Medicine & Miracles Among the Navajo People with Erica Elliott, MD

In this episode my guest Erica Elliott shares powerful stories from her time living with the Navajo as a teacher, sheepherder, and doctor. Her inspiring story, captured in her memoir Medicine & Miracles in the High Desert, reveals the transformative power of reaching out to others with joy, respect, and an open heart.

Medicine & Miracles Among the Navajo People with Erica Elliott, MD

WENDY: You're listening to Lucid Cafe. I'm your host, Wendy Halley.

INTRO: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Lucid Cafe, a podcast exploring healing, consciousness and the complexities of being human. My guest, Erica Elliot, is a wonderful example of how approaching life with curiosity and an open heart will enrich your experience in surprising ways. In our conversation, we talk about her memoir, Medicine and Miracles in the High Desert, which covers just her early adult years. And I think reveals how in that short span of time, she's lived more life than probably 50 people combined. She says she has two more books coming that cover the subsequent chapters of her life. After the conversation you're about to hear, I can't even imagine what comes next. Her story begins in 1971 when she arrived on the Navajo reservation as a newly minted schoolteacher. Knowing nothing about her students or their culture, Erica's inspiring story reveals how transformative it can be to immerse yourself in a spiritually rich culture and not to mention the power of reaching out to others with joy, respect, and an open heart. Erica Elliot is a medical doctor with a busy private practice in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She's referred to as the health Detective and has successfully treated patients from across the country with difficult to diagnose health conditions. Please enjoy my conversation with Dr. Erica Elliot.

WENDY: Thank you so much for coming on the show.

ERICA: It's a pleasure, Wendy.

WENDY: You have a new book. Is it out already or is it coming out?

ERICA: It came out December 14, actually. I originally self published, and it did really well just by word of mouth. I'm a busy doctor. I didn't have time to market or anything, so it sold quite a few copies, given that it wasn't really marketed. And so they reached out to me, Inner Traditions bearing company and asked me to republish it for the different covers, some revisions, and an update on what's going on in the Navajo reservation. And they wanted to do it to give wide distribution, including Europe. But in Europe, they go crazy for Native Americans. I don't know if you're aware of that.

WENDY: I did not know that, but it's actually not surprising now that you're saying that. Yeah, well, Inner Traditions is not far from where I am right now. They're a Vermont publisher.

ERICA: Oh, cool.

WENDY: Yeah. So that's really cool that they saw the beauty of your story and they wanted to bring it to a wider audience. That's really cool. The name of the book is Medicine and Miracles in the High Desert, My Life Among the Navajo People. So my understanding from reading your book is that this is the first of a series of memoirs, is that correct?

ERICA: Yes. I've already written the second manuscript, and Inner Traditions is interested, and they want to see how well this book does. And they're going to tell me by May if it's doing well enough for them to do my whole series.

WENDY: Ah, yes, the publishing industry. It's fun, isn't it? So here you are doing your interviews, trying to sell more books.

ERICA: I actually enjoyed the interviews. I actually look forward to them. To tell you the truth, it's not a drag for me at all.

WENDY: That's awesome. No. And that's a good way to go into them.

ERICA: Yeah.

WENDY: The book, Medicine and Miracles, is basically covering your early adult life. You made some interesting decisions in your early adult life.

ERICA: Yeah.

WENDY: Starting with teaching on the Navajo reservation. Can you talk a little bit about how that came to be?

ERICA: Sure. Well, it's a long backstory, but I'll try and make it really short, actually. Memoir, too, talks about some of the early childhood I was born knowing I had a purpose in life. But I have no idea what it was. No idea at all. So anyway, I went to Antioch College, and that was by mistake because I went to high school in Germany. I didn't really know what these colleges were like, and it was so extremely progressive, I couldn't relate to it at all. And I thought I made a big mistake. Well, it turns out the best thing that happened to me because it really massively opened my mind, uh, up to different ways of thinking and so forth. And it allowed me to really discover that I was not the person I thought I was. And I was capable of much more than I ever thought I was capable of.

WENDY: So can I interject a real quick question?

ERICA: Yeah.

WENDY: So you're talking about is it a cultural difference between German schools and American schools? Is that what you mean?

