A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism, Vol. 8, #1, Spring-Summer 2015
Traditional American Indian Bodywork, the Origin of Osteopathy, Polarity, and
by Nita M. Renfrew
It seems that the origins of Osteopathy, created by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, MD DO
(1828-1917) in the late nineteenth century, indeed, lie in traditional American Indian
bodywork. (I use the term “American Indian” as used by AIM in the “American Indian
Movement.”) We know now that among the natives of this land, there was a healing
tradition that combined a form of osteopathic massage and manipulation with energy and
narrative work.1 In fact, Dr. Still, whose family was from southwestern Virginia, where
the territory was traditionally Shawnee and Cherokee, lived among the Shawnee for
many years on their reservation in Kansas, where the tribe was forcibly relocated in the
nineteenth century. Still’s father was a missionary and a physician to the Shawnee and,
starting in 1853, Still assisted him for a number of years as part of his medical training.
Earlier, however, in Tazewell County, Virginia in the late 18th century, where the
territory was strongly contested by the native inhabitants, the Cherokee and the Shawnee,
Dr. Still’s family of settlers had already had several momentous encounters, of a different
nature, with the Indians. In the struggle over ownership of the land, a number of Still’s
ancestors had lost their lives and others were taken captive. His maternal grandfather had
been captured at age fourteen by Shawnee Indian Chief Black Wolf in an Indian raid on
the homestead and taken to live with the Shawnee in Ohio. Then, in a subsequent raid,
Still’s great grandfather was killed with three of the children, and Still’s great
grandmother was taken captive with the remaining children, and later killed also, during
the journey north. Still’s grandfather was eventually rescued, after being sold into slavery
to a French trader, and he returned to Virginia after a few years.2 Nevertheless, it would
seem that destiny had in mind a continuing connection between Still’s family and the
Indians. Andrew Taylor Still and his father are reported to have developed an excellent
relationship with the descendants of those same Shawnee in Kansas. Still lived with his
wife and children on a farm on the Shawnee reservation for a number of years, plowing
the land with oxen, growing corn, and is said to have learned the Shawnee language
fluently, while he helped with doctoring the Shawnee.3-6
Later, when Dr. Still became a recognized physician and surgeon, although he never said
where he had learned his musculoskeletal and organ massage techniques, which he called
Osteopathy, he is known to have alluded to the bone-setting methods of the Shawnee at
least once, as reported by the director of the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine in a
lecture, who added that Still often used “the phrase ‘Taking an Indian look’ at something.
Forgetting what you know and just to quietly observe with no thoughts.” This was
followed by a quote from Still’s Autobiography:7
All Nature seemed to wait in hushed expectancy. With the iron hand of will I
barred the gates of memory, shut out the past with all its old ideas. My soul took
on a receptive attitude, my ear was tuned to Nature’s rhythmic harmony.8
Indeed, Dr. Still lived his life, like the Native Indians, by a nature-centered belief.9 And
when he started his medical practice, he advertised himself as a “magnetic healer” and
“lightning bonesetter” before naming his methods Osteopathic Medicine.10
Today, much of the traditional healing of the American Indians has been lost, because the
Christian missionaries called it devil worship. However, what has survived in pockets
around the country (along with Zuni and Navajo healing and bone-setting) is Cherokee
bodywork, which was surely similar to Shawnee practices, since they were neighboring
tribes in Virginia. Cherokee Bodywork today is practiced and taught by Dr. Lewis Mehl-
Madrona, MD PhD, of Cherokee and Lakota heritage, professor at a number of colleges
and universities (most recently Dartmouth Maine), medical researcher, and author of
many books, including Coyote Medicine. His thesis, along with some of his colleagues, is
that Dr. Still learned much of what would become Osteopathy during his years assisting
his father in his medical duties among the Shawnee. Dr. Mehl-Madrona, who is seeking
to honor and preserve Cherokee Bodywork, came to this conclusion after experiencing
and seeing the many similarities between Cherokee Bodywork and Osteopathy.
Interestingly, this would indicate that the origins of both Craniosacral and Polarity
therapy also lie in traditional American Indian bodywork, since both Dr. William Garner
Sullivan, DO (1873-1954), the originator of Cranial Osteopathy (the foundation for
today’s Craniosacral therapy), and Dr. Randolph Stone, DO DC ND (1890-1981), the
originator of Polarity therapy, were Andrew Taylor Still’s students. Cherokee
bodyworkers, reports Mehl-Madrona, who learned the method from two traditional
Cherokee women, are masters at working with energy and the breath, and they also move
cranial bones, seeking the ridges, albeit with more force than Craniosacral practitioners.
They do this along with osteopathic-like massage and manipulation of musculoskeletal
tissues, organs, and joints, as well as acupressure on points and energy channels (that, in
fact, correspond to the meridians). They combine all this with gentle rocking and with
narrative healing, both verbal and energetic, using story telling, and dialogue with the
musculoskeletal system and with the client, and intense breathwork to “restore spirit” to
all parts of the body, when giving treatments that they commonly refer to as “doctoring.”
