


Curanderismo is a healing method used by those people of Mexican descent in the Southwest U.S and in Mexico. The name is derived from the Spanish verb "curar", meaning "to heal." The origins of Curanderismo are not clear, although most researchers believe it is a combination of South American native traditions, Catholicism, European witchcraft, and any other culture encountered along the way. Curanderismo would be considered a magical practice, and is practiced by a curandero, the shaman of the culture. The curandero can be either sex, and may be either a generalist or have a specialty, such as mid-wifery, massage, or herbs. The curandero treats physical and emotional ailments, which may include naturally occurring ones and ones that are brought on by witches (brujos) and witchcraft (mal puesto), including the evil eye (mal de ojo). They acquire their skills by either apprenticing to an existing curandero or a person may have a spiritual experience and become aware of their calling to be a curandero in that way. Quite often, the skills are passed down through the generations.

The curandero heals by using herbs, either applied, ingested, burned, or scattered; by ritual; by the use of amulets; by incantations; and by magical spells. Although the curandero is capable of healing naturally occurring diseases, he or she is most often called upon to treat those problems caused by witches and hexing, which to the followers of Curanderismo, happen frequently. These can run the gamut from love hexes all the way to chronic illnesses that do not respond to other medical treatments. The curandero must be able to identify and / or locate the cause of the hexing in order to treat the problem. These causes might be a doll, or a magical bag placed in the hexed person’s home or yard, or powder scattered near or over the hexed person. Catholicism is inter-woven with the magical activities of the curandero, so some of the rituals and incantations and tools used by the curandero might include prayers to Jesus, pictures of Jesus, crucifixes, altars, etc. It is important to state that the curandero deals with all aspects of a client’s life -- the material, the spiritual, and the mental -- in order to effect a cure. Therefore, treatment most often consists of herbal therapy in combination with ritual and counsel.


Santeria is a religion practiced by people of the Caribbean. It is a belief system that merges the traditional religion of the Yoruba people of Africa with Catholicism. It goes by other names as well: Regla de Ocha, La Regla Lucumi, and Lukumi. The origins of Santeria are in Africa in what are now Nigeria and Benin. As African slaves were transported to the West, Santeria came with them to Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Trinidad and Puerto Rico. Their captors baptized these slaves as Catholics, and the blending of the two belief systems began.

The Yorubas believe in one god that they call Olorun or Olodumarem, who is the source of ashé, the spiritual energy that makes up all things. Olorun uses entities called orisha as emissaries to interact with people. They are similar conceptually to the Catholic saints, who act as go-betweens between God and people. So do the Orisha. Actually, each Orisha has an associated Catholic saint. One way in which the Orisha differ from saints is that they require praise, food, and animal sacrifices in order to continue to work for the supplicant.

Santeria has been handed down via word of mouth and there is nothing recorded, so much of the religion is clouded in secrecy and is not made known to the public. Additionally, because nothing is written down, there is a certain amount of individual style associated with it. The practice of ritual animal sacrifice has drawn much criticism, but it continues today in Santeria rituals around the country. Animals, usually chickens, are raised for the sole purpose of sacrifice to the Orishas. The followers of Santeria claim that the chickens are slaughtered as if for eating, and are then eaten, but the concept of animal sacrifice is repulsive to most people, and, more importantly, illegal in most locations. Santeria, like curanderismo, is a magical practice, involving all the magical trappings of candles, statues, beads, shells, ritual baths, knives, etc. The rituals also involve drumming and rhythmic sounds that cause trancelike possessions in the participants. Although Santeria is magical in nature, it is the guiding force for the lives of its adherents, and they turn to the Orisha for help with daily problems -- love laments, work problems, money problems, physical ailments, etc. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York estimates there are 22,000 followers of Santeria in the United States (Robinson, Religious Tolerance.org).

South American Native Traditions

The number of healing traditions in South and Central America is as great as the number of regional tribes and groups -- hundreds. Many are similar, so one presented here is that of the Andean people and the traditions of Peru and Bolivia.

The foundation of Andean philosophy is the Divine Feminine, and the Masculine, and that which is beyond gender. Ancient Andean tradition expresses Mother as being lovable and healing. Lake Titicaca is known to the Andeans as Mamacota (Mother Lake), and is thought of as being one of the strongest natural centers of feminine energies. The Andean people were well versed in herbalism and other native healing traditions. They use ceremony to offer to the Divine Mother and her priestesses for help and healing.

The Kallawaya Healers live high in the Andes and they were the doctors and healers to the Inca Kings and priests. They heal through herbs and ceremony.

The observer will notice the same thread of herbalism, ceremony, and magic that runs through the history of the Kallawaya, through Santeria, and through Curanderismo.

