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Know the West

Fake healers plague Navajo Nation


WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - When a group of Navajo traditional healers met here June 1, things went badly right away. An elderly woman arrived, grim-faced, and the men knew what was coming. She was the latest person to be conned by a fake medicine man, a charlatan.

"What she wanted," says Daniel Deschinny, secretary of Diné Spiritual and Cultural Association, "was for us to do something for her - get her money back or take action against the man who had taken her money."

She began shouting, he says, that she had paid $200 to a man who claimed he could do the Blessingway ceremony for an ill family member. The ritual, among the best-known of the Navajo healing ceremonies, normally costs $100 to perform, on a reservation where annual per capita income is $6,600.

The woman said her guests told her the so-called medicine man's closing chant was fake, that he didn't know the ritual. That meant the ceremony was invalid, and it forced her to find another traditional healer and again prepare food for friends and family at a new ceremony.

The healers at the meeting explained they were powerless to take action against charlatans or to tell her which healers are authentic, so when the woman left, she was angrier than ever.

Sammie Slivers, a chanter and president of the group, says there are several hundred healers on the reservation, but no one knows how many of them are fakes.

The association has resisted calls to publish a list of recommended chanters, herbalists and hand tremblers, partly because no one agrees on the qualities that make a true healer, or what makes a charlatan. And this, of course, makes prosecuting charlatans impossible. Navajo Tribal Court officials say they can't remember a case coming before them.

No certification system

Like doctors in Anglo society, traditional healers have specialties: Hand tremblers figure out the cause of a problem and the kind of ceremony needed to correct it, herbalists prescribe herbs to treat various illnesses, and chanters run healing ceremonies, leading chants and overseeing troupes of dancers. Unlike Anglo doctors, however, no certification system exists for traditional Navajo healers. No one keeps records of client lists or prices, or tracks the names of healers and their teachers.

"The (Diné) association has no way of knowing if the person went through the required training," says Slivers. He added that the apprenticeship to learn Navajo rituals can last from 10-14 years, and few young Navajos have opted to endure such training. On average, only two young Navajos a year apprentice themselves to healers. The program is rigorous; students are forbidden to use notebooks or tape recorders to learn the rites and the complex history behind them. They must memorize everything. Then there's the pay issue: Traditional healers make about $18,000 a year, mostly in jewelry or livestock, and they get no health benefits.

"Most young Navajos," says Deschinny, "would rather have a 9-to-5 job with benefits."

But across Indian country, reservation leaders have complained for decades of people cashing in on the desire to be cured through traditional healing. Many people come to the Navajo reservation claiming to have healing powers derived from the spirit of a long-dead chief or healer, says Deschinny.

"Whenever these kinds of people come," he says, "people seem to flock to them in the hopes of being healed." It's still not uncommon on the reservation, he adds, to come across an Anglo woman, dressed in "60s hippie style, claiming the baby she is carrying or gave birth to is possessed by the spirit of a healer. But on the reservation, the charlatan problem is caused more by Navajos than non-Indians.

Meanwhile, the number of healers is declining, and they are aging - most are over 60 - even as demand for their services grows.

Recently, the tribe established a scholarship program - the first of its kind in the country - to help young Navajos who want to apprentice themselves to a healer. But the program has been allocated only $196,000, far less than what is needed to attract many trainees.

The writer works for the Navajo Times.