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Nonfiction in Brief

THE DANCING HEALERS A Doctor's Journey of Healing With Native Americans by Carl A. Hammerschlag (Harper & Row: $14.95)

August 14, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

Modern science emphasizes the known and eschews the mysterious. Medicine, for instance, won't acknowledge the validity of treatments that can't be explained, such as holistic healing; physics, in turn, doesn't admit to gaping holes in our knowledge--new, improved theories are simply seen as supplanting others. Religion is rightfully seen as science's opposite, for it reverses the mysterious and distrusts humans who claim to be all-knowing. As the author writes, "We worship to acknowledge the things we don't understand."

"The Dancing Healers" is the story of one man's struggle to bring the two traditions together in his own life. Carl Hammerschlag joined the Indian Health Service (IHS) in 1965 to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War. He came to the IHS with a respect, typical of his day, for "the uncorrupted people," but he was still accustomed to thinking in the certitudes of Western science. Reality chiseled away at Hammerschlag's resolve, however, as he faced dozens of mortalities daily and came across traditionalist Indians who would die mysteriously on ceremonial days of their own choosing. Eventually, Hammerschlag becomes a holistic healer. While visiting a young woman filled with anger toward her body after a miscarriage, for instance, he starts talking to the broccoli on her lunch tray: "I told it to cleanse Patty's insides with its fuzzy brush head . . . She started to get well."

If all of this sounds a bit too simple and pat, it is: While Hammerschlag's respect for holistic healing seems sincere, his journey from science to spirituality seems devoid of conflict or struggle. We never know how much of the Western medical tradition he has renounced, for instance. By the end of the book he is asking patients to "breathe in healing lights" and "visualize power animals," but he never lets us in on the difficult decision of when to use Western medicine.

And yet, while "The Dancing Healer" disappoints as autobiography, it is often moving as a celebration of spiritual power. Toward the end of this book, Hammerschlag visits a sacred Indian mountain, Bear Butte in South Dakota, and while he doesn't fast or stay for days, as is traditional, he seems genuinely moved by the experience: "I discover paths branching off the main trail. They are blocked by signs that say, 'Indians praying: Do not disturb.' How wonderful: It changes your whole way of looking at a place if you know people are praying there, that Earth is the cathedral. It says more about why we should respect the Earth than 'Don't Step on the Grass', 'Keep Out' or 'Do Not Litter.' "

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