The Tainos of Puerto Rico

The people of Puerto Rico share much the same heritage and bloodlines as the people of Cuba, including the practice of Santeria, previously discussed. However, additionally, the Taino people are considered to be the native people of Puerto Rico and bear mentioning briefly by themselves. Recent DNA testing has shown that the Tainos are, in fact, genetically matched to the American Indians (???????). As the Spanish explorers came to the new world, and then brought in slaves from Africa, the Tainos intermingled with those groups, so there are no pure Tainos today. However, their island culture has experienced a resurgence of interest as the Puerto Rican people return to their roots and begin to learn of their heritage.

There is evidence that shows the genetic ties of the Taino people to Native Americans from the Tainos and their culture speaks of the same earth-based spiritually and attunement of their mainland cousins. They revere mother earth and its inhabitants, including animals. They worship father sun. They seek a balance in their lives in order to maintain good health. Their culture was established in the class system, with noblemen, warriors, spiritual leaders, and laborers. They were fishermen, hunters, and farmers on their island that they called Boriken. Today Tainos are joining together to reclaim their heritage and be recognized as a Native American tribe (Taino-Tribe.org).

American Indians and Alaskan Natives

There as many healing traditions for American Indians and Alaskan Natives as there are tribes, which currently numbers around 900, including both recognized and not recognized (Kstrom). However, many of them have much in common. The term Native American in this document will be used to include the native tribes that inhabit the US, both mainland and Alaska. Native American healing is a combination of herbal remedies, spirituality, and rituals to treat medical health and mental health problems. One very basic concept of most spiritual and healing practices is the notion that humans and nature are one, and there is a reverence for nature and for the earth, because that reverence reflects reverence for self.

As with most indigenous healing practices, there is the shaman, or medicine man, that works his magic to effect a cure. Native Americans believe that a physical ailment is the result of poor emotional health, which can be caused by a lack of attunement to the world around, to family (which is a strong tie for Native Americans), or to self via immoral behavior. In other worlds, physical disease does not happen by itself, but rather, is a manifestation of a poor spiritual and emotional state of being. The medicine man attempts to restore the person to wholeness and balance and attunement to nature in order to heal. Many commonalities exist with these methods across the hundreds of tribes in North America -- there is ceremony, certainly, which might include singing, chanting, drumming, dancing, and burning of herbs. There is application of herbal remedies, either ingested or applied externally. Prayer and imploring Spirit is also a big part of these methods.

The healing practices of Native Americans are well known to the people of our country and have become a part of our language and system of symbols. For example, we all have heard the expression "smoke the peace pipe" which originated with the Lakota Tribe (Sioux) of South Dakota. Dream catchers are in stores all across the country, and are part of the Native American magical practices for dispelling evil. The point is, Native American traditions have been incorporated into our culture. However, Native Americans themselves have not been assimilated as well, and it is for that reason that it is especially important to know the traditions, spirituality, and healing traditions of their heritage.

African Americans

The healing traditions of African-Americans in this country are a blend of practices from many diverse cultures. African-Americans came to this part of the world with the slave trade from Africa in the 15th through 19 centuries. They brought with them any religions they had practiced back in Africa, which included local tribal sects and also Islam. As discussed previously, slaves that were brought to the Caribbean islands blended their old world religion with Catholicism to form Santeria. Voodoo, a magical practice we usually associate with New Orleans, was also a blend of African tribal religion and Christianity. However, the Africans brought as slaves to America were not usually converted to Catholicism, but rather to Protestantism. The worship styles of Protestant churches in the U.S. south at that time were more in line with the religion they might have practiced in Africa, with singing, dancing, and shouting, and the Africans took to it and made it their own.

Black slaves in the U.S. did not often have the luxury of being treated by medical doctors, so they took what they knew of healing from their old world, combined it with what they could find in their new world, and developed their own brand of healing. This healing tradition was not an organized body of knowledge, but rather was established as time went along. These healers were called root workers or conjurers (Ansorge, 1999), and used whatever items were at their disposal, mixed with a good measure of the spirituality they had brought with them from Africa and the religion they had embraced in the new world to work their magic and craft to heal.

There is not much information on the healing traditions of African Americans in this country, and one gets the distinct impression that much of what they knew, practiced, and believed in from their lands of origin was lost, as slave owners forced their slaves to adopt the religion and practices that the owners held. Studying the healing traditions of the black slaves reiterates the feelings of disenfranchisement that so many blacks in this country feel today.

