An interview with the man who met the medicine men
An appropriate adjective to describe Charles Langley--or at least Charles Langley's former self--would be "distinguished," or, at the very least, "respectable." A wife, three kids, two cars, two cats, a large loft and a job as the night news editor of the Evening Standard, an eminent London newspaper: all the makings of a modern happily ever after.
But today, sitting across from Langley at the newly reopened Blue Dragon Coffeehouse, my eyes flitting between the diamond in his left ear and the turquoise on his wrist, listening to his tales of skinwalkers, parallel universes and the spirits of deceased snakes, I imagine people would probably choose other words to describe this displaced Englishman. But one word Langley won't accept is "mystic."
Langley calls himself a "man of science," which is why it's so baffling to him that for the past three-plus years he's found himself in the near-exclusive company of Navajo medicine men, observing phenomena he would have previously referred to as "New Age." But when the kids moved out and the divorce was final, Langley found himself suddenly able to escape a lifestyle he had come to find breathless.
It started with a drive across the U.S. ("Don't ask me why; I just thought it was a good idea.") and ended with Langley abandoning his London life to work as an assistant to a medicine man he refers to as Blue Horse. Blue Horse is a primary character in a book Langley wrote about his experiences, due to hit shelves in May. Meeting the Medicine Men: An Englishman's Travels Among the Navajo is the first of a series of books Langley plans to write on this culture that’s little understood to those outside of it. Langley's thrown by what he's seen and experienced during his time on the Navajo reservation, and he's looking for an outlet to share what he now knows, or at least is coming to find out.
Now splitting his time between working with the medicine men and going to school to earn a degree in anthropology at UNM, Langley settles into his seat. He sips his coffee slowly between excited monologues, recounting the adventures that led him to this cerebral rebirth. The story winds through a storm in Louisiana that forced him out of the rain and into Madame Cecelia's Bed and Breakfast ("except there was never any breakfast").
One day at Madame Cecelia's, while searching for nonexistent rations, Langley opened a cupboard. Instead of food, a confusion of plastic plates and bolts of cloth spilled onto the floor. Unable to stuff them back inside the cupboard, Langley apologized to Madame Cecelia for the mess.
"Oh," she said. "That's for the Indians."
Some guy in the area, don't ask me why, had gotten it into his head to bring some Navajo code talkers out for their Mardi Gras two years earlier. And they stood on this float, going through the streets. And local people had apparently gotten all these gifts, and they had left before they had the chance to give them to them.
So if you look at Route 66, it goes right past Window Rock, [Ariz.], which is a place I've always wanted to go. And [Madame Cecelia] said, “Oh, the Navajos, they live at Window Rock.” And I said, “I'm going to Window Rock.” So I said I’d bring it to them.
So I go to Window Rock, and I had no idea about the [Navajo] reservation. It's the size of Ireland. I thought I'd just stop the first person on the street, you know, and ask, do you know these people? (laughs)
It turned out that the evening I arrived was the one day of the year all of the code talkers were at Window Rock because they have a big parade for them, and six out of the seven were actually there. And this guy comes up to me and is like, “I've never seen no white man like you before.” This guy was a medicine man.
Did you know he was a medicine man at the time?
I soon found out. And to cut it all very short, I met more through him. And he said, well, we think you're one of us--you may not know this, but you're one of us, and we think you ought to come learn more about it. That's essentially how it began. That's a truncated version.
Is that when you started studying with them?
Soon after. I met the guy who I based Blue Horse on at a medicine ritual. He said I could come along, be his assistant.
You see, the medicine men don't teach anything. Indians don't do that. You observe and you have the opportunity to learn if you wish to do so, but they're not going to teach you anything. They'll explain things if I ask ...
But there are no lessons.
Not lessons on How to Be a Medicine Man 101 or anything like that; you just tag along. They do a lot of divination in the fire; they look into the fire and they see things. And I see pretty well for an Indian, I tell you what, but I don't really understand what I'm seeing. Because I'm not Indian, I'm not actually understanding a lot of it. It's pretty extraordinary stuff. I've seen people cured ...
“Cured” is a strange word to use; I mean, even modern medicine doesn't use the word "cure." But I've seen people recover, and I have no real idea how they do it.
Recover from what kinds of things?
This is where you start running into a serious problem from a scientific point of view. There are a couple of examples in the book that are just ... atypical. I mean, they're just stunning.
There was this woman who had been having trouble for some time. I don't know if you know this, but the Navajos believe in witchcraft; they attribute a lot of things that happen to them--bad luck, car crashes, getting sick--to being bewitched by somebody's curse. Now this particular family was having a bit of trouble in that way. So they called a medicine man. Now I've been working with this guy for, what, 18 months at least? He looked [in the divination fire] and he said, “When your husband died 10 years ago, you buried him in a bracelet.”
