‘Meeting the Medicine Men: An Englishman’s Travels Among the Navajo’

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Meeting the Medicine Men: An Englishman’s Travels Among the Navajo” is a nonfiction travel essay by Charles Langley, a former London tabloid editor.

Langley’s three years of assisting medicine men on the Navajo reservation is a smattering of American Indian history, culture, current events and elder teachings loosely strung along a linear framework comprised of selected ceremonies, mostly “witchcraft” counteractions, and others representative of the Native American Church, which he was invited to participate in.

Traveling from Texas to San Francisco, Langley is diverted to Albuquerque in an attempt to bring some forgotten gifts to Navajo code talkers who had visited a bed and breakfast where Langley also stayed. Upon entering the city, Langley picks up a young Navajo man who needs a ride, and ends up in his first ceremony. Langley is invited by a medicine man he calls Blue Horse in the book (to protect his identity) to more ceremonies. Blue Horse specializes in dealing with “witchcraft.” The story culminates in Langley’s introduction to peyote and being sent on a soul retrieval mission.

In Albuquerque, where Langley now lives, the ceremony details made public by the author sparked two hours of programming on Native American Calling in May. Callers were asked to discuss whether or not such details should be shared with outsiders or written about by outsiders. Reactions were mixed, although Langley claimed the manuscript was pre-approved by tribal community members who had the authority to do so. Emerson Jackson, a former NAC president, endorsed Langley and the subject matter in the preface.

Langley claimed his intention was not to exploit his connections, but to pique the interest of non-Native communities, his own in particular, in healing traditions outside of the westernized hospital/chemical.

This rationale, however, makes the author’s approach more, not less, problematic.

Accounts of peyote journeys, skin walkers, curses and cures, breakneck driving through the desert with colorful medicine men, and the discovery that he could himself heal with his hands are bound to interest a casual reader whom Langley may be trying to elucidate.

However, to introduce traditional healing to a general audience by emphasizing its misuse and its secretiveness smacks of sensationalism, and some Native people may be sensitive to having their culture used in that way. Although Langley insists the bulk of what he observed were ceremonies to take care of curses, which indeed cause illness, he later states that he attended other types of ceremonies, but did not use them in his book.

There is also a curious lack of sensitivity about the people and traditions that he encountered and a deficit of attribution that is odd coming from a career journalist who is also studying the Diné language.

One example is Langley’s tendency to nest the subject of traditional medicine in a context of eurocentricities such as, “I’m not suggesting that ancient Navajos had a better understanding of geology than modern scientists” or, “whether he knew it or not, this was perfectly orthodox science” in response to an elder stating, “We are the earth and the stars, we are one, we are men, indivisible, indestructible.”

Even though he is lambasted on several occasions by Blue Horse, “Learn? Ain’t never known a white man want to learn anything. The white man only wants to teach everyone what to do,” Langley’s confidence in what he perceives to be fact, since he offers no attribution for many of his statements, tells us he does not really understand what he is being told.

Lack of sensitivity exudes in passages such as, “People pay a fortune in London and Los Angeles to have surgery aimed at restoring their youthful looks. All I can say is the results aren’t a patch on what the Navajos can achieve for the price of a few ears of corn and a couple of nights of praying.” Langley also likens the effect of the nicotine in a sacred tobacco mix to a hit of heroin.

References to Columbus discovering America, Stone Age shamans, and to the genocidal policies of the United States as if England had no connections at all to them, are a few of the many unattributed statements of fact that leaves one contemplating who Langley is exploiting more, his uneducated countrymen or the Navajo people.

Langley claimed in a radio interview that he had no intention of writing a book, but did when prompted by some of the traditional practitioners he met.

Further, he said he had no intention of making money from publication. It is hard to overlook, however, his constant complaint of being on the verge of bankruptcy throughout the book, as well as a text rife with typos and promotional copy that does not match the book’s plot, suggesting a rush to market by the publisher.

If Langley had treated his lack of self-knowledge with the same intensity he gave to describing ceremonies, his account would have achieved a balance, but he does so only occasionally. “I blush now to think of the sheer stupidity of regarding 10,000 years of Navajo learning and wisdom so lightly.” Perhaps using a jumbled chronology he said was necessary to protect his sources, somehow prevented the reader from seeing a progressive development in self-revelation.

The author’s enthusiasm, his struggle with reality, his ignorance and courage, and the introduction of powerful healing and destructive forces have not found a balance in this book. It seems premature for him to proffer his account as representative of traditional medicine, Navajo culture or North American Indian history even with his caveat that the book is just a small part of it all. The general public cannot fathom his qualifying because he gives them no contextual reference points.

Although Langley says no other books are planned, it may be a good idea to do another one, if for no other reason than to address the many shortcomings of his first attempt, and to treat the traditions he has chosen to explore with the respect they deserve.