Our world and its cultures are very diverse, so are the beliefs and lifestyles of different nations. Anthropologists today spend a lot of time encountering and studying various societies, whose ways of interacting with the world around are very different from the traditional western ways. Anthropologists are not there to judge or evaluate. It is forbidden and unethical to label certain tribes or nations as “primitive” or “underdeveloped” in Anthropology.
These scientists’ have a mission to comprehend, to percept and understand the unfamiliar sets of beliefs and insights. The issue of different approaches to the causes of diseases and the most appropriate cures for them is one of the biggest problems in the mixed societies that try to balance between the traditional western lifestyle and the rituals and customs of their shamanistic tribes. The contradictory understandings of the diseases derived from contemporary medicine and from the religious beliefs of shamanistic societies are doomed to go into a clash and create conflicts and misunderstandings that, in many cases, result as negative outcomes for the patients.
The main difference between shamans and modern doctors is in their ways of understanding diseases, their causes, development, and the cures for them. Doctors approach this matter from the point of view of modern science and study human bodies as consisting of multiple parts, some of which are so small that they can only be seen through the microscope. Doctors also distinguish between a large variety of viruses, bacteria, chemicals, and poisons that can create negative or positive effects on human bodies. Shamans see humans, and their environments are filled with supernatural forces such as demons, spirits, ghosts, and witchcraft.
In the opinion of shamanistic societies, diseases happen when certain spirits or demons start to interact with people’s bodies and souls. Shamans represent a link between humans and supernatural forces; they provide communication between the two sides and achieve an understanding of the parties through bargaining and sacrifices. Understanding or some kind of agreement between shamans and medical doctors is practically unachievable due to the differences in perceptions and mentalities. The diseases that doctors would treat using pills and medication, x-rays and scans, surgeries and therapies are addressed in completely different ways among shamans, who employ animals sacrifices, gifts for the spirits, chanting of the prayers, and various rituals to interact with the spirits, affect human souls and bodies.
Even though modern medical workers disagree with the practices held by shamans and consider them unscientific, highly ineffective, and in some cases even harmful or dangerous, communication between these two parties is basically impossible. It is hard to imagine how the doctors could reach an understanding with the shamans trying to explain them neurons, molecules or chemicals, and how they would inform the shamans about the active elements or body parts that are so small that no one can see them (Stein and Stein 8).
Lia Lee first entered the American medical system when she was three months old. Her doctors diagnosed her with epilepsy. Ideally, from the perspective of the doctors, the girl was supposed to be treated with anticonvulsants and stay under the observation of the doctors, and her parents were to monitor her state and cooperate with the medical professionals and follow their prescriptions carefully. The fact that changed the course of the development and treatment of Lia’s disease was her belonging to the Hmong people, who are a shamanistic society originated from Laos. Lia’s parents decided to proceed with the girl’s treatment according to the beliefs and advice of the shaman of their clan, who lived in Minnesota.
They carefully followed the instructions of the shaman and spent hundreds of dollars to purchase a variety of amulets with healing powers, they even sacrificed a cow. According to the American doctors that took Lia’s case, epilepsy happens when cerebral neurons start to misfire, and this causes seizures. The Hmong shamans called this disease “the spirit catches you, and you fall down” and chose their own methods of treating the girl. The clash between the doctors and shamans happened when the latter decided to change Lia’s name to Kou.
This was done in order to trick the spirit that was hurting the girl’s soul. The doctors kept using the girl’s real name, and this is why the trick did not work, concluded the shamans. Since Lia’s parents decided to use the help of both shamans and doctors, neither of the treatments was consistent or full. The two side’s approaches kept overlapping, clashing, and ruining each other’s effects and schedules. As a result, Lia became the one who suffered the most in this situation, the girl ended up losing most of her main brain functions.
Lia’s case was not the first and, probably, not the last interaction between the American doctors and the Hmong people. Cultural beliefs of the Hmong dictate that the medical system cannot be trusted because the modern doctors cure the body by breaking its wholeness when they cut it open, take blood from it, put their fingers and hands inside of the bodies and their cavities. Traditional treatments of the Hmong shamans forbid them to even undress the patients.
The Hmong people “did not fit the pattern they [doctors] had been trained to deal with” (Fadiman 74). Doctors do not know how to act in situations when patients and their relatives forbid taking necessary measures to treat diseases and save lives. The Hmong patients and their relatives can intrude into operations such as delivering of a baby by dictating what the length of umbilical cord should be and violating the sterile field (Fadiman 74).
Besides, when patients reject medical treatments the doctors’ hands are tied up, even though they feel responsible to stick to perform their duties (Fadiman 75). According to the law, the most crucial decisions as to medical treatment are carried out by patients and family members, but not the doctors. The Hmong patients did not agree to surgeries, anesthesia, autopsies, they limited the doctors and the options the professionals could work with to treat patients. This is why the Hmong people did not fit into the pattern doctors were used to deal with.
Shamanistic perceptions and beliefs are very different from the ones employed by the modern medicine and the contemporary science. These two parties are not likely to find common language in any kind of interaction. Lia’s case showed that mixing the two approaches towards healing and diseases is dangerous for the patient because the practices clash and ruin each other’s effects and structures creating a harmful misunderstanding and miscommunication between the medical workers and shamans.
Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. London: Macmillan, 1998. Print.
Stein, Rebecca L. and Philip L. Stein. The Anthropology of Religion, Magic and Witchcraft. 3rd ed. 2011. Upper Saddle River: Pearson. Print.