The Scalpel and the Silver Bear


The traditional and the modern approach to medicine have improved the people’s health. This statement is clearly shown in the book, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear by Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord and Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt. Dr. Lori is a Native American woman who claims that she is the first Navajo woman to be a surgeon in the United States of America. Having being raised in Navajo and studied in Dartmouth College and Stanford University School of Medicine, Dr. Lori combines the two approaches of the modern and traditional healing. This book compares the modern practice of medicine to the Navajo traditional way of healing through the Dr. Lori’s perspective and many stories that shows the differences and similarities between the modern and traditional approach to Medicine. The book also provides the cultural and historical background of the Native American people and it also advocates for the combination of both of the Western and the Navajo traditions as an approach to healing processes (Alvord Scalpel and the Silver Bear).

In looking at how the traditional and the modern approach has helped to improve the health of the people, Dr Alvord, being the first Navajo woman surgeon, learnt to integrate the modern way of medicine into the spirit-based Native American culture way of healing. She combined the western medicine and the traditional healing. In the book The Scalpel and the Silver Bear, Dr. Alvord believed in the native healing practices and other spiritual practices. With the outcome of her patients, she came into a conclusion that the power of singing cures which is so unique as compared to the modern approach to medicine. She witnessed the power of belief to influence health as she merged the modern science medicine with the ancient tribal practices to recovery and healing using the Navajo philosophical approach of a balanced wholeness and harmonious life known as Walking in Beauty. This approach is one of the greatest Native American history and culture. Dr. Alvord believes that some illness can never be achieved in the operating room alone but through using other methods too (Alvord Scalpel and the Silver Bear).

 Since Dr. Alvord grew up within a native heritage, she followed a few of the traditional approaches in the healing process. In the book The Scalpel and the Silver Bear, when Dr. Alvord had finished her medical degree, she had to break numerous taboos while doing her surgeries. For example, she had to touch dead bodies while the Navajo never touched the dead. She also had to ask intimate question and invade other people’s space while doing a job but it was not allowed in culture to ask questions. When she practiced the Walking in Beauty philosophy, she noticed that her patients were doing better since they were calm and relaxed with is the aspect of harmony and therefore she grew more interested in the Navajo philosophy that everything in life is connected and influence every other things while practicing her work (Alvord Scalpel and the Silver Bear).

It is clear that, while Navajo way of healing relies largely on phenotypic environmental observations, the modern practice of medicine concentrates on the research side of it, to clearly analyze the situation and thus argue their conclusion on this basis.  Alvord tries to bridge and balance the western and traditional medical approaches towards healing.  I however agree that the modern and traditional approaches to medicine have improved people’s health.  One contribution that Navajo way of healing has made to the modern practice of medicine is that it has led western doctors to carrying out research on the argued cases by traditional practitioners, to prove them wrong or right.   People of the Navajo culture believe that western medicine is invasive and their doctors are impolite.  The Navajos have it that medicine and religion are one and the same. Alvord believes that while western medicine can treat the physical symptoms of a disease, traditional medicine concentrates more on healing the soul (Alvord Scalpel and the Silver Bear).

While Navajos had argued that people were falling sick due to too much rain that made pinon trees bear many nuts disrupting the world’s harmony thus resulting to sickness, the western scientists working on the 1993 “Navajo plague” figured out what was making people sick: Hantavirus, any of a genus (Hantavirus) of single-stranded RNA viruses that are carried by rodents and transmitted to humans when they inhale vapors from contaminated rodent urine, saliva, or feaces. There are many strains of Hantavirus.  When the pinon trees bore too many nuts, the mice population increased and so did their droppings. But the Dine Hataalii already knew that, and the western scientists would have known it much sooner had they listened to the Dine, who are, in Alvord’s words, “astute epidemiologists.” The hataalii don’t need microscopes because they have eyes that see (Alvord Scalpel and the Silver Bear).

There are however, certain principles that made Navajo unique, in that Navajo children never raised their hands in class, owing to the belief that this is a way of drawing attention to them (Alvord The Scalpel and the silver Bear).  “Navajos are taught from the youngest age never to draw attention to ourselves and so Navajo children do not raise their hands in class but at a school like Dartmouth, the lack of participation was seen as a sign not of humility but lack of interest and a disengaged attitude” (30).  Later in medical school she was viewed as “remote and disinterested” for similar reasons (46).  I therefore stipulate that the modern and traditional approaches towards medicine have improved people’s health.  The two approaches differ in the sense that, while traditional medicine relies on mere observations of the ‘harmony’ and ‘balance’, to judge the probability of a sickness occurring, western medicine relies on research judgments, by the help of microscopes and not eyes (Alvord The Scalpel and the silver Bear).  They are however similar in the sense that they are all geared towards eradicating diseases and in both, professionalism is the key to their success.

According to Lori Arviso Alvord who is a traditional medicine woman and also a surgeon the traditional approach restored lives out of the spiritual concerns. The use of the mainstream healing arts brought more sense to the people especially in cases concerning physical recovery. Both the traditional and modern approach to medicine have indeed improved the peoples health since in the modern sense professional activities advocates for more humanized patient care. As much as the traditional approach to medicine used the healing arts as a spiritual way of healing, the modern approach has instituted chaplains to care for the spiritual well-being of the patients. This is offered separately and hence do not interfere with the medical personnel’s work. The book reviews the importance on the improvement that has been made between the doctor and patient, hence increasing the medical personnel and other Hospital workers sensitivity towards the comfort and emotional well-being of patients.

In the Navajo way of medicine the comfort and emotional well being was taken care of by the paintings in the walls that had more soothing colours. The traditional approach learnt the value of beauty in approaching the healing processes and this worked so well to them. The author argued that the modern medical professionals need to learn the value of beauty as much as they do accuracy and authority (Alvord The Scalpel and the silver Bear). According to Alvord, “We need our Healing”(100) from the relationship that is created between the environment and the paces where hospitals and clinics are built (Alvord The Scalpel and the silver Bear)

By looking at the traditional approach by the Navajo healer she argues that the culture teaches children to be modest and self-effacing, and this helps in balancing their beauty as they get involved to things that require accuracy and authority (Alvord The Scalpel and the silver Bear).Navajo believed that medicine and religion is the same thing. this is because the western medicine can help in preventing the disease,  while healing the symptoms of a particular disease, but only Dine medicine can heal the soul which includes both the body and the spirit of a person, she argues that a patients healing is not limited to people it is not necessarily the physical healing. This is because “it is the source of joy, peace and it is the one that brings harmony into the world” (100).


The traditional and modern approaches to medicine have improved peoples health in a great way. The traditional healing has contributed to the modern healing by trusting in the power of belief to influence the people’s health for both the ill and the one’s in good health. It was discovered that the patients undergoing through the process of chemotherapy did better after having a native healer besides them who helped them in their healing process. According to Alvord the patients improved their health than the ones that had undergone through only one process of healing. Through both it found that the feelings of both the patient and the surgeon could affect the recovery time, post surgical complications, and even determines whether the patient would live or die. The secret, Lori Alvord discovered lay behind the Navajos philosophy that said of a balanced and harmonious life, which she termed as “Walking in Beauty”(100).

Works cited

  • Alvord, Lori A., and Elizabeth C. Van Pelt. The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: The First Navajo Woman Surgeon. New York: Bantam, 1999.

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