Havre Daily News
Chippewa Cree spiritual leader and cultural instructor Lloyd Top Sky spoke Wednesday to a group of Northern Montana Hospital administrators and staff to help them understand Native American beliefs and how they can apply to health care.
Many Native Americans have not shared this information, Top Sky said, for fear of scorn.
"This is a good place to start," he said.
Top Sky said learning about Native American culture could help the staff understand the reasons behind practices they're not familiar with. He also cautioned them not to apply stereotypes to people they met.
"That's my main point coming here. We're not all into that status that we're lazy, we're drunk and we get free money every month," he said. "This is the best place, here, to practice that, to show understanding."
About 25 people attended the session.
"I was really pleased that he invited himself to come visit us," hospital education coordinator Sue Berg said.
In the past, the hospital had a Native American coordinator, but has not had one for 10 years, Berg said. A panel on caring for Native Americans was held about five years ago, but this was the first offering since then, she added.
For the most part there is no conflict between traditional beliefs and Western medicine, Top Sky told the group. A person who holds traditional beliefs might combine prayer with the medical treatment he receives, but Western medicine is something generally welcomed by the Native American community.
Top Sky said that at Rocky Boy there is a range of beliefs, from people who strictly adhere to traditional cultural practices to people who have completely accepted a mainstream American lifestyle.
For those who do hold traditional beliefs, amputation can be a very sensitive subject, he said.
He explained that traditionally, Chippewa and Cree and other Native American cultures teach that a person has four souls when they die. One soul travels to heaven, one is a graveyard soul and stays where the person is buried, one remains where the person died and the last soul takes care of the things the person was not able to finish or correct while living.
Some Native Americans believe that if they have a limb amputated, the soul that is supposed to pass to heaven will not be able to because the soul will be looking for the lost body part.
"That's a belief a lot of Indian people have," he said. "If you lose a limb, it will keep you from heaven."
Some hospitals in the country are allowing patients to have the lost limb buried to address that fear, he said.
Top Sky said it may also help to know that the doctor is suggesting an amputation as the absolute last resort.
He said he had an aunt who refused to have a limb amputated becuase of her fear and she subsequently died.
Top Sky said that while he was experiencing complications from diabetes, a doctor at the Rocky Boy Health Clinic spoke callously about "chopping off" his feet - an extreme example of what not to do.
Top Sky said that in his case, having received a kidney transplant, he sometimes senses the soul of the kidney's previous owner. He said he offers blessings and thanks for the second chance at life.
He said that Northern Montana Hospital, more than many Montana hospitals, accommodates traditional believers. The hospital has a policy allowing the burning of sweetgrass, a traditional spiritual cleansing practice.
If someone wants to burn sweetgrass, the hospital requires they let the staff know ahead of time so nearby smoke detectors can be disabled. They also have the person use a fireproof container to hold the sweetgrass, Berg said.
Top Sky said he also noticed that the hospital allows many people into a patient's room at a time, something many hospitals don't do.
Berg asked Top Sky why it is that so many family members will gather at a time.
When someone is about to die, Top Sky said, Native American culture emphasizes seeing the person while they're still living, rather than at a funeral. Also, a Native American patient might feel uneasy about being left alone. He said he'd noticed the hospital also allows people to sleep in cots near the patient, another policy he praised.
Top Sky said he was motivated to offer his services to the hospital after being a patient there off and on over five years because of complications from diabetes. Top Sky speaks to groups about Native American culture through the Montana Committee for the Humanities and thought he would offer his help locally.
While Top Sky had many good things to say about the hospital, he said in an interview that he wanted to speak because, "Sometimes I see there's a low sensitivity to our culture."
He told the gathering Wednesday that his family had been in a car accident several years ago and when they were treated at the hospital, a doctor had insinuated the whole family was drunk. The doctor finally apologized, but Top Sky cautioned the staff against stereotyping.
Another misunderstanding can result from the fact that traditionally, Native Americans are taught not to look people in the eye, he said.
"It happens today sometimes when a patient goes into a doctor's office," Top Sky said. "Right away a doctor or nurse thinks he's being disrespectful and not paying attention to what is being said."
Top Sky said in an interview after his talk that in the past, when Native American students were placed in schools, they were criticized and even beaten for not looking teachers in the eye though the students thought that looking them in the eye would be disrespectful.
Northern Montana Care Center administrator Lori Henderson asked for ways the care center could go about accommodating Native American residents.
Top Sky said the center could approach the Rocky Boy Health Board for advice and also suggested making a room available with traditional music and powwow music for people to listen to, as well as inviting someone to help advise them on placing some Native American art in the halls and bedrooms.
Top Sky will speak again to hospital staff on April 13 from 7:45 to 9 a.m. Berg said the hospital plans to invite him back for an evening talk as well.