ERICA: Well, my father was a general in the army, so he was commander of the military base in Frankfurt. And I went to an international school. But the upbringing was very disciplined and so forth and very critical. Highly critical. Like my mother Swiss and in the old European style, she raised us, which means constant criticism, quote, for our own good and hitting and so forth. And my father, who was more like the nurturing type, he, believe it or not, as a general, but he was always gone. And then our schools were highly disciplined and very traditional and so forth.

So, I didn't realize what kind of school I was applying to because they all sounded somewhat the same in the catalogs. But anyway, it completely shattered my old way of looking at things. And at first I was totally disoriented. And then I regained my balance and benefited tremendously from all these different ways of thinking and being in the world. And so it so opened me up and realized I had huge potential for being whoever I wanted to be. I really thought I'm going to find what my purpose is in life. So I went on a ten year search and finally led me to medicine.

But the first step was teaching and how I came to teach on the Navajo reservation is when I graduated in education, I looked through the trade journals to see what was available, and none of it really interested me at all. But one place jumped out at me. It was a position for a fourth grade teacher in a remote area in the middle of nowhere on the Navajo reservation for fourth grade, a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I thought, that's where I'm going to go. And when people would say, Why in the world would you pick a place like that? I had to tell the truth. And I don't know. I have an inner compass. And it says to go there.

And many people tried to talk me out of it. They said, haven't you heard about the boarding schools for Indian kids and how they're treated so badly? And the girls are raped and they're punished and hit and mouthwashed out with soap if they talk their language. And I said, I have a feeling it's not going to be like that because this is 1971. That was all in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. And they said, Well, I think you're making a really big mistake.

I went out there, I got the job. But I didn't hear from them for a year. After I didn't hear from the Bureau of Indian Affairs a few months, I gave up. I thought, oh, they found somebody. So I'm just going to go travel around, visit my relatives in Europe and visit family members in the US and stuff. And when I arrived in California to visit my sister, there was a letter that had been forwarded around the country, and it was from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It was a year old. And they say, we want you contact us immediately. And my sister said, that's a really bad sign. They're still looking for something. They can't feel it. So I called them and they said, yeah, we still want to come right now. Even though the school year had already begun, I borrowed money to buy a really junky car. That's all I could afford. And borrowed my sister's clothes because I just had a backpack and drove out there.

It was spectacular going through the Southwest. I mean, just gorgeous, huge skies that you don't have back east. Huge and, uh, gone forever, like, to Infinity and beautiful rock formations. I was just in awe. But then I got to the town, and it looked really dumpy. Like, everything was Brown, different shades of Brown. And my eyes were not adapted. I didn't see any beauty at all. And I didn't know it was near one of the most beautiful places on Earth called Canyon de Chelly, which is, like, so magical and mysterious. It's, um, unbelievable. I love taking my East Coast friends there because they never say anything like this, even in their wildest dreams. It's so gorgeous. Anyway, it looked really disappointing, and the town looked like it was some backwater place. It was just one road through it. One gas station, one junk food grocery store. That's all it's sold as white bread and canned foods. Really junky. And one restaurant, and that's it.

And the boarding school looked totally dilapidated. And then it went from bad to worse. Then I met the white school teachers, and they were all white, and most of them were women, and they were old. In my view. They're all about 55, but I was young, and that seemed really old to me. And they were just waiting to get their government check the pension so they could retire. They didn't like being there. And I got the feeling they didn't like the students either. And they told me they couldn't learn. And they didn't have anything nice to say about being there or the children.

And then my first day at class, the children didn't even look at me. They looked down the whole time, and nobody talked to me. And the, uh, teacher aide was really quiet, and I didn't know what was going on. Why are they acting like that? And I had no idea about Navajo culture. I never got an orientation. And so in retrospect, I made one blunder after another after another cross cultural disaster. And out of my ignorance day after day. And I'd end up just reading these stupid Dick and Jane things to the students because I didn't know what else to do. They weren't communicating with me, and they probably couldn't understand anything I was saying anyway.

And so finally, after week, I called my father, and I said, I made a really big mistake. I'm coming home, and I'll find a job back east. And he said, but you've only been there a week. How can you judge a place from a week? Why don't you stay there three months so you can get to know the people, the land, the culture, and so forth. If you're unhappy after three months, then you come home. But you've got to give a place a chance. Okay, I'm leaving after three months, for sure. I don't even know I'm going to last three months. I really don't like it at all. Then something miraculous happened. The next day, my teacher aide, whose name is Donna Scott, who has a very, very famous brother. I didn't know that at the time. I didn't know anything about Navajos - very famous brother, who's an artist well known across the Southwest, RC Gorman.

