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“The Circling Spirits Call Us Home;” Marginal Methods, the Shaman, and Relational Approaches to Healing Research. In D. F. Ragin & J. Keenan (Eds.), Handbook of Research Methods in Health Psychology. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

“The Circling Spirits Call Us Home;”
Marginal Methods, the Shaman, and Relational Approaches to
Healing Research
Joseph E. Trimble
The title of this chapter, “The Circling Spirits Call Us Home,” refers to the calling many
social science researchers and traditional indigenous healers “hear” to follow their respective
practices. Many researchers and traditional healers alike will tell you they felt called to their
practices and following very different paths, they answered their callings. Those scholars and
researchers who are drawn to spend time with traditional healers in order to study their ways
often find themselves struggling at the edge of their mainstream disciplines. To fulfill their
research goals, they must quickly learn to understand and cope with life in the context of a
cultural group living on the margins of the mainstream’s lifeways and thoughtways. However,
most conventional investigators will find the study of traditional healers within these settings
stretches their tools and their credibility in ways they never anticipated.
Though the work is challenging and unpredictable, numerous scientific discoveries and
accomplishments come from curious researchers who place themselves at the edge of their fields
of inquiry. Science cannot advance rapidly, or at all, with the monotonous repetition of
conventional methods and wisdom. Science grows and prospers only when we afford
investigators the opportunity to take a topic to the edge of existing knowledge. With this in mind,
the following chapter will explore approaches, procedures, and methods that support research
into the heart of the lifeways and thoughtways of indigenous people and their communities, with
considerations for mainstream health researchers and providers.
The ways traditional indigenous people relate to life are often very different from those
who hold Western world views. Traditional indigenous healers embrace and practice the deep
meaning and influence of spirit, the sacred, and the meaning of place in all relationships.
Knowledge of these traditional ways simply cannot be obtained through the scientific grid.
Primary among traditional indigenous communities is the belief that the sacred, the spirit,
and spirituality are omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent; this belief is indisputable and
unassailable. Yet these deeply held beliefs are not without those in the scientific community who
criticize them for their seemingly animalistic qualities, their ethereal, mystical fundamentals, and
their lack of demonstrable empirical evidence. Frequently hidden from the view of outsiders,
traditional belief systems and practices are a prime source for explanations of various
experiences ranging from the occurrence of natural phenomena to the cause and treatment of
physical and psychological conditions.
To illustrate these points, let me present a personal story: Four decades ago three of my
close American Indian friends and I, fresh with PhDs in our pockets and fully trained in the
current Western ways to conduct mental health protocols with cross-cultural clients, spent a few
days in a traditional lodge in a remote area of South Dakota. Two Native healers, holy men,
accompanied us. The healers had extended us the invitation to be with them because they wanted
us to hear their stories. We understood we were there to learn about their ways of healing, along
with the traditions, ceremonies, and customs of their world. Through one story after another, the
healers thoroughly engaged us in the deep mysteries of many traditional practices we had heard
about over the years, but we had little knowledge of their deeper historical meaning. During the
day, we walked the area outside the lodge alone, or gathered in groups talking, reflecting, and
deeply probing the wisdom unfolding in the stories we were hearing. With community members
joining us on the chilly evenings, we prepared and cooked meals together in the lodge, a small
fire always burning at its center.
On the morning of our last day together, the healers asked us to explain how we
psychologists provided “healing” for those in need. The clinical psychologist in our group, who
had considerable experience working in mental health settings focused on providing services for
different multicultural clients, described the usual Western counseling methodology: How the
client signed up for a session, some of what took place in the first and subsequent sessions, how
the “counseling” unfolded, and what generally happened in each session. Another friend added a
few features of the relationship between the mental health helper and the client. The healers
listened intently, though often with puzzled expressions.
Following our detailed descriptions, the healers began to ask the following questions: Do
you personally know the clients? Why do they have an appointment with you for an hour each
week? Do they always show up? Why do you talk and talk with them and they with you? How
do you know you helped or healed them? Do you ever see them again? Does the talking occur in
a sacred place? Do you ask the spirits to help you as you talk with them? Do spirits sometimes
come into the room where you’re sitting? Why do you sit when the two of you talk? Why aren’t
others present when you talk with one another? Do you ask their ancestors to join you? Is the
room where you’re sitting clean and clear of evil spirits? Are both of you clean and clear of
anything bad that may interfere with the talking and healing? Do the clients prepare for each
meeting by sweating, praying, meditating, and fasting? Do counselors also prepare this way for
each meeting with the client? Why do you take notes? What happens to the two of you after the
client is healed?
We attempted to answer each of their surprising questions. With each response, we
focused more on what we were saying to them and the possibility their questions were more
profoundly meaningful and appropriate than we realized. On that day, we could not ignore that
conventional counseling and psychotherapy were a very long way from including the spiritual,
the sacred, or the meaning of place in their healing practices. We also began to consider the real
possibility that centuries-old traditional healing practices were as powerful, maybe even more so,
than contemporary approaches to physical and mental health.
The Shaman’s Place Today
While faith healers in one form or another can be found in nearly all cultures, their
current status within indigenous groups captures considerable attention. Medicine men or
women or preferably, shaman, are a deep and integral part of contemporary indigenous cultures.
