The American Indian Roots of Osteopathy, Polarity and Craniosacral Therapy
by Nita Renfrew
It seems that the origins of Osteopathy, created by Andrew Taylor Still, MD DO (1828-1917) in the late nineteenth century, indeed, lie in traditional American Indian bodywork. (I use the term “American Indian” as used by AIM in the “American Indian Movement.”) We know now that among the natives of this land, there was a healing tradition that combined a form of osteopathic massage and manipulation with energy and narrative work.1 In fact, Dr. Still, whose family was from southwestern Virginia, where the territory was traditionally Shawnee and Cherokee, lived among the Shawnee for many years on their reservation in Kansas, where the tribe was forcibly relocated in the nineteenth century. Still’s father was a missionary and a physician to the Shawnee and, starting in 1853, Still assisted him for a number of years as part of his medical training.
Earlier, however, in Tazewell County, Virginia in the late 18th century, where the territory was strongly contested by the native inhabitants, the Cherokee and the Shawnee, Dr. Still’s family of settlers had already had several momentous encounters, of a different nature, with the Indians. In the struggle over ownership of the land, a number of Still’s ancestors had lost their lives and others were taken captive. His maternal grandfather had been captured at age fourteen by Shawnee Indian Chief Black Wolf in an Indian raid on the homestead and taken to live with the Shawnee in Ohio. Then, in a subsequent raid, Still’s great grandfather was killed with three of the children, and Still’s great grandmother was taken captive with the remaining children, and later killed also, during the journey north. Still’s grandfather was eventually rescued, after being sold into slavery to a French trader, and he returned to Virginia after a few years.2 Nevertheless, it would seem that destiny had in mind a continuing connection between Still’s family and the Indians. Andrew Taylor Still and his father are reported to have developed an excellent relationship with the descendants of those same Shawnee in Kansas. Still lived with his wife and children on a farm on the Shawnee reservation for a number of years, plowing the land with oxen, growing corn, and is said to have learned the Shawnee language fluently, while he helped with doctoring the Shawnee.3-6
Later, when Dr. Still became a recognized physician and surgeon, although he never said where he had learned his musculoskeletal and organ massage techniques, which he called Osteopathy, he is known to have alluded to the bone-setting methods of the Shawnee at least once, as reported by the director of the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine in a lecture, who added that Still often used “the phrase ‘Taking an Indian look’ at something. Forgetting what you know and just to quietly observe with no thoughts.” This was followed by a quote from Still’s Autobiography:7
All Nature seemed to wait in hushed expectancy. With the iron hand of will I barred the gates of memory, shut out the past with all its old ideas. My soul took on a receptive attitude, my ear was tuned to Nature’s rhythmic harmony.8
Indeed, Dr. Still lived his life, like the Native Indians, by a nature-centered belief.9 And when he started his medical practice, he advertised himself as a “magnetic healer” and “lightning bonesetter” before naming his methods Osteopathic Medicine.10
Today, much of the traditional healing of the American Indians has been lost, because the Christian missionaries called it devil worship. However, what has survived in pockets around the country (along with Zuni and Navajo healing and bone-setting) is Cherokee bodywork, which was surely similar to Shawnee practices, since they were neighboring tribes in Virginia. Cherokee Bodywork today is practiced and taught by Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD PhD, of Cherokee and Lakota heritage, professor at a number of colleges and universities (most recently Dartmouth Maine), medical researcher, and author of many books, including Coyote Medicine. His thesis, along with some of his colleagues, is that Dr. Still learned much of what would become Osteopathy during his years assisting his father in his medical duties among the Shawnee. Dr. Mehl-Madrona, who is seeking to honor and preserve Cherokee Bodywork, came to this conclusion after experiencing and seeing the many similarities between Cherokee Bodywork and Osteopathy.
Interestingly, this would indicate that the origins of both Craniosacral and Polarity therapy also lie in traditional American Indian bodywork, since both Dr. William Garner Sutherland, DO (1873-1954), the originator of Cranial Osteopathy (the foundation for today’s Craniosacral therapy), and Dr. Randolph Stone, DO DC ND (1890-1981), the originator of Polarity therapy, were Andrew Taylor Still’s students. Cherokee bodyworkers, reports Mehl-Madrona, who learned the method from two traditional Cherokee women, are masters at working with energy and the breath, and they also move cranial bones, seeking the ridges, albeit with more force than Craniosacral practitioners. They do this along with osteopathic-like massage and manipulation of musculoskeletal tissues, organs, and joints, as well as acupressure on points and energy channels (that, in fact, correspond to the meridians). They combine all this with gentle rocking and with narrative healing, both verbal and energetic, using story telling, and dialogue with the musculoskeletal system and with the client, and intense breathwork to “restore spirit” to all parts of the body, when giving treatments that they commonly refer to as “doctoring.”
