12/03/2013 03:46 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2014

An Indigenous View of Health

I have spent the better part of 2013 touring around the world with my rock band, but I've also used that time to read some fascinating books about food, medicine, and indigenous beliefs around health and ecological balance on our planet. I've also been reading about the spiraling decline of health care in the United States, which, despite the recent hullabaloo, is a decline that has been going on for many years now.

A recent NY Times editorial states that about 25 percent of young Americans will suffer from some kind of mental illness within a given calendar year. Considering the continued decline of our economy and a profit-driven health care system that is designed to enrich corporations over individuals, it's a shocking statistic to reckon with. Apparently mental illness has also invaded the ranks of the Congress, where our current Speaker of the House claims that the American health care system is the best in the world. It very clearly and obviously is not, Mr. Speaker, as the hard facts are proving.

A recent article published by NBC News combines several reputable surveys that show US health care declining in several major categories. A few alarming facts: Americans only have the eighth longest life expectancy amongst the world's developed nations, and our infant mortality is the highest amongst industrialized nations. The CIA's official website places the US at 174 between Croatia and the Faroe Islands. Americans also pay the highest out-of-pocket medical costs per capita for this increasingly unaffordable health care system, with 23 percent of Americans having trouble paying their medical bills. Another 37 percent went without recommended health care altogether because they simply could not afford it. The US spends $2.7 trillion a year on health care, but the waste is astonishing. In 2009 for example, the US spent $750 billion on bad prescriptions, medical malpractice, and general misdiagnosis. That's almost another trillion dollars in one calendar year lost on general incompetence in the American medical and pharmaceutical industries. This is not what the best health care system in the world should look like, Mr. Speaker, so please do your research a little more thoroughly next time.

With all of the political vitriol that has surrounded health care reform in this country, I thought it might be reasonable to step back for a moment and take a look at some other philosophies around health care, particularly from the indigenous peoples of North and South America. I would like to take this view primarily because our nation's own democracy is built upon the Native American League of the Iroquois, so perhaps we should look at health through the eyes of the people whose system of government we first adopted almost 250 years ago.

American history teaches us that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were both fascinated with, and heavily influenced by the Native Americans that they encountered in the northeastern United States. Our Founding Fathers sent their own educated emissaries to live amongst these indigenous people, and to learn about their famous system of government known as the League Of The Iroquois. Although Jefferson and Franklin were familiar with ancient Greek democracy, they were far more interested in the Native American version, which they saw as being the most viable model for the young American nation.

Originally representing five sovereign Indian nations (they later added more), the League had a council of elected representatives called "Sachems." If a Sachem did not uphold his office properly, he was removed by the women of his district and replaced with a more competent representative. The League worked well for centuries, and the early American leaders were amazed at the smoothness and balance of the system. This system has generally worked well for our country too -- that is, until the emergence of extremist views and corporate special interests turned our government into a morass of corruption and predatory behavior. This is because almost every Congressman and Senator is heavily influenced by the various special interests and lobbyists who contribute to their campaigns, and then press a private agenda over the will (and often the safety) of the American people. Apparently these politicians have forgotten that the role of government is to strongly regulate the predatory corporations, not the other way around. As it is now, we no longer have a functioning people's democracy; we have a corporate oligarchy that is manipulating our system of government, especially in the banking and health care sectors, where pharmaceutical and medical insurance companies write the rules of the game, to the financial detriment of the American citizen.

The indigenous view of health, on the other hand, is quite a different philosophy. In their view, the health of an individual is paramount to the health of the larger nation, since a nation is, after all, made up of many individuals. When an individual becomes sick, that sickness is felt by the larger community in a myriad of ways: The sick person can't work effectively, thus the economy suffers; they are emotionally destabilized as a result of the illness, which affects the family unit; and the general holistic view is that when a person becomes sick, the entire community is a little sicker. Thus, it is in the best interest of the nation to ensure that everyone is as healthy as possible, so that the village, town, metropolis, and nation is productive, prosperous, and in balance with itself.

I have spent a considerable amount of time observing and participating in indigenous healing practices around the world. I've served at Lakota Sundance ceremonies, I've studied in the Peruvian Amazon, and when I visited Cuba as a musical diplomat, I witnessed a remarkable healing ceremony in Havana. Outside of the Americas, I've spent time in Australia, New Zealand, and West Africa learning about the traditional beliefs and practices of various indigenous cultures. In every example I saw, there was a pattern of deep compassion for the individual, and the community came together in support of that individual. I rarely saw money being exchanged, and that's because in the indigenous view of health, a person's health is not a financial extortion process; it's a timeless way that a culture shows value for its people.

Here are a few additional facts that I've read about indigenous medicine in North and South America, and much of this I borrowed from the excellent book Indian Givers, written by the anthropologist Dr. Jack Weatherford.

The Maya, Inca, and Aztecs all had extremely well-organized health care systems that had ranks of doctors and midwives who looked after their people. The Aztecs in particular were advanced to the degree that they were performing open-skull surgeries with obsidian scalpels that were as sharp as surgical steel scalpels. When malaria was killing off the European colonists in South America, it was Inca medicine that cured it in the form of a tree bark that contained quinine, the active ingredient in anti-malaria drugs. Ipecac syrup, the original poison antidote, also comes from an Amazonian plant, and the coca leaf inspired the synthesis of Novocain for dental procedures. The willow tree gave us a natural form of aspirin, and the colonial disease of scurvy (lack of vitamin C) was cured with a pine needle tea and the introduction of citrus fruits. And speaking of foods, its worth mentioning that North and South America also gave us the tomato, potato, corn, beans, squash, sugar cane, chili peppers, coffee, tobacco (admittedly, not very good for your health), and of course, chocolate, all of which sparked the global trade economy that we all benefit from today.

My examples above do not imply that we should abandon technology or scientific advances in modern medicine. Rather, I am saying that we should reframe our philosophy on what health care actually means to our society. The early colonists took care of one another, often with the aid of the indigenous people and their medicines. Do we value our own people enough to make sure they are healthy and happy, or do we see their illnesses as a way to extract money from them? Native Americans gave us our modern system of government, incredible food and medicines, and we still seek their advice on matters of the environment, where they hold the highest understanding. Why then would we not consider their philosophy on health care as well?

The current U.S. health care model makes unhealthiness a profitable business for the enormous medical industries, and this is the unfortunate fact of any capitalized, for-profit industry that preys upon illness. A demoralized, minimum-wage work force is not going to be able to improve this situation with out sweeping health care reform beyond what we are currently trying to do. If you are already wealthy enough to have health care (like the congressmen and senators do), then you might be able afford the current model. For the rest of us however, this is not a sustainable system, and within a generation or two, we are going to have a very sick nation indeed; too sick to learn, too sick to work, and perhaps too sick to recover as a nation.

Many European and Asian countries have implemented evolved, progressive health care systems and their societies are flourishing. Why aren't we, the largest economy in the world, doing the same thing? When did America let the corporate medical industry determine the health and fate of our nation? And why do our congressmen and senators vote against the people's best interests and try to prevent real health care reform?

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as the souls who live under tyranny." To paraphrase his words, if we allow a corporate-controlled government to dictate the health laws of our nation, then we will all be living in a state of great sickness indeed. Jefferson's words are far more visionary now than they were 250 years ago; he could see this coming. He would want our nation to be healthy, productive, and in balance with the earth (Jefferson was a famer, after all). He would want us to vote out the lazy and corrupt Sachems who have disregarded the people's power in favor of their corporate overlords, and he would want us to create a health care system that revered our people as beloved countrymen.