People believe in their powers and generally will seek them out before the services of modern
medicine. Similarly, many communities view their shaman as reservoirs of their ancestral ways,
treat discussions about their practices and beliefs with utmost secrecy, and ward off attempts to
exploit or research the holy person and their practice. Native people fear the shaman’s wrath in
the face of personal exploitation and injustices, and community members avoid the fact or
appearance of either. So important is the shaman’s presence, some communities view them as the
organizational core of the community; they appear at and sometimes oversee the community’s
activities, festivals, ceremonies and religious affairs.
Shaman provide a major function in indigenous communities. In the strict sense, they are
not leaders politically or traditionally. And yet, because of who they are and what they do,
shaman serve to unify kinship relations, clans, and in some cases, entire villages. The power
attributed to them usually surpasses that of the village council, local physicians, and other local
aficionados. The shaman’s gifts and power defy comprehension in conventional terms; their
power is spiritually based and hence, viewed with respect and awe by those they serve.
Moreover, shaman firmly believe that everything is connected to everything else. Spiritual,
physical, psychological, physiological, and health related aspects of existence are seen as
interconnected and inseparable (Rosensweig, 1992). The person and their situations are viewed
through a holistic lens.
Marginality: At the Edge of Mainstream Norms
Shaman generally are viewed as “marginal” people by social scientists. Marginality is a
term used to denote the effects of being excluded from the mainstream of a society on an
individual or group level. In the words of Everett Stonequist (1937) marginal people are those
whose “fate has condemned (them) to live in two societies and in two, not merely different, but
antagonistic cultures (p. 5).” For most indigenous communities, shaman stand as symbols of
their traditions and customs and yet are generally able to live and adjust to the demands of socio-
cultural change imposed by the dominant culture. The contemporary status of shaman holds
enduring fascination for many scholars. My particular interest is twofold, stemming from my
long-term personal experiences and my recent interest in investigating the resilient social-
psychological characteristics of shaman and shamanic practice. The former presents little or no
problem simply because of its personal nature for me; the latter, quite the contrary, introduces
and presents numerous challenges for social science researchers and our work.
Typically, social and clinical psychological studies of shaman are viewed as marginal by
many mainstream social scientists. First, the investigator must rely on personal documents,
personal testimonies and other sources of biographic or autobiographic material in order to piece
together a useful database. The more “hard-core” purists of the behavioral and social sciences
view such techniques as biased, unverifiable, and suspect. Second, the investigator’s efforts are
often viewed as suspect not only by colleagues, but also by the shaman’s community and kinship
network. The suspicion may be even more intense when the investigator is native to the
community or of a recognizable indigenous background. And finally, there is the lens through
which “outsiders” view the shaman, creating diagnoses such as anomic depressive, paranoid
schizophrenic, or “crazy witch doctor” to characterize the shaman as an old indigenous person
who lives in a dream world and practices magic. In short, shamanic studies may involve the use
of marginal methods by investigators who are seen as marginal researchers of people who
themselves maintain a marginal lifestyle.
Stonequist (1937) introduced the concept of “the marginal man” to the social science
field some 80 years ago. Basically, he viewed the “marginal man” as a person caught between
two somewhat incompatible sociocultural positions. As a result of being on the edge of both
societies and not fully accepted by either, themarginal” person may develop a distinct
personality style. Descriptions of these marginal persons are hardly flattering, for they often are
labeled as irrational, excessively concerned about racial identity, hostile towards others and
prone to psychological stress, including feelings of powerlessness, inferiority and hopelessness.
While Stonequist’s characterizations predict a grim outcome for those who are bicultural, he
offers a glimmer of optimism. He, and later Park (1950), argued that marginal people can emerge
as social critics and often respond more creatively to social situations than persons from
homogeneous backgrounds. In some instances, marginal people are at the forefront of social
change, leading social movements designed to challenge the structure that led to their inferior
Studies of the “marginal man” concept have progressed slowly. Several tend to
emphasize the negative characteristics of one’s marginal status and the poor decision outcomes
of people “caught between two conflicting reference groups” (Sherif & Sherif, 1956, p.635).
Summaries of several studies conclude bi-racial persons residing in predominantly racist
societies do express different personality characteristics (cf. Starr & Roberts, 1982). Mann
(1958), in particular, argues the negative characteristics postulated by the Stonequist-Park theory
actually emerge from the individual being denied access to something that is an inalienable right
to everyone else except them. However, simply being bi-racial, Mann goes on to add, is hardly
sufficient cause for the negative characteristics to emerge.
A few researchers have explored the situations in which marginal persons occasionally
find themselves. Goldberg (1941), for example, makes a distinction between “marginal cultures”
and “personal marginality.” He argues that a particular culture may have marginal status within a
more dominant one, but the people may not develop the classic personality characteristics found
by other researchers. Some indigenous communities are marginal cultures, meaning they have
minority status, and yet community members can be healthy, fully functioning, competent
Few researchers picked up on Goldberg’s promising thesis. A survey of the literature
reveals much of the work in this area leans to the negative side of marginal experiences. That
marginal people experience the struggle of adjusting to a bi-cultural world is fairly well
documented, but there is another point to consider: One can instead view the marginality
experience as a spectrum that includes the positive experiences of bi-cultural, marginal persons
who manage to coexist effectively in a heterogeneous society.
