Neo-Colonialism in Western and Indigenous Medical Collaborations: Picking Apart an Article on Shamanic Approaches to Autoimmune Disease

More on Colonialism and the Corruption of the English Language…

The article in question can be found here.

‘The search for cures’ is the new neo-colonial English-language phrase that justifies resource extraction, pits us against the Earth relationships we are a part of, and also inundates us with fear – because the cures are disappearing as fast as the people who know about them. (Why are all of our stories told like meaningless movie plots? Is this what it means to be objective?)

Just recently, an article published in the Huffington Post celebrated an ‘unlikely collaboration’ between Amazonian shamans and medical researchers. The article badly conveys a confused hope that people with autoimmune diseases can maybe be cured if they go to the Amazon chaperoned by medical researchers - those guardians of illness, reason, and death; the fear (because no hope can be paired without fear in our narratives), is that indigenous knowledge of plants is dying out, because those foolish indigenous people forgot to write down what they know (the article bemoans the ‘oral tradition’ not once, but at least twice.) How we sensationalize illness, and how we over-sensationalize cures, as a way to glamour up a story (to put lipstick on a fish, as it were), because we believe that is the only way a good story can be told. The shiny edge of lies around the peripheries of our stories glimmers in the desperate and greedy glint of our eyes.

(I tell you, not just as a professional patient, or a healer, or an experienced human being - it is not hard to recognize a colonial project when you have an Africanist background.)

((Language, language, language. You are breaking my heart.))

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“In an unlikely collaboration with Amazonian shamans, medical researchers seek a cure for autoimmune disease.”

First stop: unlikely collaboration. Why unlikely? Why is any collaboration unlikely? What makes a collaboration between healers unlikely? What is the point of that word in that sentence except to sensationalize?

Next stop: a cure for autoimmune disease. Besides the fact that there is no one autoimmune disease (the pathways of inflammation are ever-various), and therefore there is no one cure, there are also no cures period. We know that. Diseases are not things, they are processes. Life is not a thing defined by beginning and end, but the journey of the middle. Illness is no different.

“But the potential medicinal resources of the Amazon – especially the 80,000 plants native to the region, and the shamanic knowledge that often exists only in oral form among the disappearing tribes – remains largely untapped.” 

Full Stop: Potential medicinal resources. What makes medicinal resources ‘potential’, when millions of people have been using plants as their primary healthcare for body, soul and spirit throughout human history? What makes medicinal resources ‘potential’, when they are what the people who live in the Amazon use as their pharmacy? What about the thousands of people who travel to the Amazon, or who import Amazonian plants, or who use local plants for their own healing? When will medicinal resources stop being ‘potential’ and become simply ‘resources’? This might seem like a small point, but it is important, because this is the way that patients, the people suffering, are relegated to the category of ‘anecdote’, and only the stories of medical researchers are honored as true and factual. Until a medical researcher stamps a plant as ‘useful’, or a pharmaceutical company starts selling it, it will always be ‘potentially useful’ no matter how many human beings benefit from it.

Resources. Why are plants considered resources, when to use them in the way they are used traditionally (meaning, within the shamanic knowledge cited), is to be in relationship to them?

“Shamanic knowledge that often exists only in oral form among the disappearing tribes.” So now we have shamanic knowledge that is disappearing, because it’s just something that disappearing people are using their mouths to communicate to each other. How silly that they never thought to write it down. (Didn’t they know they could disappear?) How primitive. How mysterious. Endangered species vanishing alongside endangered knowledge, and the rest of us sophisticated sick people desperate for answers crying for medical researchers to go and excavate the Amazon, and serve us back their findings in pill form (approved by pharmaceutical companies, of course.)

