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In this exhibit, the authors (Coty Brayboy and Nirav Lakhani), present our research on Lumbee Healing Practices. Traditional practices amongst the Lumbee are well documented in literature, but remain mostly out of sight of the average non-Indian. For this reason, our approach in this exhibit is two fold. First we seek to document traditional and western methods of healing practices.  Next, we hope to encourage discussion on how best to unite Western Medicine with traditional healing practices. To help provide perspective on this, our research seeks discussion with healers established in Western and Traditional Medicine as well as the help of folk culturalists well versed in dialogue reflecting the Lumbee tradition and rationale.

Primary Sources

Representing traditional practices, our exhibit provides documentary research on the tradition of fire talking. Our source of knowledge is the respected elder and fire blower to the Lumbee Community, Mary Locklear. Mary Locklear is a Lumbee tribal elder originally from St. Pauls, NC. She is a traditional healer and combines both Lumbee folk culture and Christianity in order to be a more effective and influential person in the community. She is an excellent primary resource due to her knowledge base of the practices and willingness to educate outsiders about them. As Mrs. Locklear says, “fire talking compliments western medicine and it is important for her people to continue to use it”.

Representing western practices, our exhibit provides documentary research on the interaction between contemporary physicians and residents of Robeson County. Our contributing source for knowledge and experience is practicing pediatrician and MD Dr. Joseph Bell. Dr. Bell is a Lumbee pediatrician devoted to service. He graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Medical School and completed his residency in Oklahoma. He worked for Indian Health Service for four years in order to fulfill his obligations to a scholarship he was awarded. Dr. Bell is a prominent pediatrician in Lumbee country today and serves at one of the largest American Indian pediatric clinics in the country. We also value his expertise in both Western Medicine and traditional healing practices. He is a member of the Association of American Indian Physicians and one of the objectives of the organization is to combine western medicine and traditional healing practices in order to provide a holistic approach to the healthcare of American Indian communities.

Our final primary source is Tasha Oxendine. Mrs. Oxendine is the Marketing Director of the Givens Performing Arts Center at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke. She is a member of the Lumbee tribe and a 1995 alumna of UNCP. Mrs. Oxendine’s current projects include producing a documentary on Lumbee Folk Culture with references to traditional healing practices. We look to Mrs. Oxendine’s expertise to give help us connect our documented healing practices in Robeson County with Lumbee Folk Culture.

Section I: Traditional Healing Practices

Part A-Assorted  methods

The healing practices of the Lumbee/Tuscarora people reflect their diversity and their coalescence as a tribal community. The community is unique because members fuse indigenous, western and Christian methods of healing together to create a dynamic approach to integrated medicine. These three methods are intricately interwoven and help to form the basis of Lumbee/Tuscarora healing and faith.

Lumbee/Tuscarora Indians take what are usually seen as three separate practices- traditional healing, Christian faith, and western medicine, and fuse them together. This may appear to be contradictory, because western medicine with its root in randomized controlled testing and clinical trials cannot support traditional practices, and Christian faith healers often reject any other interventions besides prayer.  However, Lumbee/Tuscarora people have found a way for these three schools of healing to coexist in complimentary ways.

When speaking with community members the one word that often stuck out was “faith”.  One scripture that is often quoted when talking with Lumbee/Tuscarora people is Luke 17:16 “And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.” This scripture helps to explain how Indians in this community view healing and the importance of faith. Faith healing means more than just praying or laying on of hands in Robeson County.  It actively incorporates traditional practices, because healers often attribute the success of their Indian method to God.