Marginal Methods
Typically, studies of individuals are treated as biographies but can differ in terms of the
approaches taken to explore a person’s life. Analytic case studies and the ethogenic approach
outlined by DeWalle and Harre (1979) are certainly acceptable research procedures. Similarly,
the classic work of Gordon Allport in 1940 on the use of personal documents stands as a valuable
resource for biographic and assisted autobiographic research(Smith, Harre, & Van Langenhove,
1995). Whatever the procedure, however, the database produced by biographic research is
viewed in psychology with a good deal of skepticism, largely because of its highly subjective
nature. On the other hand, ethnobiographic research seems to carry a lot of credibility in other
fields, particularly anthropology and history (Sodderqvist, 1991; Olney, 1980).
Historical Biographic Studies of Shaman
Over the years, biographic studies of shaman have been the province of anthropology and
focused for the most part on the more prominent individuals among certain North American
Indian groups. Most of the accounts are essentially descriptive life histories of the person as
he/she lived it. Edward Sapir’s (1921) work on The Life of a Nootka Indian, for instance,
touches on the significant portions of a certain man’s life. “Sun Chief,” an assisted autobiography
by Leo Simmons (1942), traced the growth and development of a Hopi shaman but cast the
portrayal as a symbol of the tribe’s folkways.
Some anthropologists have taken on the added task of providing a detailed analysis of a
shaman’s character. Most notable is the classic work by Leighton and Leighton (1949) of
Gregorio, a Navajo hand-trembler. In their work, they present a life chart showing not only
sequences of Gregorio life but also the significant events surrounding the major changes in his
life. They argue the validity of this research because the major concerns of the hand-trembler’s
life adequately represented those of other Navajos living in the same area of the reservation.
The anthropologist-historian Nancy Oestreich Lurie (1961) in her guided autobiography
of the Winnebago Mountain Wolf Women departed little from the conventional life history
approach. Her slight departure from the method produced a good analysis of Winnebago sex role
relationships and their attitudes towards non-Indians. She also provides a nice analysis of
Mountain Wolf Woman’s relationship with her brother Crashing Thunder, the subject of yet
another life history by Paul Radin (1926).
In her biography of a Yaqui women Jane Holden Kelley (1978) emphasizes the
relationship between the individual and the forces of the changing socio-cultural system. She
blends together a description of the influential factors affecting the adaptive strategies used by
Yaqui women, sparked with some interpretation and analysis.
Psychology emphasizes the study of affect, behavior, and cognition and promotes
objectivity in that endeavor. Behavioral accounts of the life of shaman can be strictly objective
descriptions, but then the meaning behind the shaman’s actions lures investigators into some
form of analysis. At this point, they depart from objectivity to subjectively assess a behavior’s
meaning, and in so doing become vulnerable to criticism from empiricists and supposedly
objective purists.
Many, and I include myself here, maintain it is appropriate to explore the study of the
shaman’s behavior from a social psychological perspective. The following summary of a Pacific
Northwest coast shaman places emphasis on the marginal nature of the research process when
working under the special circumstances associated with marginal indigenous communities.
Ethnocultural Researchers
Critics of biographical research often stereotype researchers as “voyeurs,” whose interest
in the preoccupations of their subjects holds an enduring fascination above and beyond their
hosts’ mundane experiences of general living. In anthropology, many who have spent a good deal
of their careers recording the life histories of their respondents are seen as reclusive, loners,
impractical, and, yes, frustrated clinicians. Further, as Langness and Frank (1981) remind us,
“the field worker may well come to the conclusion that attempting life histories is not worth the
cost in time or in rapport” (p. 19). The price one has to pay for the sojourn in a seemingly exotic
region of the world; New Guinea for instance, may indeed outweigh the presumed professional
and scientific gains one might achieve there.
The anthropologist Morris Freilich (1970) sees the field-worker/biographer as a marginal
native. He states, “regardless of time, place or people present, he almost invariably (‘comes on’)
as marginal to society” (p. vii). Apart from the perceptions of family members and society in
general, social science views the ethnographer as ‘an object of ambivalent feelings’ whose
theories are grounded more in descriptions of behaviors rather than quantifications of scaled
responses or conventional measures of psychological constructs.
Freilich (1970) describes his experiences among the Mohawk Indian community in
Brooklyn as indicative of his own “marginal status.” In an effort to capture in-depth profiles of
Mohawk steel workers, he actively participated in the rigors of Indian barroom drinking,
weekend sojourns to reservations, etc. to establish the much-needed rapport with the community.
