Traditional American Indian Bodywork: The Origin of Osteopathy, Polarity and Craniosacral Therapy

Excerpted from A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism, Vol. 8, #1, Spring-Summer 2015; Polarity Therapy Workbook, by John Beaulieu: 2016 edition.

It seems that the origins of Osteopathy, created by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, MD DO (1828-1917) in the late nineteenth century, indeed, lie in traditional American Indian bodywork. (I use the term “American Indian” as used by AIM in the “American Indian Movement.”) We know now that among the natives of this land, there was a healing tradition that combined a form of osteopathic massage and manipulation with energy and narrative work.

Dr. Still became a recognized physician and surgeon, although he never said where he had learned his musculoskeletal and organ massage techniques, which he called Osteopathy, he is known to have alluded to the bone-setting methods of the Shawnee at least once, as reported by the director of the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine in a lecture, who added that Still often used the phrase ‘Taking an Indian look’ at something.

“Forgetting what you know and just to quietly observe with no thoughts.”

This was followed by a quote from Still’s Autobiography: “All Nature seemed to wait in hushed expectancy. With the iron hand of will I barred the gates of memory, shut out the past with all its old ideas. My soul took on a receptive attitude, my ear was tuned to Nature’s rhythmic harmony.”

Indeed, Dr. Still lived his life, like the Native Indians, by a nature-centered belief. And when he started his medical practice, he advertised himself as a “magnetic healer” and “lightning bonesetter” before naming his methods Osteopathic Medicine.

Today, much of the traditional healing of the American Indians has been lost, because the Christian missionaries called it devil worship. However, what has survived in pockets around the country (along with Zuni and Navajo healing and bone-setting) is Cherokee bodywork, which was surely similar to Shawnee practices, since they were neighboring tribes in Virginia.

Cherokee Bodywork today is practiced and taught by Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, PhD, of Cherokee and Lakota heritage, professor at a number of colleges and universities, medical researcher, and author of many books,
including Coyote Medicine. His thesis, along with some of his colleagues, is that Dr. Still learned much of what would become Osteopathy during his years assisting his father in his medical duties among the Shawnee. Dr. Mehl-Madrona, who is seeking to honor and preserve Cherokee Bodywork, came to this conclusion after experiencing and seeing the many similarities between Cherokee Bodywork and Osteopathy.

Interestingly, this would indicate that the origins of both Craniosacral and Polarity therapy also lie in traditional American Indian bodywork, since both Dr. William Garner Sutherland, DO (1873-1954), the originator of Cranial Osteopathy (the foundation for today’s Craniosacral therapy), and Dr. Randolph Stone, DO, DC, ND (1890-1981), the originator of Polarity therapy, were Andrew Taylor Still’s students. Cherokee bodyworkers, reports Mehl-Madrona, who learned the method from two traditional Cherokee women, are masters at working with energy and the breath, and they also move cranial bones, seeking the ridges, albeit with more force than Craniosacral practitioners. They do this along with osteopathic-like massage and manipulation of musculoskeletal tissues, organs, and joints, as well as acupressure on points and energy channels (that, in fact, correspond to the meridians). They combine all this with gentle rocking and with narrative healing, both verbal and energetic, using storytelling, and dialogue with the musculoskeletal system and with the client, and intense breath work to “restore spirit” to all parts of the body, when giving treatments that they commonly refer to as “doctoring.”

Learn more about John Beaulieu’s May 2017 sonic body healing workshop and the NAHA (North American Healing Arts) Program

One comment on “Traditional American Indian Bodywork: The Origin of Osteopathy, Polarity and Craniosacral Therapy

  1. Hi,
    I am wondering if you could send me some of your resources that you are basing this article on. As a practicing Craniosacral therapist who is white, it seems pretty relevant that the field of osteopathy and craniosacral therapy have origins in native american healing, yet often do not give credit. This seems like a continuation of the colonization of native americans and part of an oppressive historical trend for white people to use teachings from native americans, but act as if it was their own discovery. It feels important for the moral compass of this field to acknowledge the suffering that takes place when white practitioners benefit financially from taking from native american teachings given the genocidal history. between white people and native americans.

    While many all over the world have likely noticed some of the same ways to treat systems in the human body, it is almost never stated that osteopathy and craniosacral therapy have taken from the wisdom of traditional native american healers. I have also read of craniosacral therapy having links to Scottish bonesetting and have an interest in learning more about that. I have previously understood craniosacral therapy to be something that was not perpetuating cultural appropriation. I want to be fair and honest when I explain the history. I will continue to think about this, and welcome input.

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