The final words – ‘remain largely untapped’ – gleefully screw in the nail on the language coffin, and reveal the truth of what this article is really about: colonialism, resource extraction, mining the earth, and exploitation of indigenous people. To tap knowledge harkens back to the era of rubber companies which devastated the Congo and the Amazon. Their aim? To tap rubber, no matter what the human cost. The Belgians terrorized and murdered millions of Congolese people in order to ship back baskets of rubber for bicycle wheels in Europe. The Amazon and the people of the Amazon were similarly devastated by colonial, racist, and capitalistic resource extraction called the Amazon rubber boom. To tap something is to suck it dry. To consider something untapped is a way of repeating the old Colonizer line (in whatever form): “these natives don’t know how to use (read: mine, exploit, farm, destroy) the land properly. That’s okay, we will teach them. We will take what they don’t use, and we will use it the way God meant us to (to rape the Earth, that is.) These silly animals (natives were never people) should either disappear (nobody likes to commit genocide – disappearing people are so much more convenient), or convert to our ways of thinking. We are doing them a favor.” Tapping knowledge is also a way of exploitation. Anything that treats relationship as something to extract, exploit, and then carry back to the enlightened world and serve as fact, in the language of numbers, statistics, and chemistry, is not true.

What is the justification for these statements? “Currently less than 1 percent of tropical plants have been analyzed for medical purposes” Ah. Analysis. Hacking open the carcass of the dead beast, slicing it into grotesque, bloody pieces, and calling it fact instead of Truth – that is what legitimizes any plant for medical purpose. (And we call ourselves free?)

“Even the plant medicines that are commonly used by shamans, as the indigenous medicine men and women are called, are poorly understood by Western doctors. So far, there has been little research aimed at evaluating indigenous plant medicine and shamanic treatment protocols.”

As if shamanic methods can be harnessed by using the words ‘research’, ‘evaluation’, ‘treatment protocols’? Why is it such a surprise that they are poorly understood by Western doctors, if even the journalist writing the article can’t write about shamanic plant medicine in the paradigm that the shamans understand it themselves? Meaning, in the paradigm of relationship, a living Earth, spirits, transformation, and life as meaning and connection, even within the realm of illness? Why use words that are cruel, cold, calculated and clinical? (And where are the indigenous medicine men and women in all of this?)

“But that’s beginning to change.”

Is it? For whom? For sick people? For shamans? For Western doctors? For researchers? What does it mean to truly understand the deep calls and songs of the plants? Does it mean that when a few researchers show up in Peru, the light of their enlightened culture hails true understanding?

“Now, a large-scale new research project is creating the opportunity for a meeting of the minds between traditional and modern medicine, between shamans and scientists.”

Where are the healers in this meeting? The true healers, meaning, the ones who are visited by disease processes? Why is it that the patients, the ones suffering, the ones who are alone with their bodies and souls and spirits and healing journeys are absent yet again? (Might I add, true to the Western model of doctor-patient relationship.)

“In Ecuador and Peru, the Runa Foundation – a nonprofit that does conservation work in the Amazon and provides opportunities for economic advancement to indigenous peoples – is working with a new initiative, PlantMed, to build medical clinics for the research of plant medicine, facilities that will be the first of their kind.”

Conservation work and opportunities for economic advancement. Sounds suspiciously like development in a context of colonial resource extraction. Because of course traditional knowledge also needs to be forcibly developed by Westerners who can understand it better than those who use it already. Hear me, please: traditional knowledge is what we all use when we get sick. (Because when we are sick we are alone with ourselves.) And why are these medical clinics considered the first of their kind, if the Amazon is already populated with people who have been doing research on these plants for generations?

“It’s bringing together the best minds from Western medicine and from Amazonian, or shamanic, medicine… to create an even better medicine that incorporates all of it.”

If we were truly talking about shamanic medicine, we would be talking about the hearts of the healers rather than their minds, and we would not neglect either the hearts and bodies and souls of those troubled with fires in their bodies. The article and the people quoted make no mention of the patients, again. As if the patient is a thing to be passed on from one healer to another.

“At each center, an M.D. and a shaman, with the support of a team of wellness practitioners and clinicians, will care for an initial group of 15 patients using shamanic protocols, while the researchers analyze their treatments using modern technology.”

