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Excerpt from "Bird Medicine"

Part 3: Birds as Messengers - Healing (and Humorous) Birds

by Evan T. Pritchard

There are a number of vital traditions still practiced today among Native American healers that might be mistaken for “faith healing.” Many Natives have told me they studied the Japanese healing art called Reiki because “it’s what we’ve all been doin’ for years now anyway, eh?” Some Native healing methods involve energy transference without touching, like Reiki, while some involve a “laying on of hands,” like in Pentecostal churches, or even “adjustments.” Others involve healing through inner transference or inner journeys. These are passed on in secret, but birds seem to know all about them.

Nuthatch’s Healing Touch

There are many stories told about how birds have helped heal humans, and in a variety of ways. Appearing in our dreams is a common method birds use to get our attention and heal us. But some birds use more hands-on methods. The nuthatch is associated with faith in spirit and putting that into action.

Angwit, a Mi’kmaq descendant who for many years has had a special relationship with birds, spoke of a time when she had a pain below her left shoulder blade and was in need of attention. She was standing outside her door on a beautiful May morning and noticed a red-breasted nuthatch looking at her from a low branch. It said, “Beep beep!” She answered, “Good morning,” in Mi’kmaq. Then she said, “You look exceptionally bright and handsome today!” In fact the bird seemed to have a bright light around it. Suddenly, the bird bolted forward and thumped her in the spot on her shoulder, making the pain disappear. The pain never came back. When she told Grandfather Turtle, he said, “That was one of your ancestors helping you!”

A Grouse with a Heart

An Anishinabi elder whose teachings I love to listen to is Eddy Stevenson. He has various climes he calls home, including an Anishinabi reserve in Canada. But one of the more remarkable bird encounters happened outside his home in Putnam County, not fifty miles from New York City, while he was doing chores.

Eddy was sitting on the driveway wall outside his house, and, as his wife was leaving the driveway in the family car, a grouse came up to Eddy and stood in front of him. The grouse was staring Eddy in the eyes. Eddy greeted the grouse. The bird jumped up onto the stone wall and walked over to Eddy. He jumped up and stood on Eddy’s left shoulder. He stretched his neck out and stared into Eddy’s left eye. Eddy just stared back. They were eyeball to eyeball. The bird was getting his attention, that was clear enough. Then the bird jumped down, walked to Eddy’s other side, jumped onto his other shoulder, then stared into Eddy’s right eye, again at close distance. Eddy was still not getting the message, so the bird jumped on top of Eddy’s long, silver head of hair and started kneading it like dough. He gave Eddy a scalp massage for a few painful minutes before Eddy placed both his hands over his head, picked up the bird, and placed it down on the ground again. He looked at the bird and said, “I have work to do, so if you’ll excuse me, I have to go.”

Eddy’s wife had asked him to place some boxes high up on a shelf outside. Eddy already had the ladder ready and was eager to go to work. He walked over to the ladder, grasped the posts, and began to climb the ladder when the same grouse bit him on the leg. Eddy got back down on the ground and stooped down a bit before the bird and explained that there was a lot of work to do and he didn’t have time for all this play. Eddy walked around doing various things, but the grouse followed him everywhere he went, as if trying to get in his way and slow him down. He went back to the ladder and started to climb, but the grouse ran over and bit his other leg, really hard. Eddy thought it might be bleeding, so he sat down again on the stone wall to take a look. He couldn’t seem to get this bird to understand anything about being a human. The bird stomped over and started poking Eddy in the chest, poking him hard near his heart. Eddy shooed him away.

Eddy’s wife came home and got out of the car, puzzled. Normally Eddy would have had all the chores done long before. “Why aren’t the chores done?” she asked. “I had a visitor!” he exclaimed. Eddy explained to his wife everything that had happened and she answered, “You need to ask your Uncle Arthur. He knows all about animals and birds.”

Eddy went to visit his Indian uncle up north, and the uncle heard the story and said, “You’re sick!”

Could it have been that simple? Eddy went to the doctor, and the doctor stared in his left eye, then stared in his right eye, and then thumped his chest, and then told him he had a heart condition and that it could be serious. The doctor said Eddy would have to “slow down, take off work for a while, and for GOD’s sake, don’t climb any ladders!”

That was the second opinion. Eddy went back to the grouse and explained all about the heart condition and the doctor visit and thanked the bird for his help. The grouse flew up in the air and disappeared and was never seen again. In fact, it was the only grouse anyone had ever seen in that part of town. In the Native world, birds are some of the best healers. They don’t charge much, and they make house calls.

Evan T. Pritchard, a descendant of the Mi’kmaq people, has taught Native American studies at Pace University, Vassar College, and Marist College and is the director of the Center for Algonquin Culture. Steeped in bird lore by his Mi’kmaq great aunt Helen Perley, he is the author of several books, including Native New Yorkers and No Word for Time. A regular on radio shows such as NPR’s Fresh Air and on the History Channel, he lives in the Hudson Valley of New York.

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Bird Medicine by Evan T. Pritchard © 2013 Bear & Company. Reprinted with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com

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