In the Ozarks the role of the healer has always been viewed in a mixed light, both from within the culture and outside. From those outside the culture the healer is often either seen in a very idealistic way as a sort of modern day mystic or shaman-type figure, or as a superstitious holdover from a long since forgotten past. Even from within the culture the healer is sometimes looked at with suspicion as someone that keeps a hidden knowledge and is therefore by nature unpredictable in their actions. These views are potentially damaging to the person with the “gift” in that they leave out the role of the “ordinary healer” within the community. So often what has happened, and what is still happening today in our culture that doesn’t support or nourish this type of traditional healing, is that a person with the “gift,” that is the inborn affinity for spiritual healing or healing of any kind, suppresses their interest out of fear of separation from the community. In the old days healers had to reaffirm with nearly every client they saw that their gift came from God and not the Devil or else be labeled a witch. Even with this constant reaffirming they still walked a fine line between full inclusion within the community and exile.
Today we’re living in a world, at least here in the United States, where it’s unlikely you will be excommunicated from your community for potentially being a witch. There are still small communities that would take such actions, that I’m not denying, but we have to admit that compared to other places in the world the road between healer and witch is a much wider one. Today healers are most at risk for ridicule by the wider community or over-idealization, that is, the world looks at the culture of the healer as a commodity that is intended for the entire human population and not as something that is culture-specific. Examples of this include the appropriation of nearly every indigenous religious or folk tradition here in America. The role of the healer in these cultures has be cut away from the people to whom they belong in an effort create a commodity that people can use to fill the culture-shaped void in their hearts. The role of the ordinary healer has to be protected, more so in indigenous cultures, but also in traditions like my own which has been subject to ridicule and idealization.
What is the ordinary healer? Systems of healing that are born out of certain cultures give rise to certain roles within that culture. Looking at my own culture, the Ozark hillfolk have created the roles of the power doctor, the yarb doctor, the witch master, etc. These are roles based on more ancient blueprints, yes, but they exist within a culture separated from its ancient homeland and should therefore be viewed as a distinct tradition of its own. That is to say that you can look at Ozark folk traditions and see where they might have come from in Britain, Scotland, Ireland, etc. but it would be a disservice to the culture to say that it’s “just Irish traditions in America,” that’s not the case. From within the culture itself the healer would be viewed as an active member of the community. It’s unlikely that they live far off in the woods, or on a tall mountain, like we read in fairytales. I say it’s “unlikely” because there have been healers who have done this, but they are a rare sort. What’s more likely is that the local healer may also be the local postman, or a teacher, or a preacher, or in my case an Administrative Specialist at a University. Because the healer is an active part of the community they are able to heal anyone within the community who needs it. There’s no required gravitas or any sense of idealism toward the healer from those being healed. They are respected among those they heal (or should be, if they’re the real thing) for having a gift that others don’t have, but in the end no more than any other person within the community. The role of the ordinary healer is, in the end, culture-specific, meaning that when you take the healing traditions of a culture out of context they fall apart. Personally I’m not an advocate for any “universal” systems of anything. I don’t advocate the use of cultural traditions outside of their culture, for example the New Age movement which has brought with it cures for nearly everything coming in from nearly every culture (mostly indigenous) on the planet. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, traditions that are cut and taken out of their culture become meaningless, and the corruption of those traditions outside of the cultural context can destroy the original tradition for the culture they were taken from. An example of this can be seen in a friend of mine who is Indian and is studying traditional Ayurvedic healing systems in India, and I use “traditional” here to distinguish it from the bookstore variety of Western Ayurveda, she is in an intense course of study at an Indian Ayurvedic college that’s over 1000 years old and her course has to be at least 10 years before she is even able to see a patient. While she is studying this fascinating medical system she has told me that she is often embarrassed to talk to non-Indians about Ayurveda because she’s had so many people spout off their limited knowledge of yoga and chakras, both of which most people actually know nothing about. So in this sense the original cultural tradition has in a way been ruined, at least in part, for my friend because of the appropriation and corruption of the tradition by uninformed outsiders.
That’s all to say that we should honor our ordinary healers, and those of other cultural traditions as well. Take time to thank your grandma who has a prayer list a mile long that she reads through every night. Take time to thank all the wart charmers, blood stoppers, and burn doctors for embracing the gift they were given. If you’re from a cultural tradition that has a sense of the “healer” go out and talk to them, ask them how they got where they are, I can guarantee they’ll enjoy sharing a story with you. Don’t idealize our healers, they’re just people like you and I trying to make it in this world, trying to heal themselves as much as they heal others. Support them in whatever way they may need to be supported and through them, and other keepers of tradition, the stories and ways of our ancestors will live on.