Ask Estelle Thomson how she became the Traditional Healer at the Dena’ina Wellness Center, and she shares a defining story.
A few years ago, Thomson was running a massage-therapy business in Anchorage and wanted to learn about alternative medicine. Problem was, no schools in the area offered the curriculum she sought.
So she called the Southcentral Foundation, hoping for any kind of lead – and landed a meeting with the director of the wellness department. Not long into the meeting, Thomson knew it had promise.
“Instead of me asking all the questions, he started asking all the questions,” she remembered, comparing it to an interview.
Sure enough, Thomson went on to earn an apprenticeship with the foundation’s traditional healing program. She became a Certified Tribal Doctor within a year.
The tribe hired Thomson as its first traditional healer in April 2015 and officially blessed her program during a recent dedication ceremony for Ggugguyni T’uh, Raven Plaza, at the Dena’ina Wellness Center.
For Thomson, who is Yup’ik and from Hooper Bay, it was a proud moment.
“I’ve never felt so embraced by a community,” she said.
Traditional healing in an indigenous practice that takes a holistic approach toward wellness, addressing the natural, emotional and spiritual elements of a person’s health in addition to the physical aspects.
Thomson’s customers – or “un’ina” – have access to prayer and guided meditation, song and dance, traditional plant medicine and foods, talk story, healing circle, cleansing and blessing, and more. The physical components of her program include soft and connective tissue manipulation, bone and joint manipulation, energy and circulatory work, lymphatic drainage, and more.
The program fits into the tribe’s integrated approach to care, giving customers access to a wide range of services beneath one roof.
“I work with physical, emotional and spiritual issues – and they are all tied together,” Thomson said.
When Thomson meets new customers, she asks them a wide range of questions – about sleep patterns, family history, allergies and more – to gain insight into their situation. It’s an evaluation process Thomson compares to peeling away layers, the goal being to get to the root of the issue.
And it’s a useful process, Thomson said, because pain can stem not just from mechanical issues but also emotions.
“I look at things a little bit differently,” Thomson said. “I look not just at the issue someone is dealing with, but also the causation.”
Thomson has been working primarily with Elders since April, but she anticipates broadening the customer base and expanding services over time.
Director of Health Systems Dr. John Molina said traditional healing is an important component of the wellness center’s repertoire of services.
“Estelle’s traditional healing program provides the tribe the opportunity to embrace and strengthen their cultural values and traditions,” said Dr. John Molina, Director of Health Systems. “For our customers, un’ina, it provides a more holistic approach to healing, by addressing the natural and spiritual elements of healing and health.”
For Thomson, the best part of the job is helping people.
Some customers have dealt with pain and other issues for so long that by the time they see Thomson, they have forgotten what it feels like to be well.
“The biggest compliment is when people I see say, ‘I pay attention to how I feel. I feel better because you showed me how to,’” Thomson said.