A Skeptic Visits A Navajo Medicine Man

I’m sitting on a humble metal chair inside a traditional eight-sided Native American hogan, made with wood planks and packed dirt, trying to work up the courage to ask an intimidating Navajo medicine man if he has the power to heal me. The rich, deep red clay floor looks like the tennis courts at Roland Garros. A wooly sheepskin rug lies before us, a small American flag is hung on the wall, and there’s a loom with a colorful Navajo rug in the corner.

Over by the door, which faces to the east, the direction of the morning light, where Navajos believe that all good things come from, is a wood-burning stove. The smell of burning cedar fills the crisp winter air and the crackling of the fire punctuates the gaps in our conversation. Outside the hogan, the towering buttes and mesas of the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park lend an almost mystical aura to the place.

To my right is Herman Chee, a 60-year-old Navajo medicine man, and his grandson, Larry Holliday, who serves as an interpreter. Chee speaks some English, but is more comfortable speaking Navajo, an oddly melodic tongue with no alphabet that the U.S. military used to confuse Japanese code-breakers in World War II. Holliday is a baby-faced young man who is wearing a straw hat and has a blue handkerchief tied around his neck. He smiles easily when I ask his grandfather questions and radiates warmth.

Chee is a serious-faced man wearing a blue bandana, a long turquoise necklace and elaborate bracelets. His bulky medicine bag is on the floor between us and it looks like the sort of briefcase a pharmaceutical rep would schlep around hospitals and office parks. Each time I ask a question, he closes his eyes, grimaces and turns his head skyward before relaying his answer in Navajo, often using hand gestures to reinforce his points. It isn’t clear if my questions are annoying him or if he’s channeling some sort of spiritual guidance. My instinct as a journalist is to keep the interview impersonal but I have multiple sclerosis (MS) and I can’t leave this hogan without asking him if he’s confident he could heal me.

When I decided to visit Monument Valley, which sits right on the Utah/Arizona border inside the Navajo Reservation, the largest Native American reservation in America, I resolved to find a medicine man. It sounded like a fine idea but finding one proved to be a tribulation. Legitimate Navajo medicine men don’t have websites or Facebook pages and they don’t advertise in the white man’s Yellow Pages.

A contact in Utah’s state tourism office introduced me to Ronnie Biard, the general manager of Monument Valley’s Goulding’s Trading Post and Lodge, who agreed to help me find a medicine man.

“Finding a medicine man isn’t as easy as it used to be,” Biard warned. “It’s kind of a dying art.”

Patients use medicine men to cure them of illnesses but also to restore their spirituality, or purge bad mojo that comes from experiences the Navajo consider taboo, like seeing a dead body. According to a story in USA Today, some insurance carriers in the southwest cover ceremonies performed by medicine men, which can cost thousands of dollars. Medicine men are highly respected in their culture, but a few have abused that power in recent years.

In September, Francis Nez, a medicine man from Gallup, New Mexico, was charged with two counts of sexually assaulting members of his own family, and in 2007, a Navajo medicine man named Alden Chee (no relation to Herman Chee) was convicted of sexually assaulting a female client with a mental disability. Two other medicine men – Herbert Yazzie and David Filfred – were also convicted of rape in the last decade.

Biard asked if I was willing to pay the medicine man for his time and although I’ve never paid anyone for an interview, I was also asking the medicine man for a consultation or a service, so I felt that I could justify it. I told Biard that I wanted to ask the medicine man how they would cure someone with MS and he said that his wife also had MS and had used a Navajo medicine man to try to help improve her condition.

“She went to a sweat lodge and had them perform a ceremony for her several years ago,” he recalled. “I think it made her feel better for a while but I don’t think it really worked.”

“How much do you think they’ll want to meet with me?” I asked.

“I’m just going to throw a number out, and it’s possible they won’t charge at all,” he said. “I’m going to say $200.”

That was more than I could commit to, so I asked Biard to try to find a medicine man who’d be willing to meet me for $50. A few days later, Biard called to tell me that he’d found a medicine man willing to work with my modest budget and the following week, I found myself in the hogan with Holliday and Chee.

Chee tells me through his grandson’s interpretation that he “was picked by the creator, the element, the spiritual people,” to become a medicine man after his wife became very sick about 27 years ago and was treated by another medicine man who healed her.

“After the ceremony was done, she was healthy,” he says. “She recovered and to this day, she’s alive.”

Chee says that medicine men can help relatives but they can’t help themselves or their spouses.

“A lot of the people who come to see me were hit by lightning, which disturbs their spirit,” he says, when asked about his patients. “Or if they see a dead body. We Navajo are very superstitious, so when we go to a funeral, that interferes with our spirit.”

“So how would you treat someone who is struck by lightning?” I ask.

Chee says that he has instruments, tools in his medicine bag to treat them, but when I ask to see them he closes his eyes, grimaces, tightens his jaw, exhales deeply and is silent for several moments. I can hear the crackling of the fire and a bird squawking in the distance as the anticipation builds. I’m like a child hoping to get an ice cream cone.