He accomplished his goals but not without the pains of feeling rejected, insulted, and generally
Then there is the matter of a social psychologist taking on ethnographic biographical
research. In some instances, ignorant of what is to come; one may choose the marginal status and
thus endure the criticisms, suspicions, and doubt that can arise. An ethnographic research venture
is not straightforward, as it does not lend itself to the requirements of laboratory-controlled
studies. Consequently, there are critics, the guardians of pure empiricism, and the skeptics who
question the validity and reliability of the healer’s stories and the testimonies of community
Conventional biographic methods typically produce “soft” data. It is this soft data that
places investigators in a position for their research to be dismissed. However, advances in field-
based and ethnographic studies and approaches have generated reliable procedures for
conducting biographic and life history research (Denzin & Lincoln, 2018). Gordon Allport
(1943) gave us a good start, but we need more than mere personal documents. In seeking
alternate and perhaps more productive research techniques we may find ourselves at the edge of
the research enterprise. The ethogenic approach, or more colloquially the “Brussels Method”
proposed by DeWalle and Harré (1979), is a promising approach to biographic studies. It’s
complicated, time consuming, costly, and produces an enormous amount of data. According to
Harré, (1979, 1983) ethogenic psychology is a research approach where the significance to
one’s actions and their identities are linked to the larger structure of societal norms and cultural
… And Now Shadow Walker
In defense of “soft” data, I include here an ethno-biographical research account of a
collaboration I personally experienced with a local shaman. Years ago, a request was made of me
to document the life and times of a local healer by his family. The respondent in this instance was
a local traditional shaman I knew as Thomas, also known as Shadow Walker. My anthropologist
friends strongly urged that I accept the request, while my psychologist acquaintances offered
little more than caution. There also were the opinions of the local indigenous community to
consider: “You shouldn’t write about Shadow Walker’s experiences and practices; the white man
has no business knowing about our spiritual ways and our medicine men,” one vocal kin of the
healer’s family told me. Another pointed out I had an obligation to keep silent about my
personal experiences with the spirits and the spirit-bound ceremonies of the tribe because
discussing the life of a traditional spirit healer could, the elder reminded me, bring evil upon my
family and me. Add to these opinions and warnings the key family members of the shaman who,
seemingly oblivious to the concerns of the others, kept asking when I was going to begin my
project for them.
As a social psychological researcher in this context, I found myself in a uniquely
marginal position. I recognized the value of the research I was being asked to do for its historical
and anthropological contributions, but I wondered about the status of the work in the domain of
multicultural psychology. Another concern centered on what kind of personal contribution I
would be making to the regional community of Shadow Walker. A little background may clarify
the nature of my dilemma.
Thomas was 81 years of age when I met him and had lived much of his life in the upper
tier area of the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. He spoke
Spanish and the local tribal language and was considered by many local people to be the last
“true” spirit healer. He had survived the rigors of immigration and resettlement and the harsh,
abrupt changes imposed upon marginalized people of his age. In spite of these hardships, he
remained a symbol of the past and present-day traditional spiritual practices.
Thomas’ grandfather gave him the name Shadow Walker. According to family legend, at
an early age Thomas often would stand or sit in the shadows of trees or large bushes. When the
shadows faded or disappeared, Thomas would then tell stories about the plants and how they
experienced their lives in the forests. He told his family and friends he could feel and know what
the plants were feeling and knowing. Later in life, Thomas was able to stand in the shadows of
people and feel as though he was one with them in body, soul, and spirit. If they were
experiencing pain, sorrow, sadness, joy, happiness, or love, he would experience those emotions
with them. He began to use the knowledge he gained from walking in others’ shadows to heal
them from discomfort and pain, whether physical or emotional.
There are not enough descriptors to adequately describe Thomas’s character, but humility,
generosity, kindness, empathy, strength, and integrity are a few. He was deeply spiritual; he
believed, as most indigenous people do, in the omnipresence and omnipotence of the spirit
world. As a shaman, through singing, dancing, and prayer Thomas was able to communicate
with and harness the power of the spirit world and the supernatural. Shaman, according to the
anthropologist Pamela Amoss (1978) “have the gift of the eye (and) are the only ones who can
see the soul” (p.46). When a person loses or fears loss of soul, which is believed to weaken the
individual and leave them vulnerable to mental and physical illness, the shaman “examines” the
person in an effort to determine if indeed soul loss has occurred and if so, where the soul went.
The shaman then works to bring the soul part back and reunite it with the individual, thereby
creating an environment most conducive to the “patient’s” physical or mental healing.
Some shaman, especially Thomas, not only are able to fend off soul loss but also can
recover lost objects, effectively communicate with the dead, “cure” people with afflictions based
on emotional disorders, and relieve bodily pains and infections. On any given day, numbers of
people could be found at his home on the mountain seeking help for a personal or spiritual
problem. These requests are in no way small, for the healing procedures require the presence of a
few drummers and singers and take hours to several days to complete. Drummers and singers are
paid by the “patient,” but Thomas himself received little in the way of monetary compensation.
Instead, gifts of appreciation are traditional and were commonly given to him.
Like many shaman, Thomas would ask the person seeking his assistance to fast for a few
days, pray, and avoid negative activities and people. On the day of the healing Thomas and his
helpers would cleanse and smudge the small community lodge with herbs, the leaves and bark of
sacred trees, dried and ground-up special plants known only to Thomas, and the resin incense of
medicinal trees. Often Thomas would have the person seeking help and those supporting him or
her drink an herbal tea. Thomas would then ask the person seeking help to sit in the center of the
lodge. A colorful woolen blanket would be draped over his or her shoulders. Thomas then sat
across from the person, and singers and drummers would surround them in a circle, their number
varying depending on their availability. Family, friends, and invited guests would be seated
outside this inner circle.
