This was first published in 1978 at the request of Will Adler who was witness to part of this scenario and who, at the time, was editor of a state sponsored medical and human services publication (ACCESS, Dept of HRS) plus a writer for the Tallahassee Democrat. It is true and just a small part of the extent to which an ol' Creek herb doctor is called upon for many reasons by many people.



How much do we really know about the people we serve? Aunt Salley, as she called herself, was far older than the 80 years put down on her treatment card. In an impoverished shack in west Jacksonville, life seemed to be ebbing steadily from her body. She did not respond at all to her medicine, and Grace, the public health nurse who visited her daily, was baffled.

In Tallahassee, an old Navajo named Begay lay dying as well--he from a minor infection that ordinarily is cured by soap and water, Aunt Salley from a mild case of diarrhea.

Simple problems, simple solutions? Perhaps not. Aunt Salley and Begay were fortunate. They were served by young, sensitive public health employees whose visions go beyond textbooks and "established" procedure. These public servants are part of a new breed. With a broad education that includes the humanities and social sciences as well as technology, they are sensitive to the human side of illness. They recognized the problems and found innovative answers to help their clients.

Unfortunately, these are isolated examples. Back to the story:

Grace, a Jacksonville nurse, had been a student of mine some years ago in a Center for Participant Education class at Florida State University. She had also heard one of my lectures on folk practices in rural Florida. Something about Aunt Salley struck a responsive memory from my lecture. In Tallahassee to visit friends, Grace sought me out. She told me about Salley. Grace's concern and frustration were evident. Yet no clues emerged. "After all, I'm not a doctor or a detective, just a 'people technician'," I told her.

When asked if she could think of anything unusual about Salley, Grace related the following. When she first met Salley one Wednesday morning, her daughter and granddaughter from Marianna were visiting in Jacksonville where Salley now lived with a son. When Grace came in, the daughter was busy scolding Salley because she wanted to send the granddaughter out after some "dirt" so Salley could eat it. The daughter was furious.

"Don't be stupid, Mamma, with that old slave-time stuff."

I nearly scared Grace when I leapt to my feet and literally yelled, "That's it!"

It was apparent that Salley didn't have faith in the medication offered by her nurse. Her strong will was, in essence, negating it. Salley believed in "geogeny." Don't run to your dictionary. It means "earth-eating." In parts of rural Florida, earth-eating is held in high folk regard as the treatment for certain ailments.

Some years earlier, Dr. Hale Smith and I had researched that practice in Tallahassee and found it widespread among some rural black and white communities. Grace was fascinated.

The bulk of Salley's treatment was a prescribed compound to control the diarrhea. Salley was uncooperative and seldom kept the medicine down. Armed with this information, Grace and I headed for the corner pharmacy to see a druggist, my friend Presnell at Sullivan's Drug store.

Yes, the prescribed compound did contain diatomaceous earth as a prime ingredient. The pharmacist gave us a small vial of this white medical clay for our venture. Grace returned to Jacksonville Sunday night and was at Salley's house bright and early in the morning.

Salley had been deeply hurt by her daughter's rejection of older ways. Salley was afraid and alone in a city where she had no friends or companions who shared her rural culture.

Enter Grace, the magician. With the physician's approval, Grace carefully asked Aunt Salley to explain about "dirt eating." Salley must have perceived Grace's genuine curiosity. Then Grace showed Salley the small vial of white clay.

"I seed that befoe," intoned Salley. Grace let Salley taste and approve the clay with her fingertips.

With carefully chosen words, Grace explained that the medicine contained this same special clay, which doctors knew would help her.

Salley gained a new self-respect; perhaps it was because a public health nurse showed real interest rather than feigned concern. Aunt Salley recovered quickly.

Grace still drops in to see Salley during her off time and has learned much about how rural people once cared for their own needs in the piney woods. She occasionally calls on Salley to help her explain "doctoring in the old times" and modern medicine to other old people just as alone and fearful as Salley had been.

People helping people: the heart of human service.

Begay had lived most of his life in Arizona. He was an old-time Navajo who felt lost, weak, and dying. He was living with grandchildren in Tallahassee, but he believed that all his life and strength came from his ancestral lands of the beautiful desert. He had no faith in physical medicine alone.

After all, his own culture's way was to have spiritual sings called "Hatalis." These sings, so he believed, cured body and soul both. He distrusted any medicine that cured only the body. Begay had no reason to respond to the attempts to heal him; his soul was being neglected.

A Leon County public health worker named David called me with the story. He had heard of me through a physician friend and the Chaplain Hawkins at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, who often called me when an Indian patient came into the hospital.

On the chaplain's advice David brought his problem to me. In a matter of hours I had called Margaret Kilgore of the famous Kilgore Trading Post, now in Tuba City, Arizona. Soon she called me back with the name of a Navajo living near Tallahassee. And he was a singer, too!

A short time later the young Navajo, in school at Gainesville, agreed to come to Tallahassee. His grandfather was a Navajo healer, a singer. Young Rick knew some of the ritual healing songs his grandfather had taught him. I knew one, too, given me by the Henry family.

On the tile floor of a quiet bungalow not far from the state capitol, Rick carefully laid out a small sand painting with colored sands we acquired from a local crafts shop. I did borders and background fill-ins.

Quietly, in steady form, Rick sprinkled sand and pollen [courtesy of Gramlin’s Feed Store] while a curious but understanding family practice physician [Dr. Coughlin] looked on. Rick gave the old man some weak tea and charged all disrupting forces to leave him. Rick's voice was strong, strangely lilting, as he began the chant. When he'd exhausted his song vocabulary, my turn came. I only knew one song but it had to do...

The old man's son, who had been with the Marines and fought at Iwo Jima, had long since given up what he called "useless Injun stuff." But he accompanied his father anyway. He remained distant yet curious, sitting in a corner, silently watching but scowling.

The songs, with haunting refrains, were beautiful. Begay smiled. The doctor touched the old man's forehead and smiled at Rick. "We work together," the doctor said. Begay looked up, obviously pleased at hearing these words, and said, "It is in the beauty way. All is good." Feeling secure about his soul, Begay recovered with amazing speed.

Rick, who misses his Navajo grandfather, comes often to Tallahassee to visit the old man and learn stories of long ago. And Begay's son has gained a new respect for his father's culture and no longer prevents him from talking with the grandchildren about their Navajo heritage; in fact, now he insists that his father talk about the "old ways." The son is now learning to speak Navajo again.

We are too sophisticated a people to continue to think we can and should treat only the body. The body is not an isolated but an integral part of the cultural view of its inhabiting person.

Florida has many ethnic communities with diverse origins from around the world. Yet, too often our public servants fail to recognize the important influence a person's background can have.

In Arizona, hospitals and doctors work hand in hand with Navajo singers and healers. The healers encourage people to see a physician. These are people who ordinarily wouldn't go to a doctor. Many journal articles have extolled the success of patient recovery when the best of two worlds work side by side to promote the health and welfare of all of Arizona's citizens, body & soul. This is a practice that all of us can learn from. Since this article was first published, many SW hospitals and clinics have built special rooms for this Navajo healing ritual--often next to the chapel. 

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

The names have been mostly preserved but switched around 'cause everyone will assume they have all been changed.

Back to Creek Culture