Pull No Punches
Native Americans respond to the Alibi's interview with Charles Langley
After publication of last week's feature, " Good Medicine," the e-mails started rolling in, then comments on the story online, then phone calls. Some Native Americans who read the story were angered by its contents, by its presentation and because they said it furthered stereotypes.
"There are so many problems with this article and the man it features that I could probably write a dissertation about them (not to mention the images)," wrote tslee at Alibi.com. "There are thousands of Navajos that live in Albuquerque, and you choose a white guy from England to tell Albuquerque, including those Navajo residents, about Navajo medicine men."
The article written by Editor Christie Chisholm was published as a Q&A about Charles Langley, who's authored a yet-to-be-released book called Meeting the Medicine Men: An Englishman's Travels Among the Navajo. The book recounts Langley's time on the Navajo reservation, he says, and will be published in the travel literature genre. Chisholm addresses comments directed toward her involvement in the editorial accompanying this article.
Mary K. Bowannie is a lecturer in the Native American Studies department at UNM, and among her other classes, she also teaches a course on newspaper publication. Every spring her students, with production and editorial mentorship by the Navajo Times, put out a 16-page newspaper. "It wasn't very balanced and objective," Bowannie said of the feature. "It really took primarily his words and experiences into account, but I didn't feel that there was the other side to the story." She says the obvious unanswered critical question is: Why does this man feel the need to "play Indian”?
Some say they just didn't like the way the Alibi put the story together. "There's no conversation with the people that are here, that live here," says Patrick Willink, an adjunct lecturer at the Native American Studies department. "All of the Native American people are presented as scenery or characters without any real engagement."
Langley should have kept his information about medicine men to himself and “shouldn't be broadcasting like that," says Roseann Willink, an instructor of Navajo language at UNM. "Somebody opened a can of worms."
Many of the people interviewed for this follow-up story took issue with the images that ran with the feature. The front page was one problem for JJ Otero, organizer of the Native concert Rock the 9 that took place on April 25. "What struck me first was the cover shot," Otero says, alluding to the image of a Native American man wearing traditional dress at the Gathering of Nations. "It's trying to represent modern culture as if it's still in that state." Others raised concerns about a lack of specificity in the captions for the photos accompanying the feature, and a lack of captions period.
Otero also posted on Alibi.com that Langley should have researched his own history to "find a mystical place in this world."
"Unfortunately," says Langley in an interview about the criticism, "such things in English history have been wiped out by industrialization. I didn't choose to come here and learn about Navajo medicine. It just kind of happened. It was an extraordinary series of events which brought me here."
Langley says he's never pretended to be a medicine man, nor does he have any intention of becoming one. "What I actually am is the bag carrier and driver," he says. "I'm an assistant, and my role, basically, is to help medicine men by driving them around up to 12 hours a day." Langley came to New Mexico in 2003 and says he continues to be involved with medicine men. The character he calls Blue Horse, the medicine man he says he followed, "is an amalgam of more than one person." Langley wouldn't give contact information for any of the medicine men he's worked with because, he says, he's concerned about protecting their privacy. "I say at the beginning of the book that everything I've recounted, I've changed the places, the names, so nobody could be recognized."
Patrick Willink, who says the article was along the same narrow lines as a Tony Hillerman novel, wondered whether the Native people in the book knew of its publishing and whether they would receive any of the money it generates.
Langley says he would have never contemplated writing this book if he hadn't heard from so many people on the reservations complaining about detective books that misrepresent them. He says he did have permission from the medicine men to write about them and that they all received manuscripts as it was being written. "Whether anybody actually read it or not, I don't know." He will gladly share some of the cash, should the book make any, with his Native American friends, he says.
One commenter called Langley a voyeur. "I don't think so," says Langley. If you consider the book as a straight piece of reporting, he says, maybe it could be seen as voyeurism. “But then anybody that writes about anything involving real people could be accused of voyeurism."
Some questioned the facts of Langley’s tale and whether some of the more private information about the medicine men’s practices should have been revealed. "There's nothing in my book that hasn't been said 100 times over. It's just that I'm saying it in a slightly different way," Langley says. People couldn't read the book and learn how to put together a medicine ceremony, he adds. Further, as only a freshman in UNM's Anthropology Department, Langley says the book, which was written before he ever started attending the university, is certainly not a body of research.
Patrick Willink suspects the book would not have gotten through the Institutional Review Board at UNM, which monitors the research of human subjects, or through the Navajo Nation's review board. "A way to bypass the review board is to fictionalize parts of the story or pass it off as travel writing," Willink says. Langley says the book did not go through UNM’s review board, nor was it approved by the Navajo Nation. The book is about his experience, and it wasn’t a study, he says. He didn’t feel there was a reason to get such approvals, he finishes.
Scramcat on Alibi.com asks why, if Langley is so close to the medicine men, he hasn't been invited to live on the Navajo reservation, since Langley expresses regret that he does not in the original article. Langley says he's in Albuquerque because he's attending UNM, but there's no shortage of people that would be happy to see him on the rez. "Medicine men don't announce that they're medicine men," adds scramcat. Langley counters by saying medicine men are well-known and well-regarded in the communities they're working in. "I only got to do this because I was invited to," says Langley.
Bowannie called the feature another unfortunate episode in the history of Native Americans being misinterpreted and stereotyped. "To be able to put out a story—it's precious space, and it always seems that these types of stories are more attractive and more interesting than talking about the realities of Native people in this country, or globally."