Following the singing and drumming, Thomas would go into a deep trance, during which
silence was maintained in the lodge. While in the trance state, Thomas often quivered and shook
for short periods. The length of his time in trance varied from client to client. He could be in a
trance for several minutes to several hours. Once he regained consciousness, he would begin
“working” on the client. He might very gently rub or wave his hands over their head, shoulders,
back, hips and legs. After “working” on the person for a time, he again would go into a trance
state. This trance and rub-down routine might be cycled through several times during a healing
session; in the course of a day Thomas could repeat the cycle as many as five or six times. If the
day’s healing practices did not bring a resolution for the person, Thomas would end the day with
songs and prayers. The complete healing ceremony would begin again the following day. The
ceremony eventually ended when Thomas declared the person “cured” or “healed.” A celebratory
meal would then follow and expressions of gratitude shared with Thomas, the family, and the
attendees, all of whom are vital to a successful healing. The spirits, too, would be generously
praised and thanked for their presence and help.
As an observer, I found it difficult to maintain my “sense of objectivity” at these healing
ceremonies, for they created a deeply affecting atmosphere. The drumming and singing
resonated with me to the extent that I felt connected as one with the people and everything
unfolding in the lodge. Other researchers who have collaborated with traditional healers and
shaman recount similar experiences. The accuracy of one’s later accounts of such events can be,
and even likely are, compromised under these extraordinary circumstances, for they are difficult
to put into words.
I was deeply impressed with Thomas’s unusually high success rate in helping people with
spiritual and health problems, finding lost objects or bodies, and more. So well-known was his
fame and degree of success that many sought his assistance. Even a local physician, steeped in
modern medicine and well connected within that arena, told me he received a cure from Thomas
for a shoulder problem he had not been able to receive from other physicians.
Many of Thomas’s family and community members thought of him as a loner. He loved
to walk and would do so most days. Sometimes he invited others to accompany him and other
times he took off by himself. He often wandered into the nearby forests and would stay in
isolated places for days; on a few occasions, he was gone for over a month. On these ventures, he
always brought along his walking stick, an old, highly honed knife, and his dog Curly, a mixed
breed mutt. Family and friends were concerned for his health and safety during these protracted
wanderings, but he claimed these journeys brought him closer to nature, the creator, and the
ancient wisdom that influenced the power of his relationships with people in need of his
In his later years, a family member or friend would secretly tail Thomas on his forays into
the forest, for they grew understandably concerned about his ability to endure long stays
outdoors without assistance. He had hip problems and his knees would sometimes buckle, but he
never complained about these problems, nor let them stop him from his “walk-abouts.” As for
the “trackers,” Thomas knew they were behind him and appreciated their concern for his health
and safety.
Sometimes Thomas went alone into the small community lodge to sit in the center for
hours. On cold nights, he would light a small fire in the pit and wrap himself in one of his many
colorful woolen blankets. He prayed, chanted songs, and occasionally cried out for help and
guidance. No one interfered during these occasions; however, a few stood in the background to
keep a watchful eye on him. He deeply cherished these occasions, calling them his “time with the
I could spend a good deal more time describing and analyzing Thomas’s many healing
activities–-even ones involving whole villages--but what strikes me as most significant is the
extent to which Shadow Walker symbolized and enacted a culturally grounded lifestyle. He and
his community viewed healing as holistic, though they did not use that word. Their conception of
healing encompassed every aspect of ones being, including the surroundings where the healings
took place, for to them these elements are inseparable; Shadow Walker did not stray from these
convictions and beliefs. In the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead (1959) the shaman’s
“position within that group is a perfect sample of the group-wide pattern on which he is acting”
(p. 648). Thomas was a marginal person within a marginal culture who lived a full, productive
life of a rich and unusual nature, belying the view of many who characterize these holy men as
mystical outsiders.
But Is This Proper Science?
Just about everyone at one time or another has heard a story about a person cured by a
faith healer. Such stories have a recurring theme: The main story line has a person suffering from
a chronic, sometimes deadly ailment. Every available form of conventional medical treatment
produces little or no cure. As a last resort, the desperate patient seeks out the services of a faith-
based or spiritual healer. Through some miraculous and mysterious process, the patient responds
by recovering completely from their ailment. Variations on these recovery stories are fleshed out
with personal testimonies and eyewitness accounts of the healing events. Though dubious
characterizations of such healers (e.g., tricksters) and events are common, many stories persist
and can be found in every culture, often defying the usual erosion effects brought on by the
passing of time.
When researching shaman and their communities the question becomes what do you do
as a social scientist when what you are reporting seems overwhelmingly subjective, as the
narrative demonstrates. Is the elaborate healing ceremony practiced among indigenous
communities a magic show or are spirits really there to heal the person? While a person who was
ill seems to have become demonstrably, sometimes miraculously well, was the ceremony simply
a placebo that worked? On the other hand, was it the fasting, the drumming, the community
support, the expectation of healing, or the absolute belief in the shaman’s powers that effected a
cure? Where is the proof that anything worked except a strong belief in unseen spirits and
hallucinations? And, importantly, does Western scientific, by-the-numbers proof matter anyway?
The person and the community became healthier. So, who cares? Is that science? Alternatively, is
dismissing ethnobiographical research among these communities another way for skeptics with
advanced degrees to say, “These people naively cling to beliefs in spirits and ghosts”?