“I thought, the next time it knocks, I'm going to throw this door and I'm going to smack it in the face.”
It's called a protection bracelet. And she said, “Yeah, my husband didn't really believe in our traditional ways, but he wore this protection bracelet for me.” And he said, “Well, shortly after he was buried, the witches dug him up, and they took the bracelet, and they're using it to curse you.” And he said, “They're trying to finish you off this time.” And he's a very powerful medicine man. He said, “They're now using the bead to curse you. I'm going to come tomorrow to your house, and I'm going to find that curse, and I'm going to lift that curse off you forever.” He said, “I'll bring the bead to you, and you'll recognize it.”
What was your reaction to that?
I'd never heard him say something like that. And I thought, if he doesn't pull this off, what are we going to do, you know? He's sunk as a medicine man if he doesn't pull this one off. So I spent the night pretty restless. I mean, I'd never seen him not pull anything off before, but this one really worried me because he was so precise. In fact, I nearly said to him: You know, if you don't think you can do this, tell me now, and I'll try to find a way out of it.
So we went to the house, and he looked into the fire, and he said, “The witch man is cursing you, and he knows I'm here; he's looking into his fire and he can see me. He's coming after you real quick.”
We went outside the house, and he's looking, and he says, “It's there.” I was going to dig it up, because he has a bad back. And as I'm going to, this truck's coming toward us, and he said, “It's the witch man.” They knew who he was. And this truck rolls ahead about 80 yards away. And Blue Horse is going, “Ah, he can't hurt us, I've got my whistle in my pocket.” And I was just about panicking.
So I stuck the spade in and started digging. I took the spade out, and there was this curse. Now, Navajo curses are actually physical objects. We unwrapped it, and there was the bracelet, and there was was the bead. And we took it in, and we showed her the bead. And she said, “Yeah, that's the bead I buried my husband in.” They went out again, and I was left with the widow. So I took the opportunity to say to her, “Are you sure that was the bead?” She said, “There's no question about it.”
And what happened afterward?
Well, we haven't heard from them since, so I guess things are going well.
What was happening beforehand with the family?
Things were just going really badly for them. I mean, it's not like there's one thing, more like a series of things--people get ill, money drains out, people lose their jobs, you know. Eventually a Navajo family will say, this isn't right; this isn't just bad luck, this is something else. And they'll call a medicine man. Whereas sometimes we go there and the medicine man says, this is just a run of bad luck. We'll just do a blessing for you and everything will be fine.
What's the other example?
There's this other one that was amazing. We went to this place; this guy's wife is a nurse for a hospital in Farmington, right? It's actually a very good amalgam of an ancient/traditional/modern sort of family: The kids play computer games, the mother's a nurse, the dad's a carpenter and is a bit more traditional. And he's got this problem with his neck, and it got so bad that he couldn't work because he couldn't use his arm. He'd been to the hospital two or three times; they weren't able to cure him, and the X-rays couldn't find it, and finally he said, I want to see a medicine man. So we went there.
And Blue Horse says, “Did you ever kill a snake?” I could see the snake in the fire--there was a kind of track of life in the fire. He said, “No, I've never killed a snake.” He said, “Are you sure?” “Oh no, I never killed a snake.” “When you were about 14, you got mad at a snake and killed it.” And the guy says, “Oh, yeah, I wanted to go play with the other boys, and my dad wanted me to go sweep out the paddock. And I kicked over some boxes and there was a snake under one, and I got a hoe in my hand, so I just chopped his head off because I was mad.”
And Blue Horse said, “Well, the snake's spirit's mad at you now, and it's in your neck now, and it's hurting you like you hurt it. What I've done is I've asked the Great Spirit to intervene with the snake spirit. I can't ask the snake spirit because I don't know it, but the Great Spirit knows everybody. So I've asked him to say to the snake, you know, look, the man was only a boy, he didn't know what he was doing. He's sorry now, I'd like you to forgive him and leave him alone. And it takes four days for these things to reach the spirit world.”
So a few days later this guy says, “Hey, my neck's better.”
Do you know much about quantum physics?
I know some.
What a lot of hard-core, hard-line physicists are talking about is multiple universes, multiple dimensions of time ... all these guys are saying, look, it's likely there's multiple universes, and it's quite possible they all actually impact each other. It will be possible to go in time machines and go from one universe to another. I mean, these guys don't take prisoners when it comes to science; they have got bazillions of calculations behind them.
“When guys like this come up with the idea that there are actually infinite Blue Dragon [Coffeehouses] in infinite universes, isn't that weirder than a Navajo medicine man who can talk to the spirit of a dead snake?”