There is, in addition, a very important spiritual component to Cherokee Bodywork, which can appear as elements of traditional ritual and ceremony, which might mean using smoke (offering herbs such as sweet grass, cedar, sage, and tobacco), feathers, crystals, imagery, and intent, to move energy and work with the spirit world, or prayer. Interestingly, in addition to the physical bodywork that Osteopaths do, Dr. Mehl-Madrona has found one more similarity between Osteopaths and traditional American Indian bodyworkers: many Osteopaths, although they don’t normally talk about it publicly, like the Cherokees and other American Indians, converse with guides and other spirit beings, and use dialogue and intent during their practice. And both Polarity and Craniosacral therapists are known to do the same.
Widely-recognized Biodynamic Craniosacral and Polarity teacher Franklyn Sills, in one of his training books, describes the parallels between “shamanistic,” or traditional healing, and Craniosacral therapy:
Shamanism is a healing tradition found in almost all ancient and primitive cultures. It recognizes a divine ordering principle at work in the universe and spiritual roots of creation. The work we do in craniosacral biodynamics has direct shamanistic resonances. We orient to deeper forces at work and to ordering principles that are “not made by human hands.”11
Sills goes on to talk about the “striking similarity of approach among very diverse cultures,” including “Navajo shamanistic healing,” and “soul retrieval” in classic cultures.12 Likewise, in the companion article to this, Craniosacral and Polarity instructor Gary Strauss talks about the similarities in his work with shamanistic practices.
I say, isn’t it a sweet irony, or poetic justice, rather, that we apparently owe Osteopathic Medicine, Polarity, and Craniosacral therapy to the original inhabitants of this land, the American Indians? And isn’t it time that we give them the credit due, and that we help them restore their spiritual healing traditions to their rightful place in America’s healthcare system?
We can do this both by supporting traditional healers in their work and by honoring their systems—learning and practicing them, so as to make their healing methods more available. In this way (as was done with traditional practices such as Chinese medicine), we can follow in Lewis Mehl-Madrona’s footsteps, helping to bring about the inclusion of American-Indian, or Native American, traditional healing practices into mainstream, integrative medical services.
Nita M. Renfrew is a practitioner of Cherokee Bodywork and licensed massage therapist, and a student of Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona (with whom she co-authored an article on Reiki, along with Barb Mainguy, for a medical journal). Renfrew has studied with a number of traditional and other healers, and practices several energy-healing, as well as shamanic-healing modalities, including Craniosacral. She is also an artist, a writer, and an editor of A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism.
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AUTHOR’S NOTE: Although the word “shaman” originally came from the Siberian, Tungusic Evenki language, it now has a far wider and more generic meaning: working or mediating between the invisible and visible worlds, or between the physical and spirit worlds, to effect change—hopefully beneficial— in health, or other. It is in this sense that I use the term.
1Mehl-Madrona, MD PhD, Lewis. “One Road, Many Branches.” A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism. Vol. 7, #2, Fall 2014, p. 32.
2 Booth, PhD DO, E.R. 1906: “History of Osteopathy,” pp. 2-4. (Still’s ancestors’ bloody encounters with the Shawnee in Virginia)
3 Paulus, DO MS, Steve. Andrew Taylor Still (1828-1917): A Life Chronology of the First Osteopath, pp. 1-4.
4 “Andrew Taylor Still.” KansasBogusLegislature.org, p. 1.
5 “Andrew Taylor Still.” Pulpdiddy’s Place, p. 1.
6 Ball, Bonnie. “Andrew Taylor Still: founder of Osteopathy,” p. 3. (reference by Still to herbal treatments by the Indians)
7 Haxton, MA, Jason. Lecture: “Part I: Dr. Andrew Taylor Still And… his Observations About Nature,” pp. 20, 33. (Still’s account of Shawnee bone-setting and “Taking an Indian look”)
8 Still, Andrew Taylor. Autobiography of Andrew T. Still. The Author: 1897, p. 378.
9 Lewis, John. “A.T. Still: From the Dry Bone to the Living Man,” pp. 1-2.
10 “Andrew Taylor Still: Father of Osteopathic Medicine.” Museum of Osteopathic Medicine, A.T. Still University / ATSU, pp. 1-3.
11 Sills, Franklyn. Foundations in Craniosacral Biodynamics: the Breath of Life and Fundamental Skills, Vol. 1. Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books 2011, p. 353.
12 Ibid., p. 355, 359.