WENDY: I think my mom had a print of his.

ERICA: Exactly. And then she really knew the white world. She was very traditional, but she knew she could live in both worlds because she was brought up on army bases with her family. So her father, Carl Gorman, was one of the most famous co talkers in World War II.


ERICA: Do you think your listeners know what the code talkers are? I could tell really briefly.

WENDY: Well, it wouldn't hurt to just do a quick review of what it is, because it's fascinating.

ERICA: Yeah. So in World War II, they had codes, the Germans had codes, the Japanese had codes, and the Americans had codes. And all the codes were broken except for one. And that was our codes because the US Army recruited Navajos to talk their own language. It wasn't even a code, but it tells you how incredibly complex and difficult panaval languages. And I got to experience that firsthand. So Donna Scott said, I really feel for you. She spoke perfect English. I really feel for you. And I see how hard you're trying, and I want to help you. You're different from the other teachers. You're really trying. I started to cry. I'm really trying. And this is not working. And she put her arm around me, and she said, you know, if you just learned a few words of Navajo, it would make all the difference. And she taught me how to say three sentences to me, that sound was so strange. It was (speaks Navajo). I had to ask her to say it over and over, because there are sounds that don't exist in English. Don't exist at all, right? And, there's these glottal stops and clicking and sounds where you blow air through the tongue at the roof of the mouth, and tonal sounds, nasal sounds. And you have to say things just right, or you're saying something completely different. Like, each vowel has about ten ways to pronounce. It almost like Chinese.

WENDY: Like Mandarin. Yeah.

ERICA: Mandarin. Like English. A like "hat" is "ah." And then "came" - I came home - is "a" and that's it for English. But you could take that a vowel do it ten different ways. Whether a, uh, voice goes, uh, up a little bit, up along, uh, up along, and glottal stop up and then down or down and down, that's ten different ways. And if you don't say it right, you could be saying something really bad that you didn't want to.

And so I practiced way into the night in front of a mirror, making these weird sounds. And the next day, I walked into the room, and the class was still like this, looking down at their desk. And I stood in front of the class, and I said, (speaks Navajo). "Good morning, my children. My name is Ms. Elliott. Erica Elliot. What are your names and where do you come from?" And all of a sudden, all the heads looked up at the same time. The first time we made eye contact, and they were in shock. And then one of the little girls put her hand over her mouth and started to giggle. And then all 36 children burst out laughing. And that marked the beginning of a complete turnaround, a total love affair between me and the students. And that same day, at the end of the day, one of the bravest boys who spoke a little bit of English came up to my desk and said, Ellit. They couldn't say Elliot, because that was too hard. So they called me Ellit. He said, Ellit, take me home. I said, what?

WENDY: My home or your home?

ERICA: And I looked at Donna, and she smiled. She said, he wants you to take him home. I said, I don't really get it. And she said, he wants you to check him out this weekend from the boarding school and bring him to his home. I said, Am I allowed to do that? She said, yes, but nobody does it. These kids go for months without seeing their parents and their homesick as hell. And because their homes are far away, deep into the Canyon. You need a horse or four wheel drive. And it would take forever for the family to drive to the school and back every day. It's not realistic at all.

So when the weekend came, I checked out Billy Begay. And I had a four wheel drive. And I drove him way deep into the Canyon. It was the most gorgeous place I'd ever seen in my life. It was so otherworldly. It was so sort of mystical or something. I felt like I was in another world. And we went to the Hogan. That's an eight sided log house they live in. And the family didn't speak any English. They're very traditional dress. Totally traditional. This is 50 years ago. And they were so warm and welcoming. I tried out my few words of Navajo. They loved it. They loved it. They laughed and laughed and laughed. And then they shared with me their food. They're very poor, but they didn't consider themselves poor. That's our judgment. They were fine. They were just living their life.

