Cutting into sacred territory

A Navajo medical student faces one of the strongest taboos of her culture -- touching the dead.

Topics: Medicine, Books,

Soon after I started my medical studies, I was standing before a long metal table with three other medical students one day when I faced my ultimate challenge.

On the table was a long black bag with a zipper running down the middle. In the air around us, assaulting our sinuses, was the sharp chemical smell of formaldehyde. Inside the bag was a dead person — a cadaver.

It had been assigned to our group, and we were expected to dissect it, organ by organ, limb by limb, learning by touch, sight, and firsthand experience the contours, textures, colors, and inner realms of the human body.

I had known this was coming. We all did, and everyone felt some degree of discomfort about this part of our education. The cadaver stage of medical school has been chronicled profusely. Some students name their cadavers — names like Louise, Jim or Butch. It is a tactic to relieve the discomfort of knowing that before us lies a person who lived life as we do, felt jealousy and fear, and perhaps made art, wrote poetry, raised children and sacrificed for them, decorated Christmas trees, wrapped birthday presents, had been in love and in lust, had had a broken heart.

But beyond all of this, I had to combat another level of discomfort; Navajos do not touch the dead. Ever.

It is one of the strongest rules in our culture. The dead hold ch’iindis, or evil spirits, that are simply not to be tampered with. When a person dies, the “good” part of the person leaves with the spirit, while the “evil” part stays with the physical body. That belief is so strong that before the advent of mortuaries, Navajos sought out Pueblo Indians, missionaries, white traders or other outsiders to bury their dead. When a person dies in a hogan, the hogan is destroyed. Sometimes Navajo people nowadays bring their dying relatives to the
hospital simply to prevent them from dying in their home. In many other cases hospitals are avoided. Navajo people know that death lies inside hospital walls, and therefore hospitals are filled with ch’iindis.



Many strong superstitions about the dead are woven throughout our beliefs. Sometimes a dead person can become a skinwalker. A young woman from a sheep camp near Farmington, N.M., above the San Juan River was said to have turned into a skinwalker. A mud clan man from Lukaichukai was made lame after he touched the body of a dead horse, which had also been lame. A healthy man from Tuba City, Ariz., died in his sleep after touching the body of his dead uncle. While there was no shortage of such stories, they were whispered things that I’d caught only in passing conversations between the old people or my aunts or my grandmother and her sister. Mostly these things, thought too terrible, were not discussed. Even speaking the word “death” holds bad karma for a Navajo.

There may have been sound reasons for the Navajo taboo about touching the dead, as there are for the Jewish stricture against eating pork. At the time when the Jewish taboo was set in place, pork often carried the dreaded trichinosis. Dead bodies, too, can be infected with possibly contagious disease. Perhaps long ago an astute Navajo medicine man figured out that touching a corpse might unknowingly spread disease. But whatever the reason, from the earliest age, a Navajo person becomes aware of this aversion. My grandmother and aunts spoke many times of the terrible things that could transpire if someone were to touch or brush against a dead person: things like madness, loss of fertility, death. One who has brushed against a corpse needs to undergo a ceremony (Enemy Way) to purify and release the ch’iindi spirit. It is an elaborate and costly event.

In medical school this taboo confronted me on every level. Never before had I been asked to do anything that directly violated the beliefs of my culture. Had I been more sophisticated, I might have requested some kind of permission from the dean of students to watch instead of touch, on the grounds that it violated my culture. Certain schools today may make allowances or concessions for such a taboo — much of what is learned from dissecting a cadaver can be gotten from books, from 3-D holograph computer programs whose images simulate the human body or from “virtual” body programs. But at the time I felt that I had no option. If I wanted to become a doctor, I had to dissect.

Standing in front of my cadaver I thought back on stories about this person and that person who had touched a dead thing, and the consequences that befell them.

I thought about all the ch’iindis of all the dead people
around me in that lab room. I looked at the faces of my classmates. They too looked slightly nervous and a little edgy. I think all medical students approach their first cadaver with some trepidation. I wondered if my classmates could read my face and see that I was feeling the bitter taste of fear rising in the back of my throat.

The zipper on the black bag was opened. I looked down, bracing myself.

There below me was an older male of medium build. His skin was shriveled and toughened by formaldehyde, a slate-gray color that I’d never seen on a living person. At first glance, it was revolting and I struggled to quell my nausea. With its lifeless color, the cadaver almost appeared to be a plastic or rubber doll, with shapes that could have been human features at one time, but had ceased to be. Its nonhuman appearance helped me forget that this had once been a real, breathing home for a human soul. I shifted my gaze away from the corpse’s face, and leaned hard against the table to still the dizziness.

The experience would have been much worse for a traditional Navajo. After all, I am half bilagcaana and come from a relatively modern family, and I knew I should set aside these
beliefs as superstitions. But even for me the problem arose. As I glanced again at the gray, rubbery form that had once been a man, I thought: What will happen to me if I do this?

By this time, my desire to become a doctor was very strong, as I am sure it is for all medical students. We were studying hard, training hard and had competed against difficult odds just to be admitted to Stanford’s halls, which had their own kind of sacredness. There had been more than 4,000 applications for our coveted 86 spots. At this point, although a part of me was terrified of the next step forward, I knew there was no going back.

OK, I thought. This is what I want, the knowledge I acquire here is like that of a medicine man. I will be able to bring home a tremendous gift. And if I am good enough, my work could even fight processes that cause death. In the course of a career, I could help thousands of my people.

Cast in this light, my decision became easier. I took a deep breath. Someone handed me a scalpel. I’m not afraid, I told myself. I’m not afraid. I reached down to the shape below me and slid the scalpel into the skin.

) 1999 by Lori Arviso Alvord, M.D., and Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt. Used with permission of the publisher.

Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt is a staff writer at the New York Post. She lives in New York.

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