Hataałii (The Medicine Man)

Once, there were many spiritual leaders on the Navajo Nation. But those numbers have dwindled. One of the survivors is an elder named Wally Brown, and he's determined to preserve the heritage of his people.

By Kelly Vaughn | Photograph by Mylo Fowler

 Wally Brown rests in front of a loom inside a hogan at the heritage center.

Above: Wally Brown rests in front of a loom inside a hogan at the heritage center. 

Wally Brown isn’t sure when he was born. Not exactly, anyway. But it happened after the last Enemy Way ceremony of the year.

The ceremony, one of healing, is only proffered in the summer months, so to say that he was born in some late August or September is probably fair. The year remains a mystery. But, undoubtedly, the hogan where it happened was constructed in the traditional way: juniper logs laid lengthwise and atop one another, in a polygonal shape, with mud as mortar.  

After the last Enemy Way ceremony, the hogan would have been cool — the earth below it shaded by its beams, by its immaculate construction. Come winter, the hogan would have been warm — illuminated by the fire inside, its smoke escaping into the sky at the apex. 

Decades later, Brown sits inside another hogan with his hands wrapped around the walking stick he carries everywhere. On it are the four colors that correspond to the four worlds of the Navajo creation story: black for the first world, blue for the second, yellow for the third, white for the fourth. 

And although it’s one of the better-known stories from his culture, it’s just one of the legends, traditions and practices that Brown is working to protect — and to share with future generations of Navajo children. Because, as a medicine man, Brown is a shepherd of sorts, guiding the Diné to a better understanding of their spiritual heritage. 

“I started getting worried about the preservation of our culture almost 50 years ago,” he says. “There was a census of medicine people — you have to have a desire to be one, to follow through with it — and not enough young people had it. There are only a small handful of people now alive, by my count, who know the ceremonies John Holiday, a well-known medicine man from Monument Valley, knows. And that’s down from the 50 people he taught them to.” 

Most people outside of the Navajo community likely will never witness some of those ceremonies, those that are tied to the most sacred rites.  But at the Navajo Village Heritage Center, behind Big Lake Trading Post in Page, Brown has created a place where people from all walks of life — including Navajo youths — can learn about a culture that dates back thousands of years. 

“The young people in our community are caught between cultures,” Brown says. “Knowing the language makes it easier to learn the cultural teachings.” 

But as more and more young Navajos have been drawn to the Anglo world, the language has been compromised. That’s why Brown has taken to the internet to share English-language versions of some stories — on a Facebook page titled “Navajo Traditional Teachings.”   

In one lesson, Brown explains the concept of human goodness. In a little more than four minutes, he clarifies that the Navajos do not believe people to be inherently good. Instead, they are taught to be good. 

“This is explained through the story of the trotting coyote,” he says, his hands resting on that black, blue, yellow and white walking stick as he sits in front of blankets bursting with orange, green and gold. “The coyote is not a good being. He is always trying to take advantage of others, and he has very selfish motives. Eventually, he does suffer the consequences. … Nothing good ever comes from what he does to achieve things for himself, for selfish purposes. And so, we are to learn from that: Don’t do things like Coyote does. And so, we learn that envy is not good, jealousy is not good.”

And so, we learn that traditional ways translate well to social media, where — amid so much turmoil and competition and self-absorption — the world can be reminded to be good. 

I’m meeting with Brown after the last Enemy Way ceremony of 2018. His way is gentle. Reverent. He speaks with the calm, measured cadence of a man who’s told too many stories to count. 

He speaks the way I imagined a medicine man might. 

“In my early years, I did a lot of sheepherding,” he says. “I took care of the family herd. My grandparents didn’t want me to go to school. They thought it was a waste of time, but I stuck it out, and my dad was glad I did through high school.” 

At one point, at a school on the outskirts of Phoenix, the instructors told him that the songs he sang, the prayers he whispered, the things he knew of traditional ways were “of the devil.” 

“It was horrible,” he says. “But it was their way. … I don’t ever tell people that the Navajo way is better than any other way. I say, ‘Whatever you get from the deities that you are the most familiar with, get the most you can.’ I don’t care what your beliefs are. You can be Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Latter-day Saints, Native American Church. … To me, it doesn’t matter, so long as you have a meaningful relationship with your deity as you understand that being. I think that is so much better than trying to tear people’s beliefs down.” 

