“Everything in Nature goes in curves and circles”: Native American Concepts of Disability

Marisa Leib-Neri is a second year Independent major in Disability Studies. She is fascinated by different cultural conceptions of disability and how disability, health, medicine, and wellness are historically intertwined. Her hobbies include tennis, violin, and re-watching every season of Parks and Recreation.

The modern view of reality is based in straight lines and angles. When someone goes somewhere or gives directions, the method of orientation is based on ‘straight ahead’, ‘turn left’ and ‘turn right’. But Nature doesn’t work that way, and neither does the traditional person. Everything in Nature goes in curves and circles, and the same is true about our going about. –Distant Eagle [1]

Native American culture has a very different concept of reality than dominant western culture as the Iroquois Elder explained in the above quote. Native Americans as a culture are comfortable with the idea that reality is inherently chaotic and believe that true health comes from “finding balance in chaos…truth is not a fixed point, but rather an ever evolving point of balance, perpetually created and perpetually new.”[2] These beliefs are sometimes phrased as “Metaphoric Ontology,” or plainly, they deny the existence of a single perspective or interpretation.

Native American beliefs are fundamentally rooted in ideas of a multi-layered and ever changing reality. Because reality is ever changing Native Americans have no conception of normal and conversely have no concept of abnormal. It is important to keep in mind that like the larger American population, Native Americans and their respective tribal nations are not entirely homogeneous. However, historians have been able to draw extremely similar conceptions of disability, health, and wellness between tribes. The common thread of many Native American tribes is their ability to embrace difference in a variety of ways.

As Kim E. Nielson notes  A Disability History of the United States, Native American conceptions of disability are unique in that they don’t really exist.[3] There is no language equivalent or even translatable concept for the word disabled, the closest translatable phrase is simply “being different” .[4] This lack of a disability concept stems directly from the connection of the spiritual realm of religion to tribal community health and medicine. Tribal Medicine is focused on maintaining balance between mind body and spirit. Wellness in Native American culture is defined as a “wholeness of existence,” that every aspect of an individual’s reality is interconnected and interwoven with nature, community, the spirits, and the elements. [5]

Native American connections of mind, body, and spirit, which stem directly from their religious beliefs, did not create the same stark binary of “normal” and “abnormal” that dominant American culture revolves around. Pre-colonial Native Americans never formed a stringent definition of normality and because of this their culture is disability inclusive in comparison to the colonial culture that would eventually become dominant American culture. To this day Native American conceptions of disability remain much more progressive than dominant culture notions and have changed very little despite the marginalization and cultural destruction that Native Americans have faced in the past.

Native Americans represent one of the most oppressed groups in American history. Native American culture was essentially eradicated by a sheer loss in population numbers caused by disease, war, and later, a systematic destruction of tribal culture. This tumultuous history has forced many tribes into an isolation that has made learning about their cultural history particularly difficult for outsiders. What makes this cultural isolation and consequentially the loss of cultural knowledge particularly upsetting for disability studies scholars is that Native American tribes have a uniquely progressive stance on disability that often falls in line with modern disability study ideas.

Native American cultures believed (and still do to this day) that disability, or difference rather, is the result of “disharmony of the spirit.”[6] Through traditional tribal ceremonies an individual’s harmony can be restored and the individual is seen as cured—regardless of the physical manifestations or impairments that are still present.[7] Therefore the problem was not in the impairment or disability itself, but rather in what had caused it. Native American communities are also much more tolerant of mental disabilities and disorders because of a deep cultural belief that altered mental states bring better connections to the spirit world. This also comes with an understanding that different mental capacities bring new types of learning into a tribe community.

The cultural practice of Peyote and the altered mental states that it caused was in fact the basis for many tribal religious practices.[8] Peyote practice helped to embrace different levels of consciousness, tribe members willingly chewed or brewed and drank peyote tea to feel the hallucinogenic effects and reach a different level of consciousness. Whether different levels of consciousness were willingly induced, or the result of mental difference, Native American culture made room for difference based on their religious ideals.