There is, in addition, a very important spiritual component to Cherokee Bodywork, which
can appear as elements of traditional ritual and ceremony, which might mean using
smoke (offering herbs such as sweet grass, cedar, sage, and tobacco), feathers, crystals,
imagery, and intent, to move energy and work with the spirit world, or prayer.
Interestingly, in addition to the physical bodywork that Osteopaths do, Dr. Mehl-
Madrona has found one more similarity between Osteopaths and traditional American
Indian bodyworkers: many Osteopaths, although they don’t normally talk about it
publicly, like the Cherokees and other American Indians, converse with guides and other
spirit beings, and use dialogue and intent during their practice. And both Polarity and
Craniosacral therapists are known to do the same.
Widely-recognized Biodynamic Craniosacral and Polarity teacher Franklyn Sills, in one
of his training books, describes the parallels between “shamanistic,” or traditional
healing, and Craniosacral therapy:
Shamanism is a healing tradition found in almost all ancient and primitive
cultures. It recognizes a divine ordering principle at work in the universe and
spiritual roots of creation. The work we do in craniosacral biodynamics has direct
shamanistic resonances. We orient to deeper forces at work and to ordering
principles that are “not made by human hands.”11
Sills goes on to talk about the “striking similarity of approach among very diverse
cultures,” including “Navajo shamanistic healing,” and “soul retrieval” in classic
cultures.12 Likewise, in the companion article to this, Craniosacral and Polarity instructor
Gary Strauss talks about the similarities in his work with shamanistic practices.
I say, isn’t it a sweet irony, or poetic justice, rather, that we apparently owe Osteopathic
Medicine, Polarity, and Craniosacral therapy to the original inhabitants of this land, the
American Indians? And isn’t it time that we give them the credit due, and that we help
them restore their spiritual healing traditions to their rightful place in America’s
healthcare system? We can do this both by supporting traditional healers in their work
and by honoring their systems—learning and practicing them, so as to make their healing
methods more available. In this way (as was done with traditional practices such as
Chinese medicine), we can follow in Lewis Mehl-Madrona’s footsteps, helping to bring
about the inclusion of American-Indian, or Native American, traditional healing practices
into mainstream, integrative medical services.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Although the word “shaman” originally came from the Siberian,
Tungusic Evenki language, it now has a far wider and more generic meaning: working or
mediating between the invisible and visible worlds, or between the physical and spirit
worlds, to effect change—hopefully beneficial— in health, or other. It is in this sense that
I use the term.
1Mehl-Madrona, MD PhD, Lewis. “One Road, Many Branches.” A Journal of
Contemporary Shamanism. Vol. 7, #2, Fall 2014, p. 32.
2 Booth, PhD DO, E.R. 1906: “History of Osteopathy,” pp. 2-4. (Still’s ancestors’ bloody
encounters with the Shawnee in Virginia)
3 Paulus, DO MS, Steve. Andrew Taylor Still (1828-1917): A Life Chronology of the First
Osteopath, pp. 1-4.
4 “Andrew Taylor Still.” KansasBogusLegislature.org, p. 1.
5 “Andrew Taylor Still.” Pulpdiddy’s Place, p. 1.
6 Ball, Bonnie. “Andrew Taylor Still: founder of Osteopathy,” p. 3. (reference by Still to
herbal treatments by the Indians)
7 Haxton, MA, Jason. Lecture: “Part I: Dr. Andrew Taylor Still And... his Observations
About Nature,” pp. 20, 33. (Still’s account of Shawnee bone-setting and “Taking an
8 Still, Andrew Taylor. Autobiography of Andrew T. Still. The Author: 1897, p. 378.
9 Lewis, John. “A.T. Still: From the Dry Bone to the Living Man,” pp. 1-2.
10 “Andrew Taylor Still: Father of Osteopathic Medicine.” Museum of Osteopathic
Medicine, A.T. Still University / ATSU, pp. 1-3.
11 Sills, Franklyn. Foundations in Craniosacral Biodynamics: the Breath of Life and
Fundamental Skills, Vol. 1. Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books 2011, p. 353.
12 Ibid., p. 355, 359.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nita M. Renfrew is a practitioner of Cherokee Bodywork and licensed massage
therapist, and a student of Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona (with whom she co-authored an
article on Reiki, along with Barb Mainguy, for a medical journal). Renfrew has studied
with a number of traditional and other healers, and practices several energy-healing, as
well as shamanic-healing modalities, including Craniosacral. As a staff member, she
practiced energy healing for several years in hospital and medical-clinic settings, and she
is a research associate of the Coyote Institute for Studies of Change and Transformation.
As a follower of the Red Road, she has danced in Sun Dance—with Teton Sioux
Intercessor Durwin WhiteLighting—and is a pipe carrier. She is also an artist, a writer,
and an editor of A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism. She lives in New York City,
and can be contacted at: (212) 879-3961; firstname.lastname@example.org