“In the traditional way I learned from my teachers, these instruments were given to me to use in ceremonies, so this stuff is sacred,” he says. “It wouldn’t be right to bring them out just to show them to people.”

Chee tells me he was in the Air Force many years ago and has worked as a bus driver and a carpenter but is now simply a medicine man. I ask him if he refers very sick patients to medical doctors and he shakes his head dismissively.

“Most of the time, I don’t,” he says. “I can remove and fight witchcraft and illness. I’m a crystal gazer and a hand trembler. I help a lot of patients, even people with cancer. I’m so positive about my ceremonies, that I don’t usually recommend doctors.”

He says that his clients have to make a reservation to see him and that they pay him for his services, or if they don’t have money, they offer him turquoise, buckskins, sheep, jewelry, horses or even cows.

“What do you do if you get really sick?” I ask. “Do you visit another medicine man or go to a hospital?”

“I go to a doctor only if I have a severe illness or broken bones,” he says, as Larry gets up to add some logs to the fire. “But if I just have a fever or small illness, I go to another medicine man.”

Larry tells me that his grandfather wants to know more about me and I see this as the opening I’ve been waiting for. I explain that I have MS and would like to know if he’s treated people with this disease and if so, how and what was the outcome.

“There is a ceremony that can be done for this,” he says. “But you have to make a reservation.”

I suppose it makes sense – you don’t walk into a medical doctor’s office and expect to be treated on the spot – but the response caught me off guard and I wondered if they were expecting me to ask for a price quote. Perhaps they sized me up as a typical ignoramus who rolls into town and expects to have some natives do a tribal dance on the spot and I didn’t want to be that guy.

“How would you treat me?” I ask.

“After you make your reservation, I will go to the Sacred Mountain and ask the elements, all the different gods how to treat you. (The four sacred mountains mark the traditional boundaries of the Navajo Nation.) And I will get all those herbs and plants, bring them home and I will give you the medicine bundle. And I will build a fire and talk to the different gods to invite them to the hogan. I will look in my crystal and X-ray you with my crystal, from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head and that’s where these elements and different gods will talk to me and tell me how to treat you.”

“But does it work?” I ask.

Both men look at me as if to say, “Well of course it works, you damn fool. If it didn’t, why would we do it?”

“After the ceremony, you have four days where you don’t shower,” he says, after a long pause. “You’ll be covered in herbs and medicines and given some prayers and songs. They will put you back together in one piece. All the evil, the taboo will be left behind. It’s helped a lot of people. Five days later, patients come back and say ‘I feel much better.'”

I’m a skeptic by nature and I’m really not the sit in a circle and bang a tribal drum with people wearing tie-dye and taking peyote type of guy. I believe in science and drugs, not spiritualism and native healing. But after seven years of daily injections of a medication that would cost $50,000 per year if, God forbid, I was uninsured, I want to believe that Herman Chee, sitting next to me here in this hogan can cure me. Fuck injectable medications, I’m in the Navajo Nation now.

“To respect our ceremonies and traditions, you have to witness them,” Chee says, when I ask if white men are usually skeptical of his powers.

I have a deep respect for the Navajos and their traditions but I’m from another world, another culture. Still, half the battle in fighting illness is mental. If you believe you’re getting better, you can actually feel better.

But I resist the temptation to make a reservation for a ceremony because I don’t want to leave this hogan as a skeptic buying a ceremony just to test if it works, because under those circumstances, the experiment is doomed to fail. Herman tells me that he makes people feel better and I believe him.

I want to ask him about the three Navajo medicine men who were charged (two have been convicted so far) with sexual abuse crimes, but decide to lighten the mood first by asking if he knows of any cures for hangovers. As Larry translates the question, a huge smile breaks out across Chee’s distinctively featured face for the first time and both men begin to laugh hysterically before Chee responds.

“Give them another beer,” he jokes.

Medicine men don’t cure hangovers but they can help treat alcoholism, he says. I ask about the criminal medicine men and Chee says he doesn’t know them and knows nothing about their cases. He estimates that there are about 200 Navajo medicine men on a reservation the size of West Virginia with a population of nearly 300,000. But he suggests that they probably weren’t real medicine men to begin with and says that those who abuse their craft will have to pay for their crimes.

We step out of the hogan and the luminous glow of the towering, ageless buttes and mesas off on the horizon lend our meeting a fitting denouement. In these parts, where the landscape hasn’t changed much in centuries, it feels normal to be meeting with a medicine man. But Holliday and Biard mentioned that medicine men were becoming harder to find and I want to know if there will still be medicine men in the Navajo Nation 20, 50 or 100 years from now.

“Not too many young people are studying to be medicine men now,” Chee concedes. “But medicine men are always going to be here. Our prayers are always going to be here. Our language will always be here. That’s our survival. One hundred years from now, there will still be medicine men here.”

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]