Field Research are Collaborative Partnerships
Researchers who are given the opportunity and take on the task of conducting research
with traditional healers are usually invited to spend time with the community, family, and those
who have benefited from healings. At times, a challenging and daunting responsibility involving
spending considerable time in the community, the venture begins with the principle that one’s
investigations and explorations are guided by authentic respect for the unique cultural lifeways
and thoughtways of the ethnocultural community. Researchers must embrace the value that their
research ventures are collaborations and partnerships (Trimble, 2010). Trickett and Espino
(2004) summarized the emerging literature on community-based partnerships this way:
“It is time to place the collaboration concept in the center of inquiry and work out its importance
for community research and intervention. Although some would see it as merely a tool or
strategy for getting the ‘real’ work of behavioral science done, our strong preference is to view
the research relationship in community research and intervention as a critical part of the ‘real’
work itself” (p. 62).
Without establishing and working through community partnerships, research ventures are
doomed to failure at every stage of the process. This perspective and orientation adds new
research challenges, challenges best captured in the advice offered by Goodenough (1980) when
he affirmed:
“Field workers have to honor the ethical principles of the host community in which they work as
well as those of their home communities. They have to be honest about their research objectives
and their sponsorship. They must not deceive the local people regarding their intent or the
intended uses of their research. They must consider the impact of the conduct of the research on
the people under study and do all they can to insure against what the people will regard as
significant negative effects” (p. 49).
A core element in the scheme of the Ecology of Lives research approach developed by
Trickett and Espino (2004) is the concept of principled cultural sensitivity. The concept was
introduced to the field of community psychology by Trickett, Kelly, and Vincent (1985), Trickett
and Birman (1989), as a core component of the Ecology of Lives approach to field-based
research collaboration. Principled cultural sensitivity is based on respect for whom the research
and interventions are intended and would prohibit interventions that violate cultural norms. The
main goal of Ecology of Lives research and intervention is community development wherein the
project is constructed in such a way that it becomes a resource to the community. Unless one
cares and is knowledgeable about how lives are led at the community level, such a goal would be
difficult, if not impossible to achieve. The approach further emphasizes the importance of culture
as an historical and contemporary aspect of the framework within which individuals appraise
their situation and their options. The research perspective emphasizes the community context as
the stage upon which individual behavior occurs.
In the opening chapter of The Straight Path, clinical cross-cultural psychologist Richard
Katz leads readers into his book through a brief conversation with Fijian healer Ratu Noa’, who
said “Sometimes our story must be told by one of us—from the inside; sometimes by one of you
—from the outside. Today, our story must be told by someone like you. And I am happy about
that because you know our story. You look like one of them, but you’re really one of us” (Katz,
1999, p. 3). In his writings, Katz repeatedly points out that traveling along the straight path
requires constant struggle and vigilance. The journey is not a clear and linear process but rather
one filled with ambiguity, confusion, and temptation, sometimes leading to wrong turns on the
way to understanding. Specific behaviors may be necessary to travel a straight path. The straight
path is a way of being and not so much an exact guide for the way life should be lived. Critical to
this way of being are fundamental values and attitudes needed to find and stay on the path,
typically including respect, humility, love, sharing, and service (Katz, 1983). Gene Hightower’s
interview with the traditional American Indian healer Beaver provides similar advice. Beaver
pointed out one must develop their spiritual nature and decide to live by principles. He pointed
out that one should maintain good principles and not to give up on them -- and stay with them.
And one should, he said, always believe what you are doing is the right thing to do (Hightower,
Katz (1982, 1993) in his beautifully written and dramatic descriptions of “boiling energy”
among the Kalahari Kung and the “straight path” among Fijians, enlightens the mysteries of
indigenous healing from the perspective of one who apprenticed himself to healers with healers’
and the community’s permission. Katz, Biesele, and St. Denis (1997), in an enthralling book,
Healing Makes Our Hearts Happy, recount the story of the Kalahari Jul’hoansi and the
extraordinary power of spiritual energy that affirms the community’s traditions and relationships.
The authors maintain that
“Part of the story we have to tell involves the interplay in contemporary Jul’hoan (Kalahari)
tradition expectation and observation of conservative ideology and creative symbolism. It is a
story of history—both past and present— told by a “committee” of Jul’hoan people. The voice in
the book is not one person but a medley of voices. A story where truth lies—if it exists— in
verbal communication. It is a story of the dialogue and question and answer and how that
dialogue may create a new understanding that is mutual and useful to the Jul’hoansi” (p. 156).
The eloquent words of by Katz, et al. resonate profoundly with Joseph Gone’s concluding
observation. Specifically, Gone states
“Substantive community involvement and engagement in the formulation of integrative
approaches exposes the particular interests of the dominant professional agenda even as it
reformulates that agenda to its own ends (Gone, 2008). Consequently, it remains imperative that
such initiatives in Indian country extend well beyond the creative achievements of a single
individual—no matter how ingenious, poetic, or politic—to the collective energies and efforts of
community members engaged in charting a sustainable and self-determined therapeutic praxis
that reflects their own distinctive strategy for hurdling the colonial abyss” (Gone, 2010, p. 225).
Consequently, without firmly establishing a collaborative long-term relationship with
communities, the likelihood of garnering an abiding partnership is slim (Trimble & Mohatt,
Relational Methodology
Relational methodology is “a process-centered approach nurturing a culturally sensitive and
ethically responsible relationship. The process recognizes the human relationship of the researchers with
research participants as a relationship of equals, as broader than the research project, and as
characterized by genuine respect” (Trimble, Rivkin & Allen, in press, p. 2). The establishment of trust
and respect occurs through the nature and depth of relationships researchers create and sustain in their
host communities. Relationships of this kind do not occur when one relies on a “safari approach,” also
referred to as “helicopter research,” for data collection in which the researcher drops in for a short period
of time to collect data and then leaves, and in some instances, is never to be heard from again.