Later, as a Marine in the 1960s, Brown was stationed stateside, tending to soldiers who’d just returned from Vietnam. 

“I witnessed firsthand the hell of PTSD,” he remembers. “I tried to put my teachings to good use.” They were teachings he’d learned from a young age, when his own elders realized he shared a touch of something inspired. Interested. Dedicated. 

“It’s the Navajo way,” he explains. “They look at the children, and they see which one seems to be more aware. So it was that the family — maybe even behind my back — decided, ‘That’s the one we want to learn the songs and the prayers and the ceremonies.’ And so it was that everywhere there would be a healing ceremony or any type of ceremony, they’d pick me up and take me. I’d spend the whole duration of the ceremony with them, learning. They would give me a sacred rattle, a gourd. I’d start off with shaking it while they were singing the songs.”

Of course, those lessons progressed, and he carried them with him. 

In addition to his care of wounded warriors in the Marines, though, being away from the Navajo Nation made him realize how deeply he valued his home, as well as the way of life he’d left behind — even if only physically. 

“I don’t miss big cities,” he says. “But when I’m in them, I do miss the smell of wet dirt, the juniper, the pine, the feeling of freedom, the things I completely associate with my home.” 

So, when he was discharged from the Marines, he returned to the Navajo Nation, fathered eight children and eventually had “many” grandchildren. Unsurprisingly, some of them are carrying on the medicine man tradition. One grandson has given presentations since he was very young. Others among them helped put together the Facebook page. All of them, Brown says, can answer important questions about ceremonies, about expectations and about traditions. 

Still, there’s an understanding that spirituality isn’t just inherited. It’s practiced. And even on a Monday afternoon in October, Brown is practicing. By teaching me. 

I’ve entered the hogan the wrong way, veering right instead of left when I walk through the door. This is a condition of ignorance, of being unprepared and under-researched. The door faces east — toward Blanca Mountain, one of the four sacred mountains of the creation story, and toward the morning sun — as so many important things in Navajo spiritual teachings do.

Brown quickly corrects me, smiles, then explains that
movement through the hogan should be like time. Clockwise. Circular. Deliberate. 

I’ll remember this as we walk back out into the sun. 

It is warm in Page, but as expected, the hogan is cool. Brown sits in front of a traditional loom partly woven with wool dyed red and brown. Patiently, he explains the way the structure was built: carefully, by hand, giving special consideration to the way the juniper logs are placed. 

“The bottom of the tree is the bottom of the post,” he says. 

We talk about left and right, female and male, respectively. We talk about identifying female and male trees, too. The females have berries. The males do not. The males, he says, are aggressive and protective. The females are gentler: “The human heart is more toward the left side of the body, you know.” 

It is a simple, logical lesson from a man whose lessons are immeasurable. 

I learn that medicine men are singers, hand tremblers, stargazers. More than anything, though, Brown considers himself a consultant. 

“I’ll meet with someone who’s having a problem or who needs some guidance,” he says. “Then I’ll recommend a ceremony. If I don’t know it, I can refer them to another medicine person who does.” 

What’s more, though, he is an architect of spiritual lineage and understanding, having drafted a curriculum of traditional teachings for Utah’s San Juan School District and regularly giving presentations, workshops and demonstrations. 

“We have tour groups that come to the heritage center, and we accommodate colleges and universities,” he says. “Here in Page, we’re surrounded by so many attractions and parks — Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Horseshoe Bend, Arches, Monument Valley — so people can come and stay here, then make a day’s journey. So it is that people come to see the sites, but also to see the Native people of the area. And here we are as Navajo. Until we availed ourselves with the Navajo Village, there was nothing.” 

So the people come, but as with anything, there are some people who don’t understand. Because, as the story goes, people aren’t born good. They’re taught to be good.  

Nothing good ever comes from what he does to achieve things for himself, for selfish purposes. And so, we are to learn from that: Don’t do things like Coyote does.

Still, Brown endures. 

“Even if people attack the traditional Navajo teachings, I don’t say anything,” he says. “It’s here if you want it. I think that’s a better approach.”

The Navajo Village Heritage Center is located at 1253 Coppermine Road in Page. For more information, call 928-660-0304 or visit www.navajovillage.com. The village opens for its spring season on March 1.