Plains Indian Health
Traditional Healing and Western Medicine

University of Pennsylvania Museum exhibition
at the Jonathan Rhoads Pavilion in the
Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania
through November 1998

The current health belief systems of Plains Indians reflect a blending of American Indian traditions with modern Western practice. Health and healing are among the most important concerns of Native Americans. While traditional healing techniques may vary from tribe to tribe, Indian groups also share common traditions, including the use of healing rites and an intricate knowledge of herbal medicine.

Oglala Sioux client (r) at Indian Health Service Hospital, J Traig Ht Clinic, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. The picture on the wall shows the medicine circle on which a seated Native American elder talks with two standing youths. He holds a smoking pipe. The caption reads: "Tobacco. It was never meant to be abused." Photo courtesy Jaqueline Sokoloff.

Another common thread that binds all Plains Indian groups is the ideal of wellness. “Wellness” can be defined as the state when the mind, the body, and the spirit are all connected and in balance. One cannot be separated from the other. The medicine circle--having no beginning and no end--represents this concept of harmonious unity.

We illustrate here the bicultural traditions that currently exist among the Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The Oglala Sioux are among the most traditional of all the Plains Indians. They are working to incorporate healing practices and health beliefs from the past with those of the present.

Present-day Indians travel in a culturally conditioned way. If they have what are believed to be white man's diseases, that is, heart disease or diabetes, then they must be treated by white man's medicine and in his facilities. Indian sickness, on the other hand, is caused by disharmony between humans and supernatural powers. These illnesses must be treated by native practitioners.

Historic photograph of Lakota Sioux Medicine Lodge, used to conduct religious and healing ceremonies during the latter half of the 19th century. Courtesy UPM Archives

Porcupine Clinic in Porcupine, South Dakota
Photo courtesy Jaqueline Sokoloff.

Indian Health Service Hospital, Rosebud Reservation in Rosebud, South Dakota
Photo courtesy Jaqueline Sokoloff.


We wish to thank Julie Lakota, Wilma Mesteth, and Evie Weston
of the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, for their assistance and advice.

Jacqueline Sokoloff, RN., MSN., Ed.M.
Catherine Koons Hubbard, Graduate School of Education