You know, when guys like this come up with the idea that there are actually infinite Blue Dragon [Coffeehouses] in infinite universes, and all our conversations are having infinitely different outcomes, isn't that weirder than a Navajo medicine man who can talk to the spirit of a dead snake?
When was the moment for you when you started believing?
I was very, very reluctant. With all my Western educational background, I do not believe in magic. I do not believe in mystic forces. And I still believe now that whatever the Navajos are doing is not magic. Somehow these guys may be tapping into some scientific effect which we cannot at the moment explain.
I mean, we don't have to go back very far--gravity. If that apple hadn't fallen on Isaac Newton's head, we'd probably still be wondering how we all sit still. I mean, there are things you can't see, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. Relativity is relativity. It's for real, no matter how unreal it may seem.
So I had a lot of issues with it. I really kept, for a long time, clinging to the idea that it was all mind tricks. I don't mean tricks in the way of fooling people, but kind of benign tricks, like every professional has their tricks. Doctors have their tricks.
But I think, actually, it was the moment he found the bead; I think that was the one when I thought, I don't know what the hell's going on around here, but this is not a trick.
The only way I can approach this is from a scientific manner. I believe that one day somebody—far cleverer than me, I have no doubt—will be able to figure out just what these guys are tapping into. They're definitely, I think, tapping into some rule of nature.
Electricity is still a very mysterious force, and it's not that long ago that, I forgot who ... one of the early scientists went to The Royal Society in London and had a glass jar with a sheepskin in it and a handle, and he'd put the lights out, whirl it round, and it was static electricity, but he'd say, look, gentlemen, I don't know what this is, but whatever it is, it's definitely there.
I'm in much the same position. I do not know what this is, but it's definitely there.
Who are the witch doctors going around cursing people, and why do they curse them? It's so preconceived.
This is where it gets a little bit scary, because a lot of these guys are, on the face of it, good medicine men. But they've sold out to the bad side. And people will offer them pretty large sums of money to go and curse somebody. And, in fact, some of the guys I've worked with said people have offered them thousands of dollars to do harm to people, and they won't do it.
Do you know what a skinwalker is?
I know that term is scary, but I'm not really familiar ...
A skinwalker is a kind of bad medicine man that actually ritually turns himself into an animal to get around. And I've had a couple of brushes with skinwalkers. You see, as a white man, I'm kind of protected against bad medicine. But as I've gotten further into it, I've kind of lost a lot of that protection, and there was a definite attempt to get me. Not that long ago, they sent a skinwalker after me. It was pretty scary.
I upset a couple of medicine men. Now, how I upset them, I don't know. I didn't set out to upset them, but somehow I did. I was living in Farmington at the time. [In the middle of the night], this thing just started banging on my door. And this wasn't knocking (knocks on the table). It was Bam! Bam! Bam! And at first I thought, oh, this is my neighbor, knocking on his door. And then I thought, naw. I mean, he wasn't a noisy neighbor or anything like that.
So it would bang a few times and then it would stop. And it was regular. So I got out of bed, and I quietly walked down to the door, and I thought, the next time it knocks, I'm going to throw this door and I'm going to smack it in the face. So I stood there. And stood there. And stood there. And it didn't knock. So I went back to bed. Bang! Bang! Bang! And, you know, this was regular. There would be the same space of time, then Bang! Bang! Bang! And, again, this was not gentle. So I got out of bed, I crept to the door ... nothing. I went back to bed. Bang! Bang! Bang!
What really spooked me was the next morning when I went to the door, the screen door was closed and locked. So how'd he bang on the door through the screen? But that's what they do—I've heard it time and again.
And it came back the next night, but not so much. Because I wasn't scared of it. The Navajos tell me if I was scared of it, I just would have given it more power. And I regret now I didn't open the door and go jump out after it. They tell you that's what you shouldn't do. Although I have known a Navajo lady who's gone after a skinwalker.
What was that situation?
She said she ran out after it--a big owl that looked nothing like an owl; it was much bigger than it was supposed to be. And it flew off, very awkwardly. And as it flew away, she shouted after it, “No return message for you, then?”
When did you feel like this sort of alternate world started to open up to you?
[There was this one case some medicine men] were trying to explain to me in very scientific terms. And we're sitting in this truck stop café, and it was like the floor had been peeled back, and suddenly I was looking down into a completely different universe. All the stars were different ... everything. It was like the Navajo universe I was actually looking at, and it looked like nothing like I'd ever seen or was used to.
In that moment I suddenly became cognizant of the world these guys were living in. I mean, they speak English, they drive trucks, they watch TV, they use mobile phones, but actually, that's just the surface. Once you get under that, it's not just a different world, it's a different universe--and to me, utterly strange and unreal. And I was just kind of floating, waiting for these guys to guide me. And in that moment, I think, I realized that what I was getting into wasn't just something a bit different. It was a completely different universe.