The words ‘shamanic’ and ‘protocols’, do not belong together. Shamanic medicine is wild medicine. It is a relationship that responds to the language and songs of spirits, as well as the needs and power of the person wrestling with the spirits of illness in their bodies. The article implies that modern technological analysis is what makes this project qualify uniquely as research, rather than listening to the rich and wild stories of people’s illnesses, journeys, and relationships, that are otherwise labelled tritely as anecdotes.

“While modern medicine is the most sophisticated healing system ever designed, it’s ‘still got a lot of holes in it,’ said Dr. Mark Plotkin.”

What makes modern medicine the most sophisticated healing system ever designed? What does modern mean? Or sophisticated? This sentence reeks of the myth of progress, development, and civilized people versus the primitive ones (the ones who did not develop modern, sophisticated healing systems but who keep on eating and drinking their weird plants in the jungle and scratching their rumps with their toes at that.) I call neo-colonial mentality, right here, not to mention a slavish devotion to Western (modern) paradigm of the Doctor as Hero, and the Patient as Broken Machine with no Heart, Soul, or Mind.

“‘All you’ve got to do is look at pancreatic cancer, insomnia, acid reflux, stress – all these things that Western medicine can’t cure – to realize we need alternatives or additions.’”

My Goodness. We need more pills. They can be called additional pills. When will we learn that searching for cures is another name of searching for addictions? And why is it that Western medicine is again at the forefront of this project, and the research in the Amazon is posited as an alternative or addition? Where is the holistic way?

“‘PlantMed’s clinics are ‘poised to translate an overlooked trove of botanical knowledge into novel, practical, and evidence-based modes of treatment.’”

The clinics are ‘poised to translate an overlooked trove of botanical knowledge’ – overlooked by whom? Certainly not by the desperate patients who are doing what they can to go to the Amazon. Why would this knowledge need translation if plenty of people are understanding it firsthand? (Our bodies know how to relate to plants. We need no teachings.) Why would Shamanic knowledge need to be translated into novel and practical treatment? (Why ‘novel’? An undying love for the modern myth of progress, perhaps?) True Shamanic knowledge applies in all of its wild variations in every single person, and all over the world. Shamanic knowledge means opening yourself to transformation, relationship, humility, humanity, life and death. How could the process of your Soul calling to itself, your Soul loving itself (because Love is the most transformative power in the Universe), be distilled into novel and practical and evidence-based modes?

“Doing research is how you move medicine forward.”

Why does medicine need to be moved forward? Isn’t this collaboration, by definition, moving medicine back? Why is it that we need to move forward, instead of moving back to our Ancestors, and the knowledge of the past, and the wisdom of the Earth? Why is it that new is better and old is worse? What ideologies underpin all of the strings bouncing the soulless puppets of these words?

“The first order of business at the clinics? Finding a cure for autoimmune disease.”

Cures do not exist. Love exists. It does not need to be found. It is never far away.

“These diseases are mysterious and multifaceted.”

Are there any diseases or disease-experiences that are not mysterious and multi-faceted? Or is this another way of instilling fear in the readers?

“One possible reason that many anecdotal reports have found shamanic treatments to be effective in treating autoimmune conditions is that they look at the patient holistically, taking into account mental and emotional factors.”

‘Possible reason’ and ‘anecdotal reports’, automatically creates doubt in the mind of the reader. And how, exactly, does shamanic treatment look at a patient holistically? Why does the language again position the treatment lording over the patient? This sentence neither respects patients, nor the shamanic treatments.

“Canadian physician Dr. Gabor Mate writes that in nearly every autoimmune patient he has worked with, “underlying emotional repression was an ever-present factor.””

Who in the world does not have some kind of underlying emotional repression? Here, where I need specificity, the author muddles.

