Marilyn Youngbird, a tribal member of the Arikara and Hidatsa nations, is a renowned holistic health care practitioner, teacher, and lecturer who has presented cultural sensitivity training and Native American healing workshops all over the world, including in the United States, Canada, Japan, Sweden, Russia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her classes on interfacing traditional Native American medicine and Western medicine have been presented at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Medicine, Dartmouth College School of Medicine, and the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. Marilyn has served as liaison between White House staff and USSR Central Committee members at the United States-Soviet Glasnost Conference, Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the State of Colorado, and Trustee of the American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation. Her presentations and seminars have introduced people from around the globe to the tenants underlying Native American philosophy and medicine.
Q. What experiences put you on your spiritual path?
A: I wouldn’t call it a spiritual path or say that I am a spiritual leader. The word spiritual is problematic. People may think it means something superhuman—that I have some special power, which they do not. This misperception could cause them to want to follow me instead of taking responsibility for their own lives. Look at the Dalai Lama. People want to make him into a god, but he is the first to say that he is only a man.
Each of us counts. Each of us has a purpose for being here. It’s our responsibility to figure out what that is and then live it. We are here to be ourselves. We are here to bring our mind, body, and spirit into harmony because, without our spirit, our physical self wouldn’t exist.
That being said, I can tell you about my path. I was born in a tight-knit community where the children belonged to everyone. When a baby was born, we all gathered and shared what we thought the child was meant to do. My gift was vision. I could see things and they nurtured this gift by encouraging me to share what I saw. This gift was also in my family. My grandmother was the chief’s daughter, so she and my mother had special responsibility to take care of the tribe. As a result, they paid attention to their visions and to nature—the animals, trees, elements, and Mother Earth. For example, they listened to the thunder and wind and knew when it would rain. So my siblings and I adopted their ways like little ducklings following their mother. The mother duck doesn’t have to teach her ducklings how to swim. She just jumps in the water and they instinctively follow.
When I was seven, I had rheumatic fever. It left my heart weak and my body paralyzed. My younger cousin also had rheumatic fever and passed away into spirit. A Western medical doctor told my parents the same would happen to me. It was just a matter of time. While I was in the hospital, my grandpa and grandma (who was a medicine woman) came to pray for me. They prayed so sincerely to our Earth Mother, the universe, and all the elements. They believed that once you asked for help, your prayer had been heard and would come in the manner it was supposed to. In thirty days, I was up running around again. I believe my heart healed because of the sincerity of their prayer. Now, seventy years later, here I am.
Q. Shamans often go through an apprenticeship and a dramatic turning point that represents their death and rebirth. Does your almost dying from rheumatic fever and having your grandparents pray for you fit this, or is there more to the story? (Melanie Mulhall, shaman, and author asks this question.)
A: There was no big “aha” moment for me. It’s been a natural evolution and way of life. I do remember something though. When I was in the hospital with rheumatic fever, I had a wonderful nurse named Barbara. She treated me like her own child. She would play her phonograph records, talk to me, and bathe me. She also gave me therapy for my paralysis by lifting my arm and squeezing a comb in my hand to help me brush my hair. One day, I was lying in bed when a beautiful, brown skinned man with natural clothes came into the room. He stood at the foot of my bed and told me his name was Elijah. He then smiled, prayed, and touched my toes saying, “You are going to be okay.” I was so excited, yet so afraid, because I didn’t know this man. He left and Barbara came in. I said to her, “A man came to see me named Elijah.” She replied, “I didn’t see anyone.” So I asked my grandma and grandpa, “Is there someone named Elijah here?” They replied, “No, there is no one named Elijah.” It wasn’t until eight years ago that I met Elijah again when he came to sweat lodge. That’s when I realized it was the Christian Elijah. Many saints like the Blessed Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael come to the lodge. I don’t really talk about it because I know they are supporting me with the people I am supposed to help. Occasionally, when it’s really exciting, I will tell someone about it. Oh, the stories I could tell . . . but it would take seventy years.
For the rest of the interview, please check out the book, Seek The Lover Within: Lessons from 50 Spiritual Leaders.