Balance Between the Worlds: A Conversation with Dr. Richard Vedan

By Carolyn Kenny


In this article, Dr. Richard Vedan, a Secwepmec, lodge keeper, and medical social worker converses with Dr. Carolyn Kenny about critical elements of medical ethnomusicology as seen and experienced through an Indigenous context. Dilemmas of individualism versus collectivism and isolation versus connectivity underlie the entire conversation. Relevant themes in the traditional use of music in Indigenous healing are discussed.

Keywords: indigenous healing, social work, living between two worlds.


 Dr. Richard W.  Vedan
Dr. Richard W. Vedan, a member of the Secwepemc First Nation in the interior of British Columbia has a career in Social Work and Social Work Education that spans five decades. Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s School of Social Work and Past Director of the UBC First Nations House of Learning; he is currently Elder Scholar for Indigenous Education in Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Education. Music of various genres has been a life-long pursuit and for the past several years he has been a chorister with the Vancouver Welsh Men’s Choir.

Though academics and modern professionals continue to invent more and more categories and subcategories to explain how music functions as a healing influence with patients and clients, the tradition of using music for healing is an old and honoured tradition that represents unique elements that are often dismissed from academic and professional dialogues as primitive and unsophisticated. Yet, there is a depth and integrity to ancient healing systems that surpasses most of these categories. (Kenny, 1982/2006).

In contemporary scholarly practice, the tendency to isolate elements of a phenomenon in order to create observable and measurable change flies in the face of the more spiritually oriented and holistic practice of healing in traditional societies that focus on traditional protocols and process.

There is a class of health practitioners that walks between the worlds of ancient and modern – a class that is continuously challenged to maintain the integrity of both traditional and Western ways of healing. Dr. Richard Vedan is one such practitioner. As a musician, lodge keeper, and medical social worker, Dr. Vedan faces this dilemma on a daily basis. I had an opportunity to have a conversation with Dr. Vedan about this dilemma and also about the general theme of medical ethnomusicology and how it is experienced in vivo. Dr. Vedan agreed to have our conversation audiotaped for the purposes of sharing his knowledge with Voices readers. What follows is the result of our time together on 4 May 2015.

Carolyn: We are both Native people and understand this notion of medical ethnomusicology from an experiential context. But my hope is to help other people who are not Native to understand this idea and how we use music in our communities. So what does “medical” mean in our Native communities.

Richard: In my understanding it is a reference to holistic health, balance of self holistically, with respect to our intellectual needs and capacities, our emotional needs and capacities, our spiritual needs and capacities, and our physical needs and capacities. So we pursue a balance within the context of these four within the cardinal directions of the Medicine Wheel – North, East, South, and West. Ill health is a consequence of falling out of balance within our own complete environment – social, ecological, and so forth. Maintaining and regaining health involves identifying what we need to do to restore balance. Having been trained as a medical social worker in the Western allopathic medical system, it’s been a journey. And it’s an ongoing journey. The biomedical system is one of the four directions. In the best of situations health care addresses all of the directions. But biomedical practitioners have on-going struggle to get there. They describe themselves as “scientists” and remarkable things are being accomplished by biomedical science and technology. However in Indigenous healing the elements of spirituality or elements of affective/emotional self are not ignored or discounted just because they are not amenable to quantitative measure. Currently many social scientists attempt to attach numbers, for example, A Likert scale, to quantify such elements. However, at some point there is a qualitative judgment. Traditional health care providers such as herbalists appreciate the need for quantitative measurement but not in a manner that discounts other elements of self. A balance of qualitative and quantitative along a spectrum contributes to holistic health.

Carolyn: So it’s a bit of a journey to walk between these two worlds if you are a health care professional.

Richard: Yes. And it’s an ongoing journey – a cyclical journey. Not walking in circles in a way, as if one is lost, but walking in a continuous journey of awareness, reflection, and continuing the journey, perhaps in a series of tangents around the circumference of ever-evolving circles. Moving forward like the wheels of a bicycle as you go round and are moving along. You are moving along in a direction across the ground or through the universe.

Carolyn: People need to understand how “Indian medicine” is expressed in a concrete way. We are going to focus on music. But I know that there are different kinds of medicine in addition to this philosophical view of the balance in the four directions. What is the list that non-Native people need to know about the types of medicine?