We went horse back riding with the boys and bareback racing through the camp. I had the time of my life. I spent the night there. They gave up their bed, and I didn't want them to. And they slept on sheep skin. By the time Monday came around, the whole school had known about Billy Begay's experience. Everybody knew about it. And they're all very excited. And by now, they're totally making eye contact with me. They're very comfortable with me.

And I was starting to really learn Navajo. And every time I learned a new word, they were thrilled. Here's what happened. They wanted me so badly to learn about their lives. They saw that I cared. They learned English so fast. So, first of all, they came to the fourth grade. You say, how can you come to the fourth grade and not speak English? How is that possible? Well, it's because the teachers didn't care about them. And they just sort of Dick and Jane kind of stuff that the kids couldn't relate to. And now they had somebody who they saw really cared about them. And they wanted to learn to, uh, write English and talk to me and stuff like that. So they can tell me about their sheep and their grandmother and their goats and all that stuff. And so Monday morning, I thought, I have an idea. We're going to make our own curriculum, and it's going to be relevant to them. It's not going to be some white middle class information.

WENDY: What a novel idea.

ERICA: Yes, I know. He said, we're going to start right now. And so I had everybody have a paper and gave them some colored pencils and stuff. And I said, I'd like, since you all know what happened at Billy Bigtime, I'd like you to draw a picture of Canyon de Chelly. And then I'd like you to write two sentences below the picture about the picture. And so they were really good at drawing. They drew and some people could only come up with one word and some a full sentence. And so they had different ranges of ability. One of the boys drew a picture of the Canyon with this horse racing through the Canyon. And on the back of the horse was a white woman holding on for dear life to the main of the horse with her ponytail sticking straight out in the wind. And underneath it said, My teacher, T-E-E-C-H-I-R. That was so touching.

And so I'll just wrap this section up so you can ask me other questions just by saying that the miracle of having somebody care about you. The transformation is so profound. I mean, these teachers had said, These kids don't learn. Well, that is so not true. These were very smart children. So smart that they went from barely speaking a few words of English to the end of the year. Three of them won a regional speech contest. And I have a newspaper article to prove it. And I cut it out because I thought, no one's ever going to believe this. I have to have proof that this happened. So the three girls that want one and one in poetry, too. It's just outrageous!

WENDY: That's astounding.

ERICA: The white teachers said, they don't work. It's so wrong. So they totally blossomed. I was so moved. And they completely accepted me into their culture. Every weekend, I took a different student deep into far away Mesas, Canyons where they lived. And they invited me into their ceremonies where white people aren't even allowed. And white people have never even seen anything like this. I saw stuff that it's hard to believe, but they totally accept me into their homes, their ceremonies, their hearts. I felt so fortunate, I can't tell you. So I'll end here that part.

WENDY: But it started with your teaching assistant kind of throwing you a bone. But I, mean, it's just logic, right? That you meet someone where they're at and not expect them to bend to your expectations?

ERICA: Yeah, exactly. Donna Scott did something interesting for me. She was trying to help me learn about Navajo culture, because really, the school doesn't orient those teachers. No wonder they don't know the first thing about Navos, and they're teaching them. So she went through and debrief the first week where I was flustered and stuff, and, oh, my God, it was not the way I thought at all. They were not looking at me out of both shyness and respect. You only look people in the eye if you're angry or you know them really well. They're your friends.

WENDY: It's a big difference.

ERICA: Yes. And so I totally misinterpreted everything. I mean, I couldn't have made more mistakes. And then another thing, I thought, Why aren't they talking to me? And she said, they don't talk because they don't speak English.

WENDY: There you go.

ERICA: And then another mistake I made, a big one for 50 years ago, is I would point to a student and what's your name? Like pointing my finger. And they all would shrink as, uh, a shirt, like, as though I shot them with a gun or something. And Donna Scott explained that traditional Navajos, you never point a finger at them because you're, uh, making them stand out, and they could succumb to witchcraft or something that happened to them. You never do that. If you want to point, you point with your lips. So I learned how to say, stick out my lips like I was kissing somebody when I was indicating a certain direction, but never point with the fingers. So the list of mistakes I made is tremendous.

WENDY: Right. Innocent enough, but it sounds like once you got an education, you turned that ship around.

ERICA: Yeah.

WENDY: What's interesting to me and hearing your story is how quickly the Navajo people warm to you because you were making this effort to speak their language. I don't usually hear about natives, who have a lot of reason not to trust, warming up to outsiders that kind of quickly.