Common Healing Practices

  1. Prayer Cloth: In some Lumbee/Tuscarora communities, a common healing practice is using a prayer cloth. This is usually a white cloth that represents purity and sanctification that is prayed over and anointed with oil by church elders. The cloth is then given to a person with a need in their life, usually someone with a chronic illness. It is believed that the faith of those who prayed over the cloth travel with the cloth.  Thus, there are continuous prayers being sent up for the person wearing/using the prayer cloth.  The cloth also serves as a reminder to the person using/wearing it that their community is praying for them and that God is able to heal them from whatever ailment they are afflicted with.
  2. Taking to the Alter/Laying of Hands: This method is one of the only methods that can be placed into a single category, and not everyone in the community practices this method. This method comes from Christianity, and it is believed that those with the gift of “laying of hands” are anointed by the Holy Ghost or the spirit of God. Usually when someone is laying hands on the sick, they anoint them with oil and pray. Oftentimes, those praying are conversing with God in glossolalia, and they speak directly to the ailment. Many times they command the ailment to flee from the person’s body. The person or people that are laying hands or simply touching the person are believed to possess a gift the was given to the Gentile Nation on the day of Pentecost as described in the Book of Acts in the Bible.However, similar methods can be found in different cultures and communities throughout the world. One of the most similar methods that is not directly linked to any religion is Reiki, a Japanese healing method that is less than 100 years old.
  1. Blowing Fire/ Whooping Cough/ Warts: This is a practice that is not used by everyone in the community; however, those families that are considered to be more traditional still use it today. This method involves the healer and the affected person. Usually the healer is thought to poses a gift from God that allows them to blow or talk directly to the energy that is causing the burn, cough or wart. The healer blows or talks over the affected area either by blowing in the person’s mouth, on the burn or the wart. Sometimes the healer prays a Christian prayer and other times they pray a non-Christian prayer that is not recognizable or understood by spectators.
  2. Nose Bleed: In order to stop a nose bleed, it is a common practice for someone to read Ezekiel 16: 6-9 to the person who is bleeding. The scripture talks about blood and one’s own blood.
  3. Chicken Pox/ Varicella Zoster: A practice that very few Lumbee/Tuscarora Indians still use today is placing a child who is infected with Chicken Pox in a Chicken Coop and allowing the chicken to jump over the child’s head. This is a faith based practice that many elders describe as their only method to cure this infection when they were growing up. One elder said this was common, because Indian parents could not afford to bring their children to the doctor.  Thus, this method was the most accessible to the community.
  4. Shingles/ Herpes Zoster:  This is another faith based practice that is seldom used by many people in the community, because it involves blood. When someone is diagnosed with Shingles, then the blood of a black chicken is spread over the infected area. Once the blood dries, the individual is prayed for and then the blood is cleaned away. Some people in the community have a prohibition against this method, because it involves “sacrificing” an animal for its blood.  This act may seem sacrilegious, because some much of the Lumbee/Tuscarora view it as heretical.  Christianity is centered on the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the shedding of his blood.
  5. Rusty Nail: Another less common remedy treats infection or potential Tetanus from stepping on a rusty nail. This practice has fallen out of favor, because most people have vaccinations.  However, stepping on a rusty nail once was a common problem, because many Indian people worked in agriculture barefoot and were often exposed to rusty nails that would be lying outside in the fields or in the tobacco barns. The person preparing the remedy combines corn cobs, chicken feathers and kerosene in a bucket and ignites a fire. A wool cloth is then placed over the bucket so only the smoke is visible. The injured person then places his/her foot over the bucket and allows the smoke to purify their wound.
  6. Insect Stings: A common healing practice that is not talked about very often in the community is a cure for an insect sting.  When someone is stung by an insect, a person who chews or dips tobacco will spit tobacco juice on the inflamed area. This method is discussed very little outside of families because of the stigma associated with chewing tobacco or dipping snuff. The majority of elders in the community use these products.  They were able to develop a remedy that was easily accessible to them, because they could not afford antihistamines or medical care when necessary.

Discussion of various folk remedies


Part B-Practice of Fireblowing

Fire blowers specifically often attribute their gift to God.  When talking with Mrs. Josephine Wilkins, a fire blower, she said that her success in healing proved the existence of her Christian faith.  She argued that she must have faith in order for her actions to successfully heal the burn victim. In essence, she explained to us that she had to wholeheartedly believe that her prayer would be heard and answered by God.  She perceives her role in the community as an intermediary vessel.  Through her talent, God manifests Himself in her life and receives glory when she uses the gifts He bestowed upon her.