Richard: Well, talking, healing with herbs, engaging in physical activity (shamanism), though I’m hesitant to go into shamanism or even use that word. Individuals/healers – if you ask them for help and put tobacco down, they say, “Well, you are going to come and live with me for three months.” And that means coming and living with me for three months, moving into my residence, working on the farm and doing all the things of normal life. We are going to feed ourselves. We are going to do things to maintain our shelter and grow food and socialize and engage in ceremony. And that is the medicine. We are going to have conversations. And perhaps you are going to go off and spend some time in solitude as opposed to “being alone” and reflect on these things from time to time. So it’s an experience in living. It’s a living process – not “I’ve got a sore knee so I’ll go to the doctor and who will look at it for 15 minutes and give me a prescription and then I’ll go away so that the medicine takes place in a very discreet time frame in a specific place as opposed to 24 hours a day whether it’s a sore knee or an affective challenge.” The teachings and medicine come at a time when you may not be aware until you take the time to reflect.

Carolyn: That brings up another question. As you know, I had surgery last year. And one of my students, who is Navajo, said,” I’m going to have my grandfather, who is a medicine man, collect herbs for you and do prayers and songs.” She sent me some twigs and vines. I had very strict instructions about how to boil them, drink the tea three times a day, and do this for three weeks. Then at the end of the three weeks, I was to bury these dried/boiled plants in the Earth. I took my grandchildren to bury them and we did this together when this regime was completed. But there are a lot of things for sale that are called “Indian Medicine.” You go into stores and can buy them. This brings up the issue that you described about very individualized healing and the combinations of things like herbs, songs, conversations, living a certain way. So I’m wondering what you think about songs that are supposed to be “healing songs” that people buy on tapes and CDs in stores.

Richard: This always takes me back to words attributed to Timothy Leary –“turn on, tune in, drop out” he had very positive experiences with LSD. So he was encouraging others to also use LSD based on his experience with the expectation that everyone would achieve a higher level of insight and functioning – not taking into account that at his level of maturity and intellectual development and what he would experience would be dramatically different than someone who still has a developing personality, at an earlier stage of development, or facing life challenges and not prepared for what would be experienced.

In earlier times when the care giver and the care seeker were living in a closed circle or community one would not be encouraged to take herbal medicines in this way – to use a plant that could possibly bring harm or if they did not know if it would harm you because the information would come back within the closed circles of the community. We don’t have that same security and protection within our modern communities now. When you get something online, you might receive substances that have positive ingredients. But you don’t know if contaminants might be present. And we know that people who had roles as health care providers in pre-contact communities did not just wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to be an herbalist. And I’m going to dispense. “It was a community-wide process. They would train in an apprenticeship. There was a formal, but also informal process of mentoring/teaching. So there was quality control. This is a struggle with songs or herbal medicines or conducting sweat lodge ceremonies or any traditional ceremonies in the Big House (ceremonial space). People need to be protected through accountability. We have had episodes, for example, in the Southwest of people coming to harm in ceremonies. People were paying large sums of money to go into a sweat lodge with dozens of other people and some died. Whether the person was qualified to do that I do not know. I do know that as a lodge keeper myself, there are only so many people you can realistically take care of at one time. If you’ve got a whole lot of folks in an auditorium it’s very difficult. Buying music off the shelf is risky. Music is a medicine like LSD. It is powerful and evocative. Before he passed to the other side, I was taught by Khasalas, my friend Ernie Willie, a hereditary leader from Gwaii Village in Kingcome Inlet, that there is a duality to all things. It’s words we say, the music we hear; for example the fire that keeps us warm, heats our home and cooks our food will also kill us if we let it out of control. Water, which is the life blood of Mother Earth, needed to quench our thirst can also drown us. Again, there is a duality to medicines. Just like the quality of meditative chants like Lakota or Secwepmec or Gregorian chants or the raves – the music that takes place at raves (I’ve never been to a rave), but when people are taking non-prescription drugs and the music carries them to a point of being out-of-balance and into an unhealthy state of being, it can be a dangerous realm. So, it’s having an awareness of what can be taught, what can be achieved – it can carry you along, which can be very exhilarating. But are you jumping into the river, going with the flow, the river might take you into the rapids or over the falls or going into the river when you have some awareness of your surroundings and means of control with a paddle, rudder or anchor to keep out of harm’s way. My earliest memory of the power and beauty of music was when I was at a movie as a preschooler watching Mario Lanza sing and hearing his beautiful voice and thinking or rather feeling “I want to do that”.

Carolyn: Can you tell me specifically, how music functions as medicine in Indian Country? You’ve already touched on that a bit. But can you go a little deeper. And where does it come from? Is it from the ancestors, part of our mythology, passed down from generations?

