As a scientist and health educator, I have focused on disability research and the value of nonWestern methodologies such as Native American healing. As I have delved further into more holistic philosophies, I’ve begun to reflect on my own experiences surrounding disability and those of people close to me, and how these experiences may have unconsciously shaped my professional path. This is the story not only of what I have learned about one of these holistic systems, Native American spirituality, but also of one of my most powerful mentors.
NATIVE AMERICAN INTERCONNECTION
Unlike prevailing Western thought, which views individuals as distinct entities separated from each other and their environment, Native American philosophy stresses a oneness in which we are all connected at some level to every person, animal and plant. If we don’t honor our universal connection—for example, if we pollute our environment—we will ultimately end up hurting ourselves and everything that is a part of our greater oneness. Consequently, Native Americans traditionally consider the impact of their actions on the welfare of seven generations to come.
Interconnections are especially relevant when it comes to healing and disability. As discussed in Kenneth “Bear Hawk” Cohen’s 2003 book Honoring the Medicine (selected as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Wellness Book of the Year), Native Americans believe spiritual connections are paramount in healing, including the spiritual dynamics among the patient, healer, family, community, environment and medicines, all within the context of the Universal Spirit.
Unlike conventional medicine’s mechanistic orientation, which attempts to fix unique body parts—organs, cells and molecules—in patients separate from each other and the environment, Native American healing focuses on all people holistically connected to each other, to Mother Earth, to Father Sky and to all of life through the Creator (Iroquois), Great Spirit (Lakota), Great Mystery (Ojibway) or Maker of All Things Above (Crow). Essentially, the goal of Native American healing is to establish a better spiritual equilibrium between patients and their universe, which in turn translates into physical and mental health.
Native American prayers and chants are concluded not with “Amen” but with the phrase “All my Relations,” a dedication to all physical and spiritual relations that are a part of the Great Spirit. In addition, the Lakota say, “Mitakuye oyasin” (“We are all related”), while Southwest pueblo tribes, who consider corn a symbol of life, simply state, “We are all kernels on the same corncob.”
In his 2000 book Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, Gregory Cajete uses chaos theory to support the Native American concept of connection. Sometimes called the butterfly effect, the theory suggests, for example, that the air movement created by a butterfly’s wing flap in Africa can trigger a catalytic sequence of disturbances eventually culminating in a Caribbean hurricane. Numerous movies, such as Jurassic Park and The Butterfly Effect, have been based on this concept.
Whether through a butterfly’s flap or a prayer for healing, both chaos theory and Native American tradition indicate that everything is related and every action, no matter how small, has an influence. Moreover, we all have butterfly power to become creators from the universe’s inherent chaos, which Cajete describes as “not simply a collection of objects, but rather a dynamic, ever-flowing river of creation inseparable from our own perceptions.”
This concept of interconnected wholeness is critical in understanding the Native American view of physical disability. Native Americans honor and respect those with physical disabilities because they believe a person weak in body is often blessed by the Creator as being strong in mind and spirit. By reducing our focus on the physical, which fosters a feeling of separation from the rest of humanity and nature, a greater sense of connection with the whole is created, the ultimate source of anyone’s power.
DON’S BUTTERFLY POWER
As shown by his sense of humanity, humor and awareness of life’s inherent richness, my friend Don was always connected to this ultimate strength. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a disorder characterized by weak, easily breakable bones, Don became my friend when we were toddlers, and we remained close until he died in the late 1990s. Through our long relationship, he indirectly sensitized me to many disability issues, an influence that showed in many of my professional positions, where I was able to appreciate those issues in ways not always possible for the average able-bodied policymaker.
My sensitivity training came in many forms. For example, I would carry Don by brute force up stairways of inaccessible public places, lifting him under his armpits. Long before the Americans with Disabilities Act heightened our accessibility consciousness, this task made me aware of architectural barriers.