ERICA: I think they recognized something in me, that I was not an anthropologist. I was not studying them. I was not trying to be a white savior. They felt that from me. They felt I was real.

WENDY: They must have. Yeah. So after your first year, you made another decision, right?

ERICA: No, it was two years teaching.

WENDY: Two years teaching. And then you made another really big life decision for your summer break.

ERICA: Right. Okay. So I have to backtrack. The principal really liked what I was doing at first. He thought I was sabotaging their whole curriculum, their whole way of doing things.

WENDY: (insert sarcasm here!) Because it was going so well.

ERICA: Yes. Then he had a new way to see what I was doing, and then became really supportive. And he called Washington the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And he said, you know, we have this white woman here who speaks Navajo now, and she's teaching about native culture to the students, about other tribes and stuff. This was when bilingual education was just starting. I think I forgot who started at Robert Kennedy senior or... I don't remember, but it was just a whole new concept. And he said, you might consider making her a pilot program for bilingual bicultural education. And that's what I was after, uh, my first year. The BBC even came and interviewed, took pictures of the video of the classroom and interviewed us and stuff. And they were totally enchanted by the kids.

And so they said, well, she has to, in the summers, get her master's degree in bilingual education so she can be legit. And so they sent me to Flagstaff, to the University of Northern Arizona. And it was so boring. It was all stuff I was already doing. And to be stuck in a classroom where I could be doing something else, riding horses and stuff. And it was so boring. But I had to do it for two summers in a row. And then after the second year, they wanted to send me back so I could complete it. And I did not want to go back. And I wanted to go even deeper into Navajo culture. I wanted to take a really deep dive.

And so my Navajo boyfriend took me to visit his really ancient parents in the middle of nowhere in this gorgeous place called Red Rock. I so fell in love with the place. And the family spoke no English. The old woman, who was 80 something, she knew one word. It was water, because water was so scarce, and they had 594 sheep and goats. So they were considered wealthy. Not money in the bank, but tangible wealth. I just had this crazy idea. I said to my boyfriend, Marshall, do you think I can live, spend the summer with your parents? He said, well, what would you do? I said, Well, I would herd the sheep. And they had a son who already herd sheep. He was cognitively impaired. The old word is retarded. He didn't speak any English. And he said, yeah, you can take Morris' job and herd the sheep. So he presented the idea to his parents, and they burst out. They thought it was the funniest thing they'd ever heard, a white woman herding sheep. And finally he said, you know, she's not joking. She really wants to do that. And they just couldn't believe it. But they said yes. So I spent the whole summer doing the deep dive into Navajo very traditional life. I learned how to not only herd sheep, but I really perfected my Navajo. So before I talked like a five year old. Now I could really converse. And I learned some of their songs and stuff. I learned how to butcher the sheep. That was a big hurdle to overcome.

WENDY: Yeah.

ERICA: And I learned to shear the sheep, card the wool, spin the wool diet with the local plants. And I already knew how to weave because they taught me that when I was at the boarding school. So I wove rugs, and we created outdoor looms they called upright looms. You do it with a tree as support.

I learned how you could be really happy and own almost nothing. And material things did not make one more happy. At the end of the summer, I had another sort of epiphany is that I wanted to learn about other Native Americans in South America. And I thought, I'm going to join the Peace Corps and work with Quechua speaking Indians in South America. And that's what I did.

But saying goodbye was so painful. I just, uh, felt so awful because while I was in love with the place and I love my boyfriend and stuff, I knew that if I didn't leave now, I'd probably stay the rest of my life. Married Marshall and have six kids. I felt like there was something else I was supposed to be doing. Uh, I was on that path to purpose, but I didn't think it was doing that. And so when I said goodbye, it was terribly sad because his parents, his old parents. I said I was leaving to go back home. And they said, well, your home is here. Well, I mean, my parents, my mother and father. And then there was long silence. And after a long silence, Lee Tom said, well, where do they live? And New Hampshire wouldn't have meant anything. I said, near the big water where the sun comes up. And then long silence. It was so painful, I can't tell you, because they sort of never asked about my life before I was with the Navajos. Nobody did. It was as though my life began once I stepped onto the reservation, and they accepted me into their life. It's like, oh, yeah, she's one of us and nothing about my prior life.