“It may be that the nature of autoimmune disorders – which in many cases is the body’s inability to distinguish between itself and ‘not itself’ – involve more of a simple on/off switch that something within the plants’ biochemistry or the way they’re administered is able to address,” Rios Nete co-founder Luke Weil told HuffPost in an email.”

Where are the plant spirits in a living relationship? Rather than plant chemistry pushing a button or flipping the switch in the robot-body of an unthinking, unfeeling, un-souled patient?

““The shamans say that God didn’t create a disease without creating a cure,” Pischea said. “The cures are there. We just need to find them.””

If the shamans say that God didn’t create a disease without creating a cure, then maybe it is not that researchers need to find the cure, but that the one afflicted needs to ask God? Here, the medical researcher is the one called on the grail quest. Because the shamans may talk about God, but they clearly can’t access him the way that medical researchers can, armed with their intellect, their language, their analysis, and their paradigm. And the patient is merely victim, waiting to be saved.

“At a time when people in the West are living longer and sicker than ever before, and chronic diseases have a yearly impact of over $1.3 trillion on the U.S. economy, the Amazon is a largely untapped resource that we can’t afford not to utilize.”

Why is the life of the Amazon about the sick lives of people in the West? Who exactly are the ones who ‘can’t afford not to utilize the largely untapped resource of the Amazon’? This is colonialism all over again, firstly in the language of the venture, and secondly in the pairing of money with the Amazon as an untapped resource. Meaning: the implication of the sentence is that the U.S. economy is losing over a trillion dollars, and therefore it cannot afford to not colonize and extract from the Amazon. No mention of shamans here. No mention of patients. Just money. In a way, I’m surprised. I would have thought these people would at least pay lip service to death.

“Their (the shamans) vast medicinal knowledge, much of which is not preserved anywhere in writing, is likely to disappear along with them.”

Yes, their knowledge clearly needs to be translated to the ever clear and pragmatic and modern language of Western medicine, and then they can disappear all they want. The sentence assumes that the shamans will disappear. They are in a process of disappearing that can’t be helped – the only thing Westerners can do is to extract their knowledge in order to pump their ailing economy, before the shamans vanish for good. (Notice indigenous people never die, they disappear. Unlike people in the West, who are sick and living longer, and then dying.)

“As the Sapara chief told PlantMed, the tribe’s members have a vision of spreading their knowledge. “They are eager to share their medicine and traditions with the world in a way that is respectful and scientific,” said Gage.”

Hurray, we finally hear from the tribes! Of course, not directly – this is a translation project, after all (and these people are disappearing and oral.) The shamans’ vision has to be translated by a speaker who tells the author that the tribe is eager to share their medicine in a respectful and scientific way. I highly doubt any shaman would use the words ‘respectful and scientific’ when talking about sharing knowledge. Their medicine is all about discipline and respect. It is the colonial mentality of these researchers that is profoundly disrespectful, not only to the tribes, but also to the patients and to the work of medicine and healing. And would the tribe really use the word ‘scientific’? Would the shamans really express their eagerness to talk to Western medical researchers through using that word? This Emperor has no clothes.

“PlantMed is in a unique position to make this vision a reality.”

Despite their cited relationships with the tribes, the language of the article makes me doubt that this company could ever truly share indigenous knowledge.

“I think even many Western doctors are starting to see that there are answers that are beyond textbooks, and that they need to be open to whatever will do right by their patients.”

We open and close the article with the story of a patient who never tells us about the work that he did in his own healing experience. He was sick, then he was doused with drugs in sterile clinics, then he was stuffed with plants in the tropics, and at no point do we hear about his healing journey, his heart, his feelings, his life. The Shamanic healing traditions cited are all about the relationship between the plants and the soul. Why are we destroying that knowledge simply with the language we use to describe it?

These kinds of articles drive me mad. Please, my friends, let’s be more careful about how we use language and what ideologies we are perpetuating within the language itself. Not in order to clean the language up, but to go back to language as a source of beauty, celebration, and Truth. The Plants would like that too. (I know. I’ve asked them directly. They need no translators.)