Disabled Native Americans faced very little stigma in their community because as long as they maintained their tribal relationships they were unlike any other tribal member. In many different tribes disabled people were heralded members of the community, their “gift” [9] of a different reality “challenged and energized” [10] the rest of the tribe community. These members of the community were called heyoka, they “evoked the magic of chaos” and had an indescribable amount of wakan, a holy, mysterious, or incomprehensible power.[11]

What is incredibly important about Native American conceptions of disability is that they make room for difference, but do not put them on display like a freak show performer. A Lakota elder notes that “Neither the ordinary person nor the heyoka person has a better view of reality; what each sees is universally accepted as fully real by everyone in the nation.”[12]

Furthermore, Native American culture became extremely accommodating of difference without making a conscious effort to do so. Most Native American languages have no basis for disability. There are no equivalent words for “cripple” or “handicapped.” Cultural uses of language also differ greatly—ability to speak and communicate through spoken language is not the measure of competency like in dominant culture. Silence is an acceptable part of Native American conversation and often conversations are slower. Navajo tribe members with cognitive disabilities were found by ethnographers to have no problems understanding conversations as long as it was within a slow cadence typical to tribal community conversations.[13] Native Americans are also considered to be one of the first groups to incorporate hand signals, similar to that of modern sign language, into their main body of language. This was to accommodate deaf and elderly people into community conversations.

Other cultural practices also make room for cognitive difference. Autism isn’t seen as an issue like in western culture. A typical symptom of autism is lack of eye contact, but in Native American culture lack of eye contact is seen as paying the utmost respect for your elders. It is common in conversation for people to be looking at the sky, the ground, anywhere but the eyes of the person you are directly addressing.[14] Much of this has to do with the child rearing practices of Native Americans—there is very little emphasis on conformity. A child is allowed to do whatever they want as long as they are contributing to the overall community in some way. The level of tolerance for “deviant” behavior is much larger because there is no real range of “good” behavior a child is supposed to emulate or conform to.

Dominant culture upholds an idea of the “other”—whether that other is a persona of non-normative race, sex, class, or ability status, does not matter as long as the other is maintained. Disabled individuals fill a specific form of the “other,” the abnormal form that is either literally marked by their bodily impairments or marked by their actions, which often differ from the acceptable norm. Dominant culture attaches negative meanings and ideas of personal failing to disabled individuals, which ostracize them from society. Or conversely, disabled individuals are put on display for the entertainment benefit of society; this is the only realm where positive characteristics are attached to disability historically.

Native Americans do not prescribe to ideas of othering simply because there can be no other in their concepts of reality. Nature is a constantly changing so “normalcy is an ever changing process of coming to balance.” Disability is therefore seen as a difference that can be integrated into society. Disability is “only an element of the individual’s existence, not the defining element.”[15]

As academic fields begin to recognize and study the intersectionality between various marginalized groups, the area of disability studies has risen as a vital narrative. The disabled experience, especially within the context of American history, is deeply intertwined with race, sex, and class struggles. Disability studies has led the way for redefining current conceptions of disability, starting with the social model of disability, and has opened up spaces in which different cultural conceptions of disability can be discussed and potentially adopted. Native American progressive conceptions of disability are one such alternative that needs to be explored further.
[1] James D. Audlin, Circle of Life: Traditional Teachings of Native American Elders. Santa Fe, N.M.: Clear Light Publishers, 2006.
[2] Lavonna Lovern, “Native American Worldview and the Discourse on Disability.” Philosophy of Disability 9, no. 1, 2008.
[3] Kim E. Nielsen, A Disability History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.
[4] Martha Gorospe, “Overcoming Obstacles and Improving Outcomes: American Indian Children with Special Needs.” Bilingual Review 24, no. 1 (1999): 95-105.
[5] Lovern, 4.
[6] Kathy Dwyer, Ladonna Fowler, Tom Seekins, Carol Locust, and Julie Clay, “Community Development by American Indian Tribes: Five Case Studies of Establishing Policy for Tribal Members with Disabilities.” Community Development Society. Journal: 196-215.
[7] Jeanne L. Connors, and Anne M. Donnellan, “Citizenship and Culture: The Role of Disabled People in Navajo Society.” Disability, Handicap and Society: 265-80.
[8] Joseph D. Calabrese, A Different Medicine: Postcolonial Healing in the Native American Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
[9] Nielsen, 3.
[10] Audlin, 61.
[11] William S. Lyon, Encyclopedia of Native American Healing (Santa Barbara, Calif., 1996), 305.
[12] Audlin, 61.
[13] Conners & Donnellan, 273.
[14] Lovern, 5.
[15] Ibid., 6.

Further Reading:
Audlin, J. (2006). Circle of life: Traditional teachings of Native American elders. Santa Fe, N.M.: Clear Light.
Lyon, W. (1996). Encyclopedia of Native American healing. Santa Barbara, Calif.
Nielsen, Kim E. A Disability History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.