WENDY: Do you think that has anything to do with their relationship with time, too?

ERICA: Yes, I do. Very in the present.

WENDY: Right. Because that was the only thing that mattered. Right. Was that moment, and there you were.

ERICA: Yeah, that's right.

WENDY: This might be a really difficult question to answer, but I'm going to ask it anyway! What would you say was the biggest takeaway or the way in which those experiences changed you?

ERICA: Oh, so many different themes going on all at the same time. One theme was that I witnessed what we'd call miracles. A miracle is when something amazing happens and you don't know how to explain it. That's my definition of a miracle. And I saw miracle after miracle after miracle. I had no way to know how this happens with my Western mind. So I had to just say, I can't explain it, but it happened. It's real. I witnessed it. I witnessed miraculous healing on myself. I witnessed being able to sing Navajo songs that I never heard before in my life and pray prayers that I've never heard of. This was in the peyote ceremony. Again, that was not allowed for white people, but they let me in.

So that's one of many take home messages that I learned. I was completely transformed from that experience. I learned the power of crossing the cultural divide. Whether it's somebody who has different ideas than you or different color, different language, different belief systems. What happens when you try to see the world through their eyes and then add on top of that, you care about the other person? It's like that's where a different kind of miracle can happen. I knew that when I found my ultimate purpose, it had to include caring and love for whatever I was doing with whom ever I was working. And it ended up being in medicine. So I treat my patients in a way that mainstream medicine doesn't treat their patients.

WENDY: I'd like to ask you about that in a little bit, but I'm curious about after having these miraculous experiences, how did that - I'm making an assumption with this question - How did that change your view of the nature of reality?

ERICA: That I realized that what I believed was real was so tiny and really not accurate. Meaning there is so much more than the common narrative. This is the way things are, and you can't do this and you have to do this or this will happen. And if you don't do that, that will happen. It's just anything is possible. That's what I learned. But our beliefs prevent us from even seeing the potential. We are so limited. And I was too, because I just said, how can this happen? I had no way to explain it because I was in that box too, but I was being forced out of the box. But I didn't understand. But it happened and it changed me.

WENDY: Well, how could it not? I mean, that is such a powerful thing to have your kind of your head cracked open in a way, figuratively. And to have a direct experience that defies rational logic.

ERICA: In fact, I'll confess something to you, Wendy. When I've talked to groups of people, they said, Why did you wait 50 years to write this story? And that's a good question. And I thought about it. And here's why. It took 50 years. When I was living this experience, I documented everything in a diary. That's why writing the book was really easy, because it was right there and I document it because it was so far out. What I was experiencing, even on just ordinary day, was so far out. So every evening I write in my diary because I said to myself, I must never forget this. It's so far from white people's reality that I was afraid that in a few years I would even doubt that this happened. My brain would trick me and say, you made that up.

WENDY: It could happen easily.

ERICA: Yes, it could happen easily because the brain can fool you. And so I was doggedly documenting what I felt, what I experienced, what I heard, and stuff like that. And then my sisters read the diary. And they said, oh, my God, this was like 1973. They read the diary. They said, you should make this into a story. This is incredible. I thought, no, I'm not going to write about it because no one will believe it. And I have proof no one will believe it because I used to tell some of these stories, and people used to look at me completely blank. Right. Like, oh, yeah, sure. So I learned to shut up because when I was younger, it really hurt my feelings not to be believed.

WENDY: Of course. Yeah.

ERICA: It didn't feel good. And so I just kept quiet. So I had this big secret. As I matured over the years, I didn't care if people believe me or not. I just wanted to tell the truth. And if they couldn't handle it, it's not my problem.

WENDY: Right.

ERICA: But I was too busy being a doctor, and so I didn't make time. So then when all this cultural divisiveness happened, especially around the elections and stuff like that, I thought, oh, my God, I have a healing story about crossing the cultural divide. I have to write it. And I felt so determined that I was going to get this story out that after a very busy day seeing patients. And it's not like I'm a pill dispenser. I really go deep with the patients, and they have very complicated problems. They come from all over the country because their regular doctors don't have a clue what to do with them or how to figure out what's wrong and so forth. And so I'm usually exhausted by the end of the day because I really put myself into taking care of my patients. But once I made that decision, I got energy from I don't know where it was like, I'd sit in front of my computer and say, oh, I'm so tired. I don't know how I'm going to do this. And then all of a sudden it was, though. Yes. I was plugged into a socket, and boom, I would write for 3 hours. And then I say, how did I do that?