Developing and nurturing relationships with community members and leaders take a
considerable amount of time--maybe years. It means spending precious time visiting with people at
social functions such as community gatherings, celebrations, ceremonies, local school events, and
related activities. It means spending time with community leaders such as elected officials and elders as
well as visiting with parents of school-aged youth and the youth themselves. It means being willing to
engage in long conversations that have nothing at all to do with one’s research interests. If a researcher
wishes to establish and nurture a relationship with the community, the commitment must be authentic
and born of a deep abiding interest in the ways, customs, and thoughts of the people.
Community relationships can extend from the casual to those generated from the affectionate
care that accompanies profound friendships. The nature of the relationship, in turn, can influence the
quality of the information a researcher seeks to obtain in the course of the study or investigation. Thus,
along with advocating the value and significance of six virtues, specifically trustworthiness,
benevolence, capacity for awe, respect, awareness of one’s limitations in the face of ambiguous and
uncontrollable circumstances, and humility, researchers should seriously consider framing their field-
based research around the formation and maintenance of responsible relationships; these form the major
component of establishing community partnerships and collaborative arrangements. Relational
methodology means that one takes the time to nurture relationships not merely for the sake of expediting
the research and gaining acceptance and trust but because one should care about the welfare and dignity
of all people.
Spirituality and Healing
Spiritual beliefs are at the core of the healing practices and ceremonies for indigenous
people (King & Trimble, 2013). Indigenous spirituality is centered on the Creator and human
beings’ unique, personal relationship with the Creator. By definition, spirituality is everywhere,
imbued in all life (earth’s beings, rocks, trees, wind, etc.). While historically this view has been
seen as primitive and animistic, when simply substituting the word spirit for energy, we have
quantum physics’ definition of energy/matter as constantly spinning and vibrating, each one
radiating its own unique energy signature. Spirituality encompasses relationships with all beings.
These sacred teachings come from oral traditions, some over 8,000 years old.
As contrasted with the dominant Western European view that humans are superior
to the rest of creation, indigenous people see themselves as an integral part of creation. Many
dimensions of spirituality (encompassing health, well-being, social responsibility, community
development, etc.) embrace this idea. Thus, the central purpose in life is to take care of the earth
and to serve others. Personal well-being cannot be separate from one’s connectedness to this
purpose. Peace and wholeness comes through living in balance. The afterlife is a continuation of
physical life on an energetic plane and includes a continual process of teaching and learning
lessons (Fukuyama et al., 2005). In many North American Indian tribes and Alaska Native
villages, a spiritually connected way of life is often symbolized by a circle. The Diné emphasize
harmony and beauty in relationships and connections with others and nature; the Apache call this
living in the pollen way; for the Lakota, one can choose to follow the Red Road or the Black
Road, each of which presents unique challenges for the proper way to live; for the Inupiat
Eskimo, ahregah, or "well-being," is a state in which one experiences a healthy body, inner
harmony, and "a good feeling within,” and for the Ojibwe, the Seven Council Fires of Life mark
significant transitions through life stages. Locust (1985) points out, “Native American Indians
believe that each individual chooses to make himself well or to make himself unwell. If one stays
in harmony, keeps all the tribal laws and the sacred laws, one's spirit will be so strong that
negativity will be unable to affect it. Once harmony is broken, however, the spiritual self is
weakened and one becomes vulnerable to physical illness, mental and /or emotional upsets, and
the disharmony projected by others" (p. 4). This "path" or "way of living" provides the individual
with traditionally grounded directions and guidelines for living a life free of emotional turmoil,
confusion, animosity, unhappiness, poor health, and conflict-ridden interpersonal and intergroup
relations. The goal of traditional spiritual beliefs and practices is to provide assistance for the
individual and/or community to once again find the “straight path” or way back to the circle and
balance. This is illustrated by Diné distrust of western medicine because it does not concern itself
with whether the patient’s life is in balance, or whether their own life is in balance when they
intervene with pills or surgery (Schwarz, 2008). Lori Alvord, the first female Navajo surgeon,
put it this way, “Although a surgical procedure focuses on a single organ, I always tried to stay
aware of the whole person—organs, mind, and spirit, the harmony of their entire being” (Alvord
& Van Pelt, 1999, p. 111).
In the clinical psychologist Richard Katz’s (1999) book, The Straight Path of the Spirit:
Ancestral Wisdom and Healing Traditions in Fiji, Richard explains and elaborates on his firm
belief that healing is a process of transition towards meaning, balance, wholeness, and
connectedness, and these key elements are deeply rooted in the healing traditions and practices
of countless traditional shamans and healers.
The essence of the healing relationship is nicely captured by the words of Joseph Eagle
Elk, a 20th century Lakota healer:
“The medicine man is not the only expert. Everyone has a purpose. Everyone is born to a family
and a community for a reason. Like I explained about the tobacco, or the tree, or the animals. We
are all alive, all have a purpose, and we all help each other. So, each of us must learn to pay
attention to what we learn from our dreams, what the animals tell us, and what nature says."