Don would use his crutch as a cuestick bridge when we shot pool. Seeing a life filled with such adaptations, large and small, helped me understand assistive technology’s key, life-enhancing role.
In addition, he often confided to me his heart-rending difficulties developing romantic relationships in a world that emphasizes transient physical attractiveness over the soul’s eternal perfection. He never got over his love as a young man of that one special woman who looked beyond his disability before she moved on. I was honored to be his confidant and grateful for the insights he provided when I later managed projects concerning relationships and sexuality in the context of disability.
Although he had compromised respiratory function, Don took singing lessons for years, reflecting, as in so many of his endeavors, the soul’s fundamental need for creative expression. In his later years, I saw him reach his goal to sing as a part of the church choir.
Finally, Don planted a now-germinating seed within me to combat the historical suppression of Native American culture. For several years before his death, he discussed extensively with me his passion to develop a screenplay about the 1862 Sioux uprising in Minnesota, which culminated in the largest mass hanging in our nation’s history. I am left to carry on this and other projects he inspired.
BUTTERFLY POWER RETURNED
In the same way Don’s butterfly power rippled through my career, my butterfly power influenced his vocation.
During our senior year of high school, Don was badly injured while working on the engine of his 1960 Chevy. Pulling into the driveway, Don’s father accidentally clipped the Chevy’s rear end. Don was knocked down and severely fractured his legs and hips. He spent two years in traction recovering, first in the hospital and then at home.
From home, Don enrolled as a freshman at the college I was then attending as a sophomore. Still in traction, he participated in his classes through intercom speakers, one located by his bed and the other in the classroom. One day, his freshman chemistry professor dropped off the assignment that would change Don’s life.
Students had a love-hate relationship with this professor. He gave out homework as if they had no other classes; nevertheless, he greatly motivated them to succeed.
The professor’s modus operandi was to assign extraordinarily challenging problems. In Don’s case, the professor asked him to program an early Wang computing device, one of the first small computer systems, with the Arrhenius formula for calculating chemical reaction rates. Chemistry students dependent on slide rules for these difficult calculations would be elated with such a program. The professor later confessed he had been unable to program the formula himself, so he thought it would be a good learning experience for Don, although he had little expectation Don would succeed.
In this case, my butterfly power came to the rescue. While we were drinking a few beers, Don, shaking his head, showed me the assignment. With a year of chemistry and advanced math under my belt, and the beers’ inhibition-releasing capacity thrown in, I said, “Let’s do it and show the S-O-B.” We knocked it off in 10 minutes and went back to our beers. The professor was so amazed that he introduced Don as a gifted programmer to the Wang representative, and Don started a programming career that lasted to his death.
Although my math skills have faded away through the entropy of time, Don’s butterfly power continues to flourish through my professional activities. Aristotle stated that to move men to action you have to move their hearts. Don’s friendship put heart into my activities, which magnified their impact for so many with disabilities. It is true butterfly power, personally validating the important Native American role of connection.
A THUNDERBIRD GOODBYE
Soon after Don’s death, I was driving after a rain storm on the straight-as-an-arrow interstate that cuts through the Salt Lake Flats. As I drove, luminescent double rainbows appeared, horizon to horizon, before me, the road disappearing into their center. Through the rainbows, lightening flashed over distant mountains, and thunder rolled forth to greet me. According to Native American mythology, this was Thunderbird, who speaks in thunder and lightening and teaches us how to use his power to heal. The last time I had driven through the Flats had been with Don many years before. I thought of him, and as I did, Thunderbird told me Don was finally reunited with Source.
by Laurance Johnston, PhD
Dr. Laurance Johnston is funded by the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) to research and write about therapies that expand the healing spectrum of individuals with physical disabilities, especially spinal cord dysfunction. His articles, published in PN/Paraplegia News magazine, formed the basis for his upcoming book Alternative Medicine and Spinal Cord Injury: Beyond the Banks of the Mainstream.