Richard: The chants are there in all cultures. Some of our chants have words that tell a story. There are some that use sounds for biorhythms and cardiovascular movement. One of the Secwepmec songs that I have learned has gotten me through a few marathons and 10K runs when I thought, “There’s nothing left.” And then with the song I could just carry on. It’s similar to bagpipes or military drummers that have the same visceral influence. In many traditions, the songs were part of rites of passage whether it is called a Vision Quest or rites of passage. You would have a spiritual experience and you would hear a song. Or a song would come to you from a spirit creature. A lot of that was lost by the imposition of the Potlatch laws, which made it against the law to sing the songs or tell the stories or have a conversation of this nature. So we are still in a phase of recovering what was lost and trying to do it in a good way, an authentic way, and keep in balance. Anecdotally, when I sit in the lodge and I’m singing, I’m not as aware as much of when it gets hot or dark. It’s like an analgesic – breathing is a powerful analgesic. When my wife had our son, she did psychotropic breathing instead of the epidural or other biomedical anaesthetics. So breathing is very powerful. Again, there is a duality. Music can be calming. It’s also energizing and invigorating. Whether it’s Romping’ Ronny Hawkins and his Rock-a-Billy or the Pow Wow dancing or the Sun Dance music and how it carries you. The difference is between singing in solitude in one’s own lodge or in a forest glade where you are sitting in isolation for four days where you have a drum, a rattle, or a flute or other instrument and whether you are being meditative by yourself or sitting around a Pow Wow drum or hand drums in a circle. It can be powerful at the individual level and also at the collective level – ultimately layers upon layers. In the sweat lodge, it would be interesting to be connected to the heart monitors and blood pressures monitors and see what would happen in the lodge. Things change. I’m sure music therapists have done that. That feedback offers lots of evidence.

One of the challenges for me is keeping my two identities as a clinical social worker and a lodge keeper separate. I’ve tended to keep my professional social worker identity and my lodge keeper identity separate for the most part. I’ve never said, “We are going to sing a song now as part of this interview dealing with your acute anomic depression.” But if they wanted to sing a song, that would be good and healing. But I’ve never used this specifically as my clinical bag of tricks. However, it is part of what I do, for example in a classroom when students are struggling with a concept of a piece of history. And it works. It works very well.

Carolyn: So it sounds like you have to constantly negotiate the two worlds. Yes, this is true for many of us – many Native people who are trying to be in the modern world as professionals yet we have these other identities as Native healers.

Richard: You are probably familiar with Ovid Mercredi and Mary-Ellen Tupel-LaFonde ‘s book “In the Rapids” about the struggles of Aboriginal/First Nations identity. I borrow from their book on occasions when people say, “It must be nice to be in two worlds to have a foot in each of two cultures like a bridge.” And I reply that it’s not so much I feel like I have one foot in each culture. It’s like I have my left foot in one canoe and the other foot is in another canoe. And I’m in the rapids and I have to deconstruct the canoes from a Western paradigm to a traditional paradigm and not drown in the process and sing songs along the way.

Carolyn: That’s probably what keeps you going – the songs.

Richard: Yes!!

Carolyn: Can you describe one or two examples of how you have used music as medicine in your own healing work – healing others or healing for yourself?

Richard: Last time I used music as medicine was for myself. I was getting a CT scan and dealing with claustrophobia. In order to remain very still, I told the technician, “If you hear some noise, I’m singing a song.” I was there but I was in another place. I’ll draw a parallel. Perhaps the Eucharistic Mass follows the pattern of the sweat lodge. There are certain songs you sing in a particular order just to give continuity so people can anticipate the journey. There may be work that needs to be done where you will bring in another song or part of a song to deal with someone’s needs. That is a very organic process. We open the book. And we are going to leave a trail of breadcrumbs and we get into the journey. We open the book and say prayers to the Creator and to the four directions. Then we do the work. Then you close the book. Everyone gets a chance to participate. If people are facing challenges, whether emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or physical I invite them, to talk about that within the safety and confidential form of the talking circle. Sometimes that talking circle is done in the sweat lodge. And if they feel that a song would be appropriate to help them get to where they want to be, we have a drum in the lodge. And we allow them to do that. They might ask for something special. And we do that. We have respect for tradition. We haven’t done the typical scientific quantitative studies. But there are enough stories that you see how it works.

