Ancestors of Liberation Acupuncture! In Postcards!

This is a guest post by James Shelton of POCA Tech's Cohort 1.

For my capstone project at POCA Tech, Cohort 2 student Kate Kampmann and I created a series of images honoring 7 people whose life's work contributed greatly to what we now term Liberation Acupuncture. These are the Ancestors of Liberation Acupuncture.

Gustavo Gutierrez was born in Lima, Peru in 1928. He is an originator
and leading proponent of Liberation Theology. The phrase, “a preferential option for the poor” is attributed to him.  If a practice doesn't work for the poorest people, then it doesn't work. This ethos is foundational to Liberation Acupuncture.

Ignacio Martín-Baró was born in Spain in 1942. He worked largely in El
Salvador. A proponent of Liberation Psychology, Baró was adamant that
a practice had to be useful and valuable to the popular majority.
One could not import a European styled psychology for a Central
American peasantry with their differing experiences of imperialism and poverty. Similarly,
Liberation Acupuncture must adapt the delivery of healthcare to the
needs of the underserved American people.  Baró was
assassinated by the US-trained El Salvadorian Army in 1989.

Master Tung Ching Chang was born in Shandong Province, China. c. 1916. He
moved to Taiwan during the Chinese revolution. His family lineage of
acupuncture used a very different system than what became known as
Traditional Chinese Medicine. He would have been prosecuted if he had
not conformed. Tung's acupuncture makes great use of distal points, allowing him to treat 100 people in a day and making it ideal for community acupuncture. Master Tung also stepped out of his family tradition by training many outside practitioners, including Miriam Lee.

Mutulu Shakur was born in Baltimore, in 1950. Shakur became the
assistant director of the Lincoln Detox, a community organized drug
detoxification clinic in an occupied building at Lincoln Hospital in
the South Bronx, which was founded in 1970 by the Black Panther Party,
the Republic of New Afrika, and the Young Lords. After its closing
Shakur went on to found the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of
North America (BAAANA) as well as the Harlem Institute of Acupuncture.
He sought to utilize affordable acupuncture for oppressed, underserved
Dr. Shakur has been incarcerated since 1986. There is an ongoing campaign for his clemency.

Miriam Lee was born in China in 1926. Lee was a midwife and Master
Tung trained acupuncturist. She lived in Taiwan and Singapore before arriving
in California. She took a factory job, joined a
church and soon started treating her friends. Her effective results
grew ever growing crowds. She developed a 10 point distal protocol
specifically for the stresses of modern life. This breakthrough has
informed the practice of many community acupuncturists.  She was
accused of practicing medicine without a license in 1974. Overwhelming
community support helped to
free her and ultimately led to the legalization of acupuncture in
California in 1976.

 Michael Smith was born in 1942 and in 1974 became the director of Lincoln
Detox, a community organized drug
detoxification clinic in an occupied building at Lincoln Hospital in
the South Bronx, which was founded in 1970 by the Black Panther Party,
the Republic of New Afrika, and the Young Lords. After the program was
shut down, he started NADA (National
Acupuncture Detoxification Association), which sought to train
healthcare providers to perform ear acupuncture. NADA is also a leader in
acupuncture research outlining the effectiveness of this simple,
affordable treatment.  NADA has promoted the use of acupuncture in
public health for underserved communities nationally and

Ing “Doc” Hay was born In Guangdong Province, China c.1862.  An herbalist and
pulsologist, Hay arrived in John Day, Oregon and established Kam Wah
Chung, a general store that functioned as an apothecary and community
center for the Chinese immigrant community, referred to as Tiger Town.
Hay endured institutional racism; the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented
him from leaving the country for fear of not being let back in. He
also encountered day-to-day racism in the form of drunken cowboys who
were known to shoot up Tiger Town for fun. Bullet holes can still be
seen at Kam Wah Chung, now a national heritage site, where Hay continued to
treat the people of John Day long after most of the Chinese community
had moved on.