“Somehow these guys may be tapping into some scientific effect which we cannot at the moment explain.”
I'm just trying to explain to you how it felt. It wasn't like the floor actually did come back. I just realized, I think, really for the first time, that this was not just something on the surface; this goes as deep as time. Because these guys' medicine goes back basically to the Ice Age. I mean, in England, you've got waves and waves of successive invaders and influences coming in. But these guys, their history goes back in a straight line at least to the last Ice Age.
What did your friends and family say when you did this?
Well, you've got to remember that I never set out to do this, so it's not like I woke up one day and said, hey, folks, I'm going off to the Navajos to become a medicine man.
I don't know—I've always been sort of a square peg. I wrote about 120 episodes of the worst TV soap in English television history, which was not my fault, that it was the worst, but it was. I've always been floating around doing other things.
But they all thought that probably I'd be better off doing something else. My mother absolutely hated it. You know, screaming at me, “Go get a job! Stop all this running around with all these Indians!” My kids are quite enthusiastic about it. But they're all grown up.
Before you ventured into this new life, did you hold many religious or spiritual beliefs? You refer to yourself as a man of science. Do you see conflict between those two things?
I don't see conflict at all. I can't claim to have been a deeply religious man or anything like that. But having said that, I do feel respectful toward it.
It seems like there are these two worlds that collide in certain ways. How do you reconcile those?
It's very difficult, actually. I mean, when I first started, it wasn't very difficult because I didn't really appreciate the sort of vast oceans of time and difference between the Indian world and our own. And I thought I could just go from one to the other very easily. But now it's getting a lot more difficult.
I've talked to a lady who works as a real estate agent. And she was telling me how difficult it is. You know, she gets up in the morning, she's an Indian. She does all the Indian things, gets her kids to school. Then she gets in her car, drives into Albuquerque, and she's a real estate agent. And then in the evening she goes back and reverses the whole process. And I'm beginning to understand how that splits her, because more and more I want to be there, but I've got term papers to write, got exams to take, got lectures to go to. But plenty of times, not only do I want to be there, I'm needed there. These guys need me, but I can't actually get out and go there.
I've had Indians say to me, “Sometime, you have to make a decision: Either you're going to be an Indian, or you're going to be a white man, and we decided to be Indians. And so we're not so well off here, but we're comfortable living here—we speak our own language, we have our ceremonies, and now I go to the white man's world to do the shopping at Wal-Mart. And that's fine; and then I come back.”
I'm beginning to get that pull. And it's an uncomfortable feeling. So I don't reconcile the two—it may not even be reconcilable. Cause the fact is, in a way, I'm in a worse position than most Indians—I can't decide whether I'm going to be an Indian or not. I'm never gonna be a Navajo.
So I don't have that choice. I can't decide to be an Indian and live on the reservation. All I can do is live in Albuquerque wishing I was.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I think if they read my book and say, that was interesting, I want to know more, that's about the sum of my ambitions. I don't think you can hope for anything but that.
I want to ask how this experience has changed you—but it seems like it's changed everything.
Yeah, totally. And it's still going on. I'm now at the stage where I know enough that I can actually start learning something. I used to run. And a lot of people don't understand that to train an athlete, basically, you have to train for a year until you can start to train seriously. It's kind of like that. It's taken me this long to accumulate enough knowledge to actually understand what I'm seeing. And even then, I'm pretty damn sure a lot of it's going right over my head. It's happening in front of me, but I don't get it.
What was the experience like of getting this book published?
I'm amazed this was really published at all. I mean, they're marketing it as a kind of travel book, because they don't know what to do with it. The publisher usually publishes books by professors.
They sent me this form to fill out, and it was for academics. It starts off with things like, "From which university did you get your PhD? If you have more than one, please list them." And I got thrown out of school when I was 16. So I'm just going through this form going, "not applicable ... N/A ... ." Then I get to, "What is the purpose of your book, and what social changes is it attempting to address?" No one's looking, so I wrote, "Make lots of money so I can spend it all on drugs." Then, "How many Nobel Prizes have you won?" "N/A."
I was going to change it, right? But I got distracted. And two days later I get this slightly pained phone call from the publishers in Boston: "Charles, I'm a little worried about one of your answers." "Oh, really? Which one?"
I got myself in trouble for being an anarchist at 16. Now I'm 57 and I'm still getting myself in trouble for the same reason.
Meeting the Medicine Men: An Englishman’s Travels Among the Navajo (Nicholas Brealey, $19.95) hits bookstores this month.