Korea: Dahnhak

We are all familiar with the posturing of yoga, and are becoming more familiar with the grace of Tai Chi, but a similar practice that originated in Korea, Dahnhak, is just beginning to take hold in our country. Like yoga, it involves posing, stretching, and meditation. However, the center theme of Dahnak is performing those physical activities in combination with meditation and observation. The word "Dahn" means vitality or life force and "hak" means theory. Dahnhak encourages the practitioner to observe his reactions, to observe his emotions. The combination of this observation and the meditation, posing, and stretching allows the person to be his or her own counselor in a way, allows him or her to observe and let go. It is a relatively new revival of an ancient healing practice that attempts to unite the mind, body, and spirit to enhance personal growth. The current format of Dahnhak was started in Korea by Dr. Seung-Heun Lee, who revitalized this ancient Korean practice (Ho, 2000).

Dahnhak believes in the perfection of the human, and this method is an attempt to return to that state of perfection. The importance of this re-birth of Dahnhak is that even today Koreans embrace this spiritual therapy as a means to healing and enlightenment, and that speaks to their basic belief in the spirituality and holistic nature of being.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Chinese Medicine has been around for thousands of years and has been used to treat both physical and mental health problems. At the heart of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the balance of yin and yang in our lives. Balancing these opposites includes balancing many aspects of our lives: cold and hot, wet and dry, inner and outer, body and mind. If there is an unbalance in our lives, lack of harmony, and disease can result. Harmony is good health, good weather, and good fortune. TCM says that the body is comprised of three parts: Qi (pronounced chee), Moisture, and Blood. Qi is the life force that gives us energy. Moisture is the liquid in our bodies that is necessary for life. Blood is the material from which all parts of our body are created. It is the building block of the body. It is imperative that these three parts of the body interact with each other in harmony in order that the organism exist in a state of health.

TCM uses acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and Qi Gong. Most people are at least familiar with acupuncture, which involves sticking ultra thin needles into certain energy points on the body in order to cure. This is used for physical problems and also to assist in the elimination of bad habits, i.e., smoking. Qi Gong means "energy cultivation" and involves exercise that enhances a person’s chi (energy) and brings the individual into harmony. Qi Gong says that the mind, the eyes, body movements, and breath are the keys to enhancing chi, so any activities that serve to do that are considered Qi Gong.

A quick Internet search turned up many, many practitioners of Chinese Medicine in this country, and many schools for different aspects of TCM. It is becoming more popular, and Tai Chi, a soft, meditative exercise with fluid movements, is now being taught at continuing adult education classes around the country, which indicates the inroads this has made.

These medical treatments are indicative of the religions practiced in China, which are mostly Taoism, Confucism, and Buddhism. An interesting thing about the religions of China is that the three major religions are often practiced by the same person, that is, there are often elements of each in a person’s life. Taoism has as its base the desire of each practitioner to become one with the Tao, which is the energy that flows through life. This energy that flows through life is the chi, which is enhanced by Qi Gong and Tai Chi. Confucism is thought of as a religion, but is really a social and ethical order. It stresses order and certain standards of behavior to establish that civilized moral and ethical society.


The indigenous healing of Vietnam is similar but not identical to traditional methods of Chinese healing. It really combines the indigenous herbal healing of South Vietnam with the more Chinese influenced traditional medicine of North Vietnam. It uses herbs, spices, and naturally occurring substances to heal. For the Vietnamese, health is holistic; that is, physical disease and emotional distress go hand in hand. If a person becomes physically unwell, besides treating the physical symptoms, there is a sense that the entire organism must heal.

The predominant religion practiced in Vietnam is Buddhism. Buddhism teaches that man was born into this world to learn, to stay on the spiritual path, and to develop in wisdom. A basic tenet of Buddhism is that life includes suffering, through which the individual learns. It is a very beautiful spiritual path that really is more like an all-encompassing philosophy of life. When a Buddhist becomes emotionally stressed and in need of mental health, he is most likely to turn to his religion as a way to explain both his suffering, what he is to learn of the suffering, and also, as a way to heal.

Japanese: Naikan and Morita Therapies

Mental illness is considered a stigma in Japan and quite often mental illnesses in that country are defined in terms of the physical symptoms that accompany them, and are treated by a medical doctor. The Japanese highly regard uniformity, harmony, peace, and reciprocity. If would follow that counseling therapies developed in Japan might then take the form of peaceful and harmonious endeavors, rather than active, talkative formats. Morita therapy was started by a Japanese psychiatrist, Dr. Shoma Morita, about 80 years ago. Dr. Morita was a Zen Buddhist, and there are elements of that religion in the therapy, but it is not a Buddhist therapy per se. The therapy creates a mindfulness in the client, and the client is asked to define his goals, to accept the feelings associated with them, and to be purposeful in his goals, in his life, in all that he does.

Classical Morita Therapy is comprised of four steps: bed rest for a week (absolute and alone), light work, intensive work, and, finally, preparation for daily living. The two weeks of light work and intensive work blend together both with increasing amount and intensity of tasks. The final stage is integration with the outside world. This rigid Morita treatment is not used in the U.S., and, in fact, is rarely used in Japan today. Modern Morita therapy espouses the same mindfulness, but in a more conventional therapy setting.

