When examining Western biomedicine and Shamanism in a critical context, the statement that comes to mind is -“I will believe that when I see it”. Throughout Western biomedicine there is a strong desire to have an answer for everything. Incidents, which cannot be explained logically or scientifically, create a sense of fear or skepticism within those of Western medical belief. Therefore when examining Black Elk a Western reader is introduced to a method of healing which relies on the workings of spirits and supreme beings, both which are intangible and unexplained.
Thus provoking feelings of disbelief and comments such as the one mentioned above. Though both Western biomedicine and Shamanism posses the same objective, which is to provide healing to those in need, the basis from which their methods originate and the systems and regulations which they follow differ greatly. In order to demonstrate the similarities and differences certain aspects of the Black Elk text and Western biomedicine will be discussed in the following ways. Firstly, the way in which Western people and the Lakota view the world will be looked at and how Lyon addresses the issue in Black Elk.
Secondly, this paper will examine what influences the two types of practices, and how they believe healing should be done. And finally, looking at Black Elk specifically and the influence of the authors experience with Black Elk upon the Western reader. Within the first few pages of the preface of Black Elk, Lyon states that his work is “an attempt at translation”. (Black Elk, xii) As the readers are introduced to Wallace Black Elk and the ways of the Lakota people, it is made clear that the thinking of the Lakota and their understanding of their place in the world is much different from that of a Western person.
Therefore, Lyon plays the role a translator, positioning himself in both the Lakota and Western world. The Lakota grow up believing that they are related to everything, they are all part of the fire, rock, water, and green. (Black Elk, 14) Unlike the Lakota, Western society is educated and influenced by textbook and scientific evidence. Through this way of learning Western people are taught to only believe or support what can be proven. This statement is reinforced by Black Elk when he is describing the point during his childhood where he obtained powers from Tunkashila.
Black Elk expresses the Lakota view of schooling by stating “It was a good thing I didn’t get educated in school; otherwise I would have lost the gift. I might have even gone against it”. (Black Elk ,9) This statement once again reinforces the great distinction between the two groups of people. The medical views and methods used by both practices also differ greatly. Western biomedicine today views the human body as a machine. People within the medical world are rarely relating illness towards social reasons, mainly placing the cause of sickness within a biological basis.
An example of this can be seen within the case study of Mrs. Flowers and Dr. Richards by Aurthur Kleinman, M. D. Through this example it is clear that the Dr. Richards does not believe that the intense and stressful lifestyle Mrs. Flowers is living would have anything to do with her physical deterioration. If this case study was put into a Lakota context the methods carried out and the causes of illness put forth would be very different. Shamanism takes a much more holistic approach to diagnosis.
When the healer and the patient are at the same level of understanding it is easier for a successful cure to occur. Included in Black Elk is an example of an instance were Western medicine looks for assistance from Shamanism in order to save the life of a little boy. The people at the hospital were unable to cure him, and could no longer see him suffer. No matter what they did they were unable to find what was wrong with him. Black Elk commented on their medicinal tools by saying, ” the X-ray just goes right through there, and it doesn’t tell them where the pain is. It doesn’t tell them anything”.