Miraculous Journey

Charles Langley chronicles Navajo medicine men with verve and an outstanding attention to detail

At first glance, Charles Langley's Meeting the Medicine Men: An Englishman's Travels Among the Navajo looks like nothing more than another lame attempt by a white man to hastily explain Navajo and Indian culture. The title is slightly grating, and the images on both sides of the book could only be described as stereotypical: a tipi, a Route 66 road sign and the author wrapped in a Southwestern-style blanket.

A passage from later in the book describes how I felt when I initially began reading the text. Reuben, a young Navajo who piques Langley's initial interest in medicine men, is explaining why a lot of outsiders aren't trusted.

"You know, it's happened before with white guys coming around here swearin' blind they want to dedicate their lives to learning our Navajo ways," Reuben says. "Usually they last a couple of weeks and the next thing you know they're in California running a Web site claiming to be medicine men. Navajo people don't like that."

But Langley doesn't hightail it to the Golden State or take advantage of this unfamiliar culture. Instead, he embraces the unknown. He dives into the inner workings and customs of the medicine men and the Navajo with a child-like obsession, coming across as hungry to learn and smitten at the same time. His sheer enthusiasm is one of the book's highlights.

For Langley, a former newspaper editor from London, his journey becomes his life, and the book becomes a memoir, travelogue, history lesson and cultural critique, all mashed together. The Navajo reservations of Arizona and New Mexico quickly become his home, replacing the soggy landscapes of England.

On his yearlong expedition, Langley is a keen observer and an eager participant whenever called upon. At first, he is nothing more than a servant to Blue Horse, an aging medicine man who takes Langley under his wing. Langley initially arranges and re-arranges charcoal at de-witching ceremonies, but over time, Langley gains Blue Horse's trust, sitting in on rituals and services.

Medicine men are traditional healers, not the equivalent of Westernized doctors decked out in pleated white uniforms carrying patient charts. They travel the nation, answering people's calls to heal them, ridding bodies and lives of evil spirits and curses, and uncovering hidden events in the past inflicting harm in the present. The job is strenuous, as the medicine men must cater to calls for help throughout an area the size of Ireland.

It's also a dying trade, thanks to a younger generation of Navajos who don't care to be healers--hard workers who earn barely a pittance.

From the get-go, skepticism dominates Langley's thoughts. How can a picture of a bear in a fire actually appear on its own and inform someone of his or her current problems? Is a medicine man truly finding a witch's bundle buried in the ground, or was it planted? His disbeliefs at the outset slowly erode away, leaving him to admit that he witnessed with his own eyes animals appearing in a hot bed of coals, and that he saw Blue Horse uncover a witch's cursed bundle from a patch of ground that had never been previously dug into. He offers no explanations of his own, only asserting that he's not lying, and that the Navajo firmly believe in their practices.

Langley watches as Blue Horse says that an older man is experiencing neck pain because he killed a snake when he was 12 years old. Blue Horse never met this man before and lives hours away from him. Situations like these, which are quite frequent, open up Langley's writing to a wrenching internal struggle between what he sees and what conventional Western society has led him to believe.

His writing style is straight-forward and not a tad bit whimsical. The attention to detail is impeccable: Whether Langley is describing his body's perseverance during an Indian sweat, or the lucid rollercoaster he is taken on throughout a nocturnal vision quest toward the end of the book, the tiny details greatly buttress the scenes he describes.

Langley also pays a great deal of attention to the Navajo land itself, a place Langley seems to grow more attached to than his native British soil. Unkempt dirt roads and ramshackle outposts in remote corners of the reservations come alive. Famous natural formations the nation is known for, including Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly and the San Juan River Gorge, all are written about in wonderment.

Langley's devotion is pure, resulting in an absorbing and educational look into the medicine men most of us know nothing about.

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