Native American medicine woman passes on the craft of Indigenous healing

Native American medicine woman passes on the craft of Indigenous healing

For Marika Alvarado, being a medicine woman wasn’t a choice — it was her destiny.

Born in a line of Native American medicine women, her grandmother declared her a healer at birth, and her purpose was confirmed when, by age 5, Marika reported seeing the spirits of her ancestors. Her training quickly began.

After years of shadowing her grandmother, mother and aunts, Native holistic and traditional ways of healing became her life work — with ceremonies, cupping rituals and most importantly, the use of Indigenous plants and wildflowers to make tinctures and concoctions that could aid the healing process. But after Alvarado’s grandmother and mother died, she felt a shift.

“Suddenly, I was standing alone,” she said. “I have my own medicine that will die with me because there are no Apaches to pass it on. I would hate to know that it gets lost.”

Since then, the Lipan Mescalero Apache medicine woman made it her mission to pass down generations of teachings to aspiring healers and medical professionals across the state, educating them about the importance of natural and Indigenous medicine. Her students now call her Abuela, or grandmother.

“It’s important that we know how to take care of the body -— the whole mind, body and soul,” Alvarado said.

The former midwife and tribal healer, who has offered alternative healing at the Lone Star Circle of Care clinic in Austin for the past two years, has established Of the Earth Institute of Indigenous Cultures and Teachings in Austin. Her six-month certificate program, taught to around 25 students this year, focuses on nutrition and diet, food patterns and plant medicine, drawing from Apache traditions and cuanderismo, a holistic traditional Latin American healing system popular in Mexico and areas of Texas.

Her lessons are loaded with facts about healthful foods, Indigenous traditions, bodily functions and recipes that students are encouraged to make at home for their families. On a recent Sunday, Alvarado passed around samples of herbs to make warming teas or a natural, cleansing mouthwash; tart but tasty tinctures made from Texas wildflowers and plants; and gut-friendly fermented foods, such as Tepache, a sweet beverage, common in Mexico, that’s made from soaked pineapple skins.

“We need to be the shift,” Alvarado said. “We need to educate and let everyone know what we do, how do we do it, and how we do it with plants.”

Plants are powerful, she said.

“It’s like anybody who says, ‘What’s the difference between medicine and poison?’ It’s always dosage,” Alvarado said.

So, while she educates students on plant functions and natural remedies for common diseases including high blood pressure or diabetes, she’s not trying to replace Western medicine, she said. She’s trying to work alongside it.

Her offerings, however, tend to go a step further than the typical doctor’s visit. With sessions lasting at least an hour, it’s not uncommon for her to start client appointments with disarming cup of warm tea and a conversation, or for her to travel to see her clients, particularly those who are fearful of doctor’s offices, she said. In some instances, Alvarado acts as a caretaker, working with social workers or families to ensure clients have what’s needed to support them during major life events, including medical.


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“It’s always, how can I help you? And that’s what I tell my students,” Alvarado said. “We’re really here to learn.”

Students from other Native American or Latin American Indigenous groups say Alvarado’s work has been crucial in reconnecting them with their own cultures. And she has helped people from other countries seek natural remedies similar to the ones they might have used back home.

“Abuela knows intangible things that I can’t learn about from reading a book,” said Carina Souflee, 33, a fourth-year medical student at University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical Center.

The medical student, who was adopted, has used Alvarado’s class to tap into her roots as a descendant of the Rarámuri, a group of Indigenous people from Chihuahua, Mexico.

But for her, it’s “not so much a personal project as it is a professional one,” she said, noting that the collaboration and exchange between Alvarado and medical students has been informative for healers and medical professionals who want to bridge the gaps between natural and medical approaches to health, while also legitimizing patients’ culture experiences and history.

“What Abuela is building is a community in Austin that’s enabled (traditional healers) to go have discussions with medical professionals as equals,” Souflee said, “because if medical professionals understand people are scared to go to the doctor or people want to follow nutrition-based medicine, it’s important to work together on those things.”

While students are scrambling to learn Alvarado’s traditional ways, the state has yet to recognize her approach as a legitimate practice. Still, many local medical experts are taking notes.

UT’s Dell Medical School has tapped Alvarado to teach multiple workshops on Native medicine and her approach to serving specific communities, building a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the medical school and a Native healer.

Christina Jarvis, the program administrator for the medical school’s community-driven initiatives, said the workshops have supported Dell’s aim to better serve underrepresented communities and populations that experience health disparities, while also teaching professionals about the history and culture of these same communities.

“Health is about where you live. We know that there are people who know what they need, and we’re interested in hearing what they have to say,” Jarvis said. “It also just takes into account and shows respect to the traditional forms of healing, which I believe is important in science, too — being able to incorporate healthy, natural things, too.”

Brandon Allport-Altillo, an assistant professor of internal medicine, population health and pediatrics for Dell Medical School, said Alvarado’s workshops taught him about Indigenous remedies, such as guava leaf tea to assist with diabetes, which were similarly used when growing up in his Afro-Caribbean family.

“That has been enlightening to me,” Allport-Altillo said, noting that it inspired him to research what compounds in plants might contribute to glycemic control.

“It’s important for mainstream or Western medicine to realize that a lot of our innovations have come from the natural world, so we can’t be dismissive of things that have come from nature or Indigenous culture. … We’re all on the same team,” he said.

While Allport-Altillo advocates for the power of modern medicine, he said, he has since suggested Alvarado’s services to his patients, particularly those who might be initially reluctant to try medication. It’s been a compliment to his work, offering patients an opportunity for patients to discuss their issues from a perspective that is related to their cultural environment and their socio-cultural and historical traditions, he said. He is now also an internal medicine specialist at Lone Star Circle of Care.

To some Native American communities, though, teaching ancestral medicine to outsiders is frowned upon.

The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, located in the Big Thicket area, gets often requests about their medicinal practices, but leaders prohibit tribe members from performing their ways of healing or medicine with or for anyone outside of the tribe, said Bryant Celestine, the tribe’s historic preservation officer.

The tribe fears of their teachings or practices will be exploited, he said, as they have in the past.

Resources could also run scarce, particularly as climate change presents threats. The tribe goes as far as providing a list of resources that they want to protect or harvest to a preservation officer, who is then sworn to secrecy, Celestine said.

“It’s a really difficult thing to talk about,” he said. “Once certain plants are mentioned or demonstrated, elders are fearful that we’d lose that proprietary information. Elders tell us not to do it.”

Though Alvarado still keeps aspects of her healing sacred, such as her ceremonies — “I hope and pray the right person comes along, and I get to share that with them,” she said — the medicine woman fears that Indigenous healing could become a dying craft if not passed on.

“When elders in our community have knowledge, that’s a great gift to everyone. Their knowledge will leave with them unless they pass it on,” Soufflee said.

Alvarado agreed.

“We want to hold so tight, but we need to share,” she said. “That’s how medicine gets lost.”

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