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The primary function of these "medicine elders" is to secure the help of the spirit world, including the Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka in the language of the Lakota people), for the benefit of the entire community. Sometimes the help sought may be for the sake of healing disease, sometimes it may be for the sake of healing the psyche, sometimes the goal is to promote harmony between human groups or between humans & nature.
So the term "medicine man/woman" is not entirely inappropriate, but it greatly oversimplifies and also skews the depiction of the people whose role in society complements that of the chief. These people are not the Native American equivalent of the Chinese "barefoot doctors", herbalists, nor of the emergency medical technicians who ride rescue vehicles.
To be recognized as the one who performs this function of bridging between the natural world and the spiritual world for the benefit of the community, an individual must be validated in his role by that community. Medicine men and women study through a medicine society or from a single teacher.
The term "medicine people" is commonly used in Native American communities, for example, when Arwen Nuttall (Cherokee) of the National Museum of the American Indian writes, "The knowledge possessed by medicine people is privileged, and it often remains in particular families."
Native Americans tend to be quite reluctant to discuss issues about medicine or medicine people with non-Indians. In some cultures, the people will not even discuss these matters with Indians from other tribes. In most tribes medicine elders are not expected to advertise or introduce themselves as such. As Nuttall writes, "An inquiry to a Native person about religious beliefs or ceremonies is often viewed with suspicion. One example of this was the Apache medicine cord or Izze-kloth, whose purpose and use by Apache medicine elders was a mystery to nineteenth century ethnologists because "the Apache look upon these cords as so sacred that strangers are not allowed to see them, much less handle them or talk about them."
The 1954 version of Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, reflects the poorly grounded perceptions of the people whose use of the term effectively defined it for the people of that time: "a man supposed to have supernatural powers of curing disease and controlling spirits." In effect, such definitions were not explanations of what these "medicine people" were to their own communities, but instead reported on the consensus of socially and psychologically remote observers when they tried to categorize these individuals. The term "medicine man/woman," like the term "shaman", has been criticized by Native Americans, as well as other specialists in the fields of religion and anthropology.
While anthropologists sometimes use the term "shaman," for Indigenous healers, "shaman" is the specific name for a spiritual mediator from the Tungusic peoples of Siberia, and is not used in Native American or First Nations communities.
Some people believe native American healing can be used to treat a variety of human ailments including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. However, according to the American Cancer Society while its supportive community aspects might improve general well-being, "available scientific evidence does not support claims that Native American healing can cure cancer or any other disease".