Joseph Gone (2006) recounts the life and experiences of the Gros Ventre healer, Bull
Lodge, and the influence he had on keeping their traditional healing methods and techniques
alive within the context of the Gros Ventre worldview (cf. Horse Capture, 1992). The intent of
his description is to demonstrate that “cultural divergences in subjectivity and experience are
directly relevant for any comparison of therapeutic principles and practices” (Gone, 2006, p. 17).
Gone’s inspired description clearly demonstrates that Bull Lodge was connected to both the spirit
world and everyday life in his community, providing him with the sacred healing knowledge
necessary to effect recovery from suffering and hardship for his people.
In recent years, a handful of psychologists have given attention to the healing practices of
indigenous “medicine people” that goes well beyond the use of an ethnographic participant-
observer sojourn (O’Brien, 2008). These well-written and thoroughly researched life stories
extend beyond written accounts of the healer’s life and community. Rich descriptions are
provided that reveal psychological profiles of the healer’s sociocultural and psychosocial
influences on their character and healing effectiveness. In an introspective, informative, and
sensitively written autobiography, Gerald Mohatt and Joseph Eagle Elk (2000) related the life
story of the practices, experiences, and career of a traditional Native American Indian healer.
Cross-cultural clinical psychologist Mohatt added a unique perspective that enabled him to
highlight the psychological dimensions and worth of Eagle Elk’s healings by placing them in a
cross-cultural context.
Establishing Culturally Resonant Relationships with Communities
One’s deeds and actions are open to the assessment and evaluation of others, especially if one is
a stranger to a community. In a fundamental sense, researchers who are new to a community are “other”
to the community and the community is “other” to them. Truth, therefore, is sanctioned or foreclosed by
the researcher. To know this, researchers must become aware of how they are being represented in the
community. Whatever the researcher’s intention and research needs, their presence and actions will be
scrutinized and assessed by community members. Is the researcher willing to be open to others’ close
and continuous observations, comments, and questions about their actions and beliefs? The question is
more than speculative, for it speaks to one’s willingness to be scrutinized, along with granting
community residents permission and corresponding authority to question one’s values, beliefs, and
actions. Moreover, the questions may not stop with the assessment of character, but focus, too, on the
way the research is being conducted and why the researcher is resorting to the use of procedures and
measures unfamiliar to residents and participants (Gone, 2019).
Universal acceptance of researcher’s virtues and principles can be debated from a relativist
perspective. Respect and trust, for example, may have different meanings and expression across cultural
groups. Their meaning for researchers may not coincide with their meaning within the worldview of a
culture different and foreign to the outsider. Put in slightly different terms; are there different meanings
for what constitutes trust and respect? If there are differences in the meaning of the values, how does one
earn trust and respect within the context of another culture? And, most important, how does one know
they have earned and established trust and respect? Ibrahim (1996) and Vasquez (1996) remind us that
all cultural groups have ethical standards, often embedded in their legends, traditions, and customs;
these standards may not resonate with those of the researcher’s cultural orientation (see Trickett &
Espino, 2004). “To facilitate character and moral development in a multicultural system,” maintains
Ibrahim (1996), “we have to identify all the moral ideals that each (cultural) system subscribes to and
find common ground” (p. 83). Learning the deep cultural meaning of what constitutes trust and respect
therefore requires the researcher to spend time with the community. One will soon discover that
community members will put the researcher through a sequence of “tests” to assess their level of
commitment to working closely with them and to learn about their cultural ways (Trickett & Espino,
2004). Discovering the meaning of these virtues must occur long before the research enterprise is set in
Ethical planning for scientific inquiry involving the changing patterns of ethnocultural diversity
requires flexibility and sensitivity to the contextual challenges and concerns of each ethnic group and
research problem (U.S. Office of the Surgeon General, 2001). The points for consideration raised in this
chapter are not intended to serve as regulation, policy, or absolute prescriptions for research ethics
practices. The purpose rather is to assist stakeholders—investigators, funding agencies and institutional
review boards, research participants, and ethnocultural communities—in the responsible conduct of
research, in identifying key ethical crossroads, and in developing culturally sensitive decision-making
Ethical planning must not be an afterthought or sidebar consideration in the framing and
organization of a research venture; it must be an integral component of the entire process. To ensure its
proper place, researchers and practitioners should be prepared to collaborate with the communities,
share results that have practical value, and accept the conditions imposed by the community in gaining
access to those in need of spiritual, psychological, or physiological assistance. In addition, research
sojourners must be aware of the scientific, social, and political factors governing the rules of
professional conduct embodied in federal regulations and professional codes. It is essential to know and
follow professional research codes and ethics standards as they provide complete guidance for
identifying and resolving complex ethical challenges too often inherent in providing research services
and applicable outcomes for all ethnocultural populations and their communities.
In closing out this chapter the wisdom of James Skeen can provide direction for understanding
the value and role of virtuous thoughts and actions in research settings. Skeen (2002) maintained,
“Virtuous behavior is a worthy objective for all of us. No one is perfect, or capable of being perfect, but
each of us has a need-strength profile that makes the acquisition of certain virtuous traits difficult and
others relatively easy. But just knowing that it is possible to err in two directions – excess and deficiency
– is valuable information” (p. 18).
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