Carolyn: So there is, then, a bridge between these two worlds. And part of the bridge is constructed through the privacy so anything that happens in the lodge is confidential. That’s an interesting bridge. You can’t do a study like an Randomized Clinical Trial (RCT) about what happens in the lodge or in a talking circle.

Richard: Again, how does one become a pipe carrier or, lodge keeper? In earlier times within the closed circle of the community, the confidentiality, trust and safety was assured by the close circle of the community. If you’ve got a charismatic individual, who has a very compelling voice or appearance and is a predator, sadly, in those situations in which the person has been a victim him/herself, then medicines can be used and songs can be used for good and for evil purposes – one must get back to the teachings of the Big House, the Hamatsa, or the person in the sweat lodge would be aware and be given an awareness of self and the world around them. It was important that you could help your community or take advantage with that knowledge. This is just like the interpretations of psychology. Music is very much a part of marketing strategies. Is that being used for primordial, visceral reactions to hook people?

Carolyn: We have examples like the Aryan Resistance who use their music to attract the youth. They have many, many bands that try to advance their agenda. Or we have seen how Hitler used music in so many ways.

Richard: While listening to Evensong in Salsbury Cathedral – beautiful choir and the heraldry – I said to my cousin, “Pete, if someone said to me, “Run over that hill and get your butt shot off for queen and country the way I feel motivated by the music and our surroundings.” With music, you never know what is going to come out. Again, just taking a piece of music off the shelf and plug it into an iPod or CD player and expect only a whole lot of positive things to happen is naïve and not responsible. Well, one can get triggered. It’s facile like thinking that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is simply just waiving your hands and asking the person to say whatever words come to mind in order to heal and the world will be a better place.

I was remembering that the one occasion that my father Hector came into the lodge, he had to have some surgery. And he was getting ready. He knew that we had a lodge at The University of British Columbia (UBC) and he asked to come. Of course we sang songs. It had been 60 years since he had previously been in the lodge. I wrote about this in my dissertation. That was music for medicine. He was aware of it even though he hadn’t heard the message for 60 years. He had been taught by my grandfather, Johnny Peters, that when you are facing biomedical challenges and are having a surgery, being balanced emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and physically, in all four directions was important.

Carolyn: Well, I think this story about your father is a good place to end, Richard. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us right in the middle of balance in the Four Directions and healing.


In this conversation, the important themes of context, balance, metaphor, power and accountability arise.

Within the context of Indigenous healing, music is one element in a set of healing elements that serve those who are “out of balance.” Music is often used in conjunction with taking herbs, talking, living with a healer, Vision quests, and other traditional practices that help to bring the patient into balance with her/his emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical self with an emphasis on the Four Directions. The calling forth of the Four Directions connects us to the Earth and the power of Mother Earth. A core principle of Indigenous knowledge and especially Indigenous healing is that all things are connected. If we become out of balance within ourselves and in relation to the Earth, we are sick.

Dr. Vedan emphasizes the power of music and that it can be used to improve or diminish one’s health. Therefore we cannot say that “Music Heals” in a blanket statement. The ability of music to heal depends on the moral integrity of the healer or health practitioner, their own balance, and their understanding of how their own developmental issues of healing interact with the patient and the music.

In Indian country, metaphors often communicate much more than abstract concepts because they offer an image and sensory understanding of some phenomenon. Dr. Vedan makes use of this more comprehensive way of sharing traditional knowledge when he describes his own process of identity formation as both professional social worker and Native lodge keeper. He strives to stay balanced with one foot in each canoe to navigate the shifting waters of change and difference. The river is a constant metaphor that we see a great deal in Indigenous scholarship and, in general, the written works of Native people (Kenny, 2015). And finally, he offers the metaphor of the modern day bicycle, to connote both straight lines and ever increasing concentric circles on our journeys into healing.

“Medical Ethnomusicology” might be a fairly recent category on the spectrum of the ever increasing circles of knowledge in academia. Yet, the practice of including music as one of the primary elements in keeping us in balance is very old, indeed.


Kenny, C. (1982 & 2006). The mythic artery: The magic of music therapy. Ridgeview Publishing Co.

Kenny, C. (2015). Leadership found. In Minthorn, R. S. & Chavez, A. (Eds.), Indigenous leadership in higher education. New York & London: Routledge Publishing.

Vedan R. W. (2002). How do we forgive our fathers: Angry/violent Aboriginal/First Nations men’s experience with social workers. Simon Fraser University dissertation. UMI Dissertations Publishing, NQ81698.