I worked with a local printer to make these images into a series of postcards with the bios above on the back. You can order a set or in bulk. Are you interested in having a larger (11×14) copy of the set? We want to put in an order in but would like to gauge interest beforehand. Please email Carmen at subject line: ancestors prints

Why did we do this project?
To honor those who have come before us.  To research, respect and create our own history, our own narrative.  Acupuncture in America didn't start with NYtimes reporter James Reston’s appendix surgery.  It did not start with UCLA medical students spending 3 years in China followed by 40 years in the USA, on a mission to professionalize the medicine, searching for acceptance in a paternalistic capitalist system.  That happened, but that's not all that happened.  Doc Hay was using Chinese herbs to heal Asian and European Americans in Oregon in the 1800’s. The history of the use of acupuncture and herbalism within immigrant communities is as old as the communities themselves.  And just as old as immigration is anti-immigration and xenophobia.

European styled capitalism has grown out of a medieval attitude that medicine was for the rich. The poor were expected to accept their maladies as their burden from god.  Any use of plants to ease that burden was the devil's work and many, mostly women were killed for it.  Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English’s book, Witches, Midwives and Nurses, does a great job of showing how that system led, eventually to the creation of the American Medical Association. Our society is very different today but still the predatory healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are a true health risk for many Americans. 

In 1974, Miriam Lee was arrested for practicing medicine without a license.  Those UCLA students could have traveled a few hours north to learn from Miriam Lee and saved themselves a trip to China.  I'm sure they could have found acupuncturists without leaving LA.

At the same time, on the other side of the country, there was a drug epidemic in NYC. Neighborhoods filled with brown and black people were being flooded with cheap opioids.  The federal government was using the War on Drugs to lock up as many political enemies as possible.

The life force proved strong and a group of revolutionaries, the United Bronx Drug Fighters took over a building and created Lincoln Detox.  They utilized this simple affordable treatment to help people help themselves. After Lincoln Detox was shut down, Mutulu Shakur created BAANA and Michael Smith created NADA. In Lisa Rohleder’s book Acupuncture is Like Holes, she does a great job of showing how everything was put in place. She had the experience of doing NADA style treatments in a public health setting. She saw the downside of relying on outside funding. She shows how the community model is a natural progression from NADA to treating your friends and neighbors in your living room to Working Class Acupuncture, and on to CAN, POCA and POCA Tech.

And then why include Gutierrez and Baró? Liberation theology and Liberation Psychology. This again, changes the whole context. It's bigger than acupuncture.  This has to do with being of service to humanity, standing in solidarity with the least of us and absorbing the shocks. Baró had many death threats before he was gunned down. Dr. Richard Taft, at Lincoln Detox was warned before he was set up and murdered.

So what does that mean for me? It means I keep my eyes open.  I serve my community. It means I don't have to join a volunteer organization and travel to a 3rd world country to work to alleviate the pain of poverty.  I need to take care of myself so that I can be of service to others. I've found that a great way to take care of myself is to stay connected to people doing the same thing.

So let these images be a reminder of our connection and common ancestry. I hope they can inspire continued work toward a liberation for all.

A huge thank you to all the PTI staff and POCA inspirations Tyler Phan and Greg Jones’ Radical History of Acupuncture in America.

Author: lisafer

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  1. So awesome! Will these be for sale at SLC POCAfest? I have an idea of making a “garland” of these to hang up in the clinic on or near our POCA map wall.

  2. YES!!!
    James, i’m glad you mentioned staying connected. I agree, that is fundamental.
    and you already know how much I appreciate your work. let’s stay in touch!

  3. I LOVE this!!!!!!

    I am considering acupuncture in the future and just finished my MPH with an emphasis on community health education and social justice. I wanted a profession where I could continue those kinds of conversations I was having during my master’s and destiny sent me to POCA. This piece shows me, even more, that I’m in the right community!!! <3 <3