Hearing about a Health Outpost set up in the Jungle
by Peter Krey
My friend Ron Moore and I attended a presentation by Dr. Christopher Herndon M.D. on August 15, 2013 at 7:00pm in the Bone Room on Solano Avenue in Berkeley. His lecture or PowerPoint presentation was called, “Learning from Tribal Healers.” Over the last ten years or so, he has been working with remote Amazon tribes in South America, more precisely, southern Suriname. The card advertising his presentation read: “He will discuss his experiences learning from Amazon healers, that is, shamans and the relevance of traditional medicine to conservation and the importance of shamanism to their medical systems – and to our own.”
Dr. Herndon’s purpose was to persuade us about the value of the world of knowledge of the traditional shaman of these remote tribes, many of which were becoming extinct. This wisdom became lost after contact with the West, when government officials and Christian missionaries considered the shamans to be witch doctors, caught up only in negative superstition and evil spirits. But the shaman like glue held the whole tribe together. Usually from childhood he was brought up to become one and had long, even ten-year apprenticeships on his way to become the accepted shaman of the tribe.
Dr. Herndon told that when a botanist learned the language of a tribe one shaman could designate 2000 different species of trees by merely looking at the leaf from that tree. Usually a western PhD in botany needed another component besides the leaf and could not even name 25 trees in the area in which he lived. A zoologist with a PhD studying bees, asked a tribal member about them, who named 52 different varieties of bees, dumbfounding him by his knowledge of the flora and fauna. A shaman also knew the healing properties of many leaves and vines, insects and the secretion of frogs, and medicines from under the bark of trees. They had diagnostic capabilities that were dumbfounding to a Western medical doctor knowing what he had learned in medical school. But it took the love to take the time to learn their language and the humility to listen to the shaman and learn what he knew. What opened up for the western MD was his universe of knowledge, his treasury of wisdom, which is ordinarily lost thirty years after a shaman was driven from the tribe. In this way cutting the whole tribe off from the source of its knowledge and culture, it was then placed on its way to extinction. Before that point it was made completely dependent on the West in unsustainable ways. In a medical health clinic set for western medicine, he was discussing a diagnosis with the indigenous staff. He looked through their microscope and discovered that it was broken. They were merely pretending to use it for their take on the diagnosis.
Dr. Herndon set up a traditional health outpost in Suriname in an Amazonian tribe known as the Trio and reinstated the shaman to be the tribal healer. This traditional health outpost is designed to complement a western medical clinic nearby. After he set it up and invited the shaman who had been shunned to return and do his work, Dr. Herndon did the best thing he could do. He left them alone. He flew to Washington, D.C. returning by plane after a few months. These remote jungle locations are only accessible by air. While landing, from the plane he could see a long line waiting to see the shaman at the health outpost.
Dr. Herndon presented many examples of the diagnostic capabilities and the treasury of wisdom possessed by the shaman lost to us because of our feelings of superiority and complete disregard of their knowledge and culture. Meanwhile contact with the West was destroying one tribe after another and many more are nearing extinction after becoming completely dependent on the West. (Not the pharmaceutical were threatening the tribes quite so much as oil, mineral, and lumber extraction.)
For example, some tribes use 12 to 13 foot long blow pipes with poison darts to hunt the monkeys they consume for food. The poison they use is a muscle relaxant that makes the monkey fall silently through the trees and vines to the ground. (Their “poison” is used in every operating room today, but of course, there is no way to give them intellectual property rights.) After contact with the West, tribal hunters use shotguns, disturbing the whole environment and making all the animals flee, with the wounded animal as well. Because the monkey’s muscles do not relax, they remain inaccessible because they cling and stay way up in the trees. Then the hunters run out of ammunition and can’t afford to buy more, and to add insult to injury, they no longer know how to make the medicine.
Dr. Herndon’s talk provided me with many theological insights. To preach Christ and do missionary work that decimates the culture of the people contradicts Christ. “Who is as blind as my servant?” asked the prophet Isaiah. To be a missionary means to continue the incarnation of Christ. That requires becoming one of the people, to become a tribal member by learning the language, learning their culture, learning the treasury of their wisdom. Tribal members are still very much in touch with nature and “know the leaves of the trees that heal the nations” as written in Revelation. “Who is as blind as my servant?” The missionaries who preach Christ without continuing his incarnation in their lives impose an alien and unsustainable culture upon the tribal members that contradicts the incarnation of Christ. Why are we so inflexible and why have we lost the sensitivity and capability to become one of the people we are trying to win? St. Paul said, “To a Jew I became a Jew in order to win the Jews…to the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” In a sense in our culture blindness we crucify not only the witch doctors but the whole tribe as well, because the extinction of the whole tribe with its language, culture, and treasury of wisdom is certainly comparable to their crucifixion.
Plus we have to thank God for a secularism permeated with wonderful values that freed an M.D. from the blinders of Christian missionaries and government officials to see the value in shamans, whom the missionaries swept aside as demonic witch doctors. They certainly are sinners caught up in some deception and self-deception but so are we and in the self-righteousness and presumption of our faith we act as if we are not.
