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National Library of Medicine 175th Anniversary

Understanding the Healing Totem

Healing Totem at the NLM

Photo: J.S.A. Photography

The totem outside the National Library of Medicine was designed and carved by master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James. From the time the tree left the forest in Washington State to travel to the Lummi Nation to be carved, and then to its present site in the NLM Herb Garden, it traveled 4,400 miles. Here, on the same campus where doctors and scientists dedicate their lives to solving the questions of medicine, it will fulfill its mission of symbolizing and promoting good health and healing.

The stories depicted on the totem use symbols of the sky (raven, sun, moon, stars, fire), the earth (bear, plants, habitat), water (ocean, river, moon cycles with tides), and the creative power and wisdom of women as leaders and healers. Totems display these symbols to awaken our awareness of the meaning and interconnectedness of life and the environment, and the collective knowledge of all races of humanity.

The bottom of the totem depicts a woman with a gathering basket. She represents the women who traditionally gathered plants and herbs to heal human illness.

The center portion of the totem is a tree, representing the Tree of Life and the forests that provide natural healing medicines. Nature is the first source of cures for human ailments.

The top of the totem pole depicts the Algonquin story of the Medicine Woman in the Moon. The moon is the protector and guardian of the earth by night.

The colors in the totem pole also have deep meaning:

Red is the color of blood, representing war or valor

Blue is for the skies and waters, including rivers and lakes

White is for the skies and spacious heavens

Yellow is the color of the sun, bringing light and happiness

Green is the earth with its hills, trees, and mountains

Black represents power.

More “Native Voices” Stories

The exhibition and Web site contain many stories related to Native healing, including:

Ceremony and the Medicine Wheel

Ceremony is an essential part of traditional Native healing.  Because physical and spiritual health are intimately connected, body and spirit must heal together. The ‘Medicine Wheel’ symbolizes health and the cycles of life. 

A Continuum of Health Care

Today, Native Americans can access a continuum of health care practiced by traditional healers and Western-trained physicians.  The Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center in Oahu, Hawaii, provides a range of traditional healing practices that are overseen by a Council of Elders. The Center is co-located alongside a Western primary medical care clinic offering comprehensive health and wellness services.

The Traditional Healing Center of the Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage, Alaska received an award in 2011 from the Indian Health Service for demonstrating how traditional doctors, elders, and traditional healing practices can work side-by-side with Western medicine. 


Read More "National Library of Medicine 175th Anniversary" Articles

Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness / Understanding the Healing Totem

Winter 2012 Issue: Volume 6 Number 4 Page 28