Naikan was developed 50 years ago by Ishin Yoshimoto, a Buddhist, and many elements of that religion can be seen in the therapy. Naikan means "introspection" and the therapy involves self-reflection and an attempt to determine how you have been shaped by the relationships in your life, beginning with your mother and father. It has a very defined methodology, which differs greatly from the Euro-American 50 minute, once a week counseling sessions. For Naikan, the client enters a Naikan retreat, where he or she remains for a week. The therapy consists of a 3 to 5 minute interaction each hour between counselor and client, with the counselor directing the client to examine relationships in his or her life chronologically. The client, usually called the student, is directed to consider what he has received from others, what he has given others, and what difficulties he has created for others. The remaining 55 minutes or so of each hour are spent in self-reflection to prepare for the next consultation.

As the above description suggests, it has very much of a Buddhist feel to it, with the meditative self-learning comprising the bulk of the therapy. There are some practitioners of Naikon therapy in the U.S. and in Europe, but only a few. However, it is very prevalent in Japan.


Although Islam is not included in the list of major cultures with which psychologists should be acquainted, at this point in our country’s history it might serve us well to have a working knowledge of its precepts, since there appears to be some misunderstanding associated with it. Islam is a religion and a way of life, and issues surrounding spirituality would certainly apply to it.

The word Islam means peace. The people that practice Islam are called Muslims, and they believe strongly, just as many Christians do, that their religion is the one and only true way to God. Also, like Christians, they believe in a host of prophets, beginning with Adam, the first man, and ending with Muhammad. The holy book of Islam is the Qur’an, and many of the prophets and people that are contained in the Christian Bible are also contained in the Qur’an -- Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Just as Christians believe the first three of these men came as prophets for the last man, Muslims believe that all four came as prophets for Muhammad. Judaism came first, and Jews chose not to recognize Jesus as savior and drew a line and contained their religion there. Christians went some steps further and recognized Jesus as their savior. Muslims recognized Jesus as a prophet, but declared Muhammad as their lord. One might say that each religion simply chose a different stop along the way of the same path.

Living Islam is to live a structured life. There are rules on what may be eaten, there are rules on how to dress, there are rules on how to behave, there are rules on just about facet of life. And although it sounds and appears restrictive, it is also a structured and orderly lifestyle, that is healthy and calming. There are certain elements of the religion and lifestyle that are very much different from much of what our society holds to be true, i.e., the status of women, which puts women at a different level than men. That, however, is not very far off from what the Southern Baptist Convention in the U.S. has also decreed. Since so much of what we see is what we can see, their style of clothing sets them apart immediately. Women must cover their heads and bodies, so that is a visual reminder of what religion they are. You cannot tell a Jew or a Methodist or a Catholic by looking at him. You can tell a Muslim by looking at her. There is a sense that if they did not look different, they might not be considered as different as they are. But, at this point in our planet’s history, it might take more than Muslims to switch over to Jeans and t-shirts for our society to welcome them with open arms. As counselors, it is imperative that we have a familiarity with their religion and their lifestyle and keep an open mind.


Looking at what can be learned from this research as a whole highlights one particular aspect that so many of these therapies have in common. A common thread of all practices is the importance of body, mind, spirit, and harmony with nature in the healing process. While people in some Asian cultures manifest mental health issues in the physical world, i.e., concentrate on the physical symptoms that often accompany mental health issues, all therapies recognize the holistic nature of healing as being of prime importance. If one were only to take that one concept away from a study of indigenous healing practices of the multi-cultural people in our country, one would have learned a concept key to the healing process.

Having been presented with so much information that stresses the importance of a healthy mind, a healthy body, and a healthy spirit in order to maintain the overall maximum health of the individual, the idea presents itself that perhaps a correlation could be made between that notion and today’s state of both physical and mental health in the United States. This information asks the question that if the emphasis being placed on physical fitness and exercise today in our country might be a misdirected knee-jerk reaction to the lack of attention paid to our bodies’ fitness over the past century in our society. The importance of this from a counseling is that that lack of attention over the past century might help explain some of the medical issues with which this society seems to be dealing, in particular heart health, diabetes, and breathing issues. It might also suggest a correlation with what seems to be a marked increase in certain mental health issues. The seeming disconnection from body that appears to be so very much evident in our society might also suggest disconnection from self.

Perhaps encouraging our clients to clean the house (or hire a housekeeper), water the flowers, and take the dog for a walk would do more to alleviate their mental health issues than either we or they might realize.


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Illustration 1. Jeffers, E. Folk Healers.

Illustration 2. Orisha Net.


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