Dr. Herndon was not anti-religious or using this critique against missionaries, the way for the sake of self-criticism, I am doing here. But his talk made me realize our vast shortcomings, which we need ourselves as missionaries to become aware of, at this point. What a waste of lives, culture, and wisdom has followed our witness when we do not continue the incarnation ourselves when we preach Christ.
(I want to also include his critique of science and scientific, technological medicine below), but first more about what I mean by continuing the incarnation. He spoke about the field coordinator of his organization, a David Fleck, PhD, who has lived with an Amazonian tribe full-time since 2008, became fluent in their language, wrote a grammar for it as his doctoral dissertation, and married a member of the tribe. This kind of loving embodiment and of their culture and world, this total cultural immersion by baptism is the continuation of the incarnation and provides the possibility for the grace that brings abundant life to these tribal members and whole tribes rather than their destruction and extinction.
“Dear God, forgive us Christians! We are such cultural barbarians! Forgive us for the things we have done. Intercede for us again from the cross, saying: “Father, forgive them they know not what they do!”
Dr. Herndon’s critique of science was similar to the critique I have mounted to our religion. Western science relies on reductionism to more and more simple elements. In that culture complexities and potency were also understood in a way that is outside the purview of our science. Without the unsustainable technology of our scientific medicine, the shaman could make diagnoses like the ones the doctor had learned in medical school. Dr. Herndon argued that because of its methodology of reductionism, science looked through a narrow lens through a tunnel, limiting us by what we chose to see and making us disregard the value of the knowledge of the tribal shaman and the treasury of their tribal wisdom.
While he was speaking, a telling analogy came to my mind: a person lost a ring at night knowing not where but looking for it under a streetlamp. Another coming upon him asked, “Why are you looking for it here?” “Because here is where I have light.” he answered. But the ring could lie anywhere in the darkness outside of the perimeter of the light thrown by the streetlamp. Scientific medicine in its knowledge does not grasp the complexities and intensities from a perspective of an ever greater wholeness, which lets the tribal members have sunlight in the places where our scientific streetlight does not shine.
Dr. Herndon said that the shamans lived in a world densely populated with spirits. Houston Smith claims that Jesus, who was filled with the Spirit, was completely acquainted with the spirit world and used his Spirit attendant powers for exorcism, healing, challenging people, and pronouncing a whole new social order. I guess our missionaries would have shunned and deposed Jesus Christ as a witch doctor!
When I asked Dr. Herndon about their spirit world, he said, “What is an evil spirit? They said a certain forest had an evil spirit. Don’t go in it if you value your life. We discovered a certain kind of rodent there that could give you a disease (He named the fever.) from which you died, because the shaman had no cure. That is what they referred to as the evil spirit.” They may not know about germs and other microbes, like bacteria and viruses, or about radio waves and their frequencies, but they grasp and think through some of these phenomena in terms of personalized spirits in a way that helps them understand some aspects of reality in ways modern science cannot.
The question was asked about how effective the cures of the shaman in the health outpost were. This question could not yet be answered because there was no way to evaluate the practice, but when the missionaries were translating the Bible into the tribal language they had given some members of the tribe the literary skills to read and write and these members of the tribe were writing down the basic medical information about each case that the shaman was treating. [Note how missionaries did make a contribution, too.] These medical notes will provide the basic information to be used for later evaluation. How effective is our modern scientific technological medicine? He asked. Our technology is unsustainable and we really don’t know how effective our practice of medicine is either for cancer, for example.
Somehow, I think that secularism is a complementary place that Christianity provides, or has been compelled to provide, in order to make its faith one that can be accepted freely by persuasion without governmental or even social coercion and if it is not a stepchild of Christianity, it certainly belongs to Christianity in some way. Thank God for it, because it gives some the freedom to explore the world without the blinders that often accompany the faithful. These blinders make us stumble into the self-contradictory place where Christian missionaries would have shunned and driven away Christ as a witch doctor. The fact is that missionaries, especially scientifically trained medical doctors cannot be self-critical enough of their science as well as of their religion.
Now perhaps in a contradictory way, I ask myself, the way science has overtaken the “science” of antiquity and even the “science” of the deep past, i.e. the millennia before Christ; some human understandings in anthropology, linguistics, sociology, and psychology have also overtaken the state of knowledge of humanity represented in our theology. In other words, the science of scripture does not only need to be updated, but our understanding of the human being as well. We are stumbling around in the dark in our own culture, the way our missionaries have been among those Amazonian tribes. Today we have to continue aligning the incarnation of Christ with the preaching of Christ more and more deeply, like the example given by Dr. David Fleck. That means listening and learning the Gospel of Christ for today. Thus the spirit world will have to be better interpreted to gain the holistic, complex, personal, social, and anthropological dimensions that tribal treasuries of wisdom contained – complementing the understandings of modern science. The spirit world interpreted as personal, internal, subjective wisdom needs to complement our external, methodological scientific knowledge as we seek to listen, learn, and incarnate Christ today.
 See his article http://news.mongabay.com/2009/1110-herndon_amazon_shaman.html
 Cf. Isaiah 42:19.
 Rev 22:2, cf. Ezekiel 47:12.
 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.
 Dr. Herndon discovered that they knew a great deal about human anatomy and shuddered to think how they learned so much about human internal organs. Some of their superstitions are quite repugnant.
 Studying Houston Smith is well worthwhile: The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1991, 1958) pages 318ff.