WENDY: Smoke coming out of your fingers?!

ERICA: Yeah. How can I do that? And it shows you that when you have a vision or something, you somehow get the energy.

WENDY: The purpose. Is this part of your purpose? Aside from being a doctor? Yeah.

ERICA: It's part of my purpose. And then sharing what I learned over this lifetime because it's so extraordinary. The lessons that I've learned are extraordinary.

WENDY: Absolutely. And they changed you?

ERICA: Yeah. They changed me profoundly. I don't remotely resemble the girl that I was.

WENDY: The one who stepped on the Antioch campus?

ERICA: Yeah. I don't even know that person.

WENDY: And so now you're a mountain lion woman. Yeah?

ERICA: Yes. Uh huh. Did you like that?

WENDY: Yeah. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? Share that quick story?

ERICA: Sure. Okay. So they're 52 weeks in the year. And they're 36 students. So I took a student home every weekend. But then there are some weekends I wasn't taking a student home. So I was so passionately in love with the wilderness in the Southwest. That one weekend I drove off by myself. And I drove to Southern Utah. And there's huge, vast expanses of land that are not populated. And haven't been developed. Very remote. And so I was fearless in those days. I left the paved robe and drove off into Wildness. And there wasn't even a real road. It was just a rutted track. And I went for 40 miles. When I wrote the story. I thought, Jesus, if my car had broken down....

WENDY: I was thinking that as I read it.

ERICA: I'd be very dead. I'd be desiccated and dead as a doorknob. But I didn't think of that. I was so in awe of what I was seeing. I was in a state of ecstasy. And after about 40 miles I saw this beautiful rock enclosure. And there was, like, a natural cistern that held water in there. So I thought, this is where I'm going to stop and spend the night. And so I spent the rest of the day and took off all my clothes. I wasn't afraid of, uh, nature or animals. I was afraid of people. I was afraid of men raping me. And here I was, no people.

I was in heaven and start making it. And just letting the rays of the sun bless me. I thought, I am the happiest person in the whole world. And then the darkness started to come. So I dried off and walked around the rocks. And found a nice flat area to put my sleeping bag. There was no tent or anything. It was just never rained. Under the stars. And it was a full moon. So everything was illuminated.

And got my sleeping back out. And had a little conversation with the moon. I just loved the full moon. And then fell asleep. And at some point in the night. I had a very vivid dream. It was so vivid that it was, um, almost real. And so in my dream, I was in Billy Beget's sheep corral. And we're trying to get the Billy goat away. Because the Billy goat wanted to mate with the female goats. And it wasn't mating time. It means the babies would have born in the wrong season. And so we're trying to remove the Billy goat and the Billy goat. Because it was sexually mature, reeked of hormones. And it's not a pleasant smell. It's very strong and acrid. And it was so strong. I felt, oh, my God.

And then I realized, I'm not asleep. And I can feel the rock under me. And then I heard a sniffing sound. And I opened my eyes. And there two inches from me. Was the tawny snout of a mountain lion sniffing me. And in the Moonlight I could see the Tan colored and the black whiskers. And I got paralyzed with fear, meaning I didn't move. I barely breathed. And my heart was pounding in my chest. I just lay there, completely paralyzed with fright, waiting for him to claw me up, rip me apart, and eat me. And I even remember thinking, I wish he would hurry up and get it over with, right? Yeah. And then nothing happened. Nothing happened. But I was too scared to even open my eyes. And even when morning came, the sun was way up.

When I finally opened my eyes. And of course, there was no tracks because it was on sandstone. But when I stuffed my sleeping bag into the bag, that smell wafted up into my nostrils, that hormone, that very strong, uncomfortable smell. And the hair stood up on my forearms and my neck. And I just thought, oh, God. So then I drove back to the pavement. Forty miles. And I stopped at a gas station. And I told the guy that I had a really close encounter with a mountain line. And he told me that. He says it's a damn good thing you didn't move because then cats will rip you apart. So he's saying, basically, I was saved because I was so afraid I couldn't move.