Ms. Josephine-Worst burn she has treated


Fire blowers are not the only ones who believe in this concept.  Many Indians credit their knowledge of traditional practices (listed below) to God.  They think that God gave their ancestors specific healing practices, and using these practices today continues to honor God.  There really is little separation in the community with regard to these three healing methods. While shadowing Dr. Bell and various other practitioners, I have witnessed doctors and nurses pray with patients to the Christian God before they begin treatment, because they likewise believe He will guide the practitioners throughout the treatment.

Ms. Josephine-Method of Fireblowing


Ms. Josephine-Passing on her Gift


Section II: Modern Medicine in Robeson County

Dr. Bell, who is a pediatrician, is a Christian who presents both western and herbal medicine options to his patients.  He explained how people can use one, the other or both in complimentary ways.  He takes this stance, because it helps teach parents and children that there are alternative methods of healing. He says that medicine is not always about the outcome but rather it is about how a patient deals with their illness and how they are able to incorporate it into their life.  This opinion about herbal remedies helps to solidify patients’ identities as Indian people, because they have unique methods of healing available to them as treatment options.  Dr. Bell discusses herbal remedies with a mother whose son was diagnosed with ADHD.  The mother is willing to try the herbal remedies first before she seeks any prescription drugs for her son’s illness. Dr. Bell explains to the mother the various options that are available at the local herbal store in Pembroke and what each remedy is best known for.

Shadowing Dr. Bell-Patient #1, Mother of child with ADHD


Shadowing Dr. Bell-Patient #2, Mother of child with Brain Tumor


Section III: Reflections on the union of traditional and modern medicine in Robeson County.

Dr. Bell-Choosing between traditional and modern treatment with Cancer



As one elder told me, “these remedies were used for our time and our space.” She said “I am sure there are better methods today, but when I was growing up we did not have access to healthcare”.  Therefore, the community had to rely on their faith in God. She believes that God gave her people these methods and remedies in order to take care of themselves during their time and space. She said that she does not see why modern medicine would reject these practices, because they worked for her people in the past and sometimes continue to work.
In essence, the healing practices practiced by many members of the community are results of adaptation and survival. Historically much of the tribal community lived below the poverty level and were not provided with services that Federally Recognized communities received. Tribal members used these healing methods to sustain the community and combat common problems. They truly believed that God had given them these methods as a way to survive and per cur a future for their nation. Additionally, I argue that some elders or more traditional people are resistant to completely relying on modern medicine, because it removes their self-sufficiency.  This is probably why people like Dr. Bell continue to incorporate or at least recognize these methods.  Even if people decide to choose to see a doctor instead of using a home remedy for Tetanus, at least they feel like they had the option of either practice.  Thus, they still had a choice and retain self-sufficiency with God’s guidance in their lives and their healing practices.

Sources/Suggested Reading

Croom, Edward M., Jr. “Herbal Medicine Among the Lumbee Indians.” Herbal and Magical Medicine: Traditional Healing Today.  Eds. James K. Kirkland, Holly F. Matthews, Charles Sullivan III, Karen Baldwin. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992. 137-165.

Kirkland, James. Herbal and Magical Medicine. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.
Boughman, Arvis Locklear, and Loretta O. Oxendine. Herbal Remedies of the Lumbee Indians. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003.
“The evidence of things not seen” : faith and tradition in a Lumbee healing practice. Steedly, Mary Margaret, 1946-. Published 1979.

One Response to “Healing Practices”

  1. Sally C

    I am very excited to find this site. My dad had talked about his mother and her ability to blow fire. She told my dad she would pass the gift down to him but she passed away when my dad was young. Sadly the gift was never past down to any of her children and her gift died with her.

    My dad did mentioned that he at one time found the prayer written down but didn’t remember the words. He regretted not being able to have the gift. He said if he had he would have past it down to his daughters. According to my grandma she was only able to share her gift to the opposite sex. My dad has past away many years ago and I have not heard of blowing fire since then. It’s was great to be able to listen to Ms.Josephene talk about it.

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