And then when I got home, I kept thinking something's different about this. It's not just a terrifying experience. It's something going on. And I just couldn't put my finger on it. So I went. Drove all the way to Gallup, New Mexico, two hours to a library, checked out books on mountain lines, talked to Park Rangers and biologists. And they all said the same thing. They said, you're alive because you didn't move. They like things that move.

But I wasn't satisfied. I kept thinking it's almost as though the mountain lion was trying to tell me something I felt. And everybody laughed at that idea. That's ridiculous. And so I told Donna Scott the story, and she said, you know, I'm going to tell this other teacher aide. She has a grandmother who does prophecies and stuff and she lives in the Canyon, and she can tell you what this all means. So the other teacher aide took me into the Canyon, and we met her ancient grandmother, who's all full of wrinkles. Very beautiful, though in her ancientness and little twinkly eyes smoking handmade corncob pipe. She taught Navajo, and I was just learning Navajo. So the teacher a translated everything. And I actually wrote down her translation because I never wanted to forget it. So the grandmother said, the mountain lion came to me because he's my spirit guide. And it's no just chance encounter came to me because the mountain lion, it was a male, of course, and wanted to share with me his courage, strength, and perseverance. Because she said she prophesized. She said, you will need that. You will need what? The mountain lion has to give you because you're going to face some very serious challenges and they might kill you. One of them might kill you. The challenges. And if you survive, you will have powerful medicine to bring to the people. And her prophecies came true.

WENDY: And are those the subject of your next book?

Memoir three is all about medicine. My whole journey and my disenchantment after ten years with mainstream medicine. I said, this isn't what I spent all those years looking forward just to get pills and order lots of tests and not really help the patient really heal from their chronic condition. I said, this isn't my purpose in life. But I had to have a disaster in order to leave. Because mainstream medicine, it's seductive. Like, this is so important. What we're doing and stuff. And other people who practice with more natural medicine are quacks and stuff like that. And you don't want to be regarded as a quack.

WENDY: I hear you.

ERICA: Yeah. Anyway, so I had this disaster happened, and it forced me off the path, meaning because of what happened to me physically, I could not continue. And I started practicing out of my home, and I gradually got better. And then I mean, pretty soon, just by word of mouth, I never once advertised, even though I was still not totally well from the disaster. They kept coming and coming, and they'd come from all over, even Europe. It just tells you how bad Western medicine is, how broken that they would come this far to see me. And the way I practice is actually common sense. It's not like I'm a genius. I'm caring. I listen. I try to be a medical Detective. In fact, that's my nickname, the Health Detective people call me.

WENDY: I like that.

ERICA: And I love to figure out why they don't feel well and address it in the least harmful way possible.

WENDY: And that sounds like the same approach you had with the children when you stepped into the boarding school. And it also what I was thinking is you're talking about your experience with Western medicine is that that same attitude, that same cultural attitude is what is preventing us from connecting with other Indigenous people. Exactly. Not just the Navajo, but it's like an arrogance in a way.

ERICA: Arrogance. That's the word. It's arrogance. It's not honoring the person you're trying to treat. It's treating them like they're a commodity. And you have to see 40 in a day and you can't spend more than fifteen minutes even though they're in terrible suffering. It's just outrageous.

WENDY: It doesn't make any sense.

ERICA: You're right. You're absolutely right.

WENDY: You're still seeing patients?

ERICA: I'm still seeing patients. But for five years I haven't taken on new patients because I have 1200, which is really way too much. As a solo practitioner in my little clinic in my home is way too much. And I'm 73. I have no interest in retiring because this is what I love. This is so meaningful. In fact, sometimes I feel like I should pay the patient for being my patient because it brings me so much joy.

WENDY: That's amazing. We need to bottle that, give it to everybody!

ERICA: My patients know they are loved. They know it. Yeah. And so when they come in, they say, you're the only doctor that I'm excited about coming to see. And they say no matter what happens, they always say, I feel so much better even if I didn't really do anything. They say I feel so much better. I think it's because I'm antidoting all the fear mongering that goes on by mainstream medicine. You know, you have to do this or you're going to die in six months. And so I try and antidote the harm of those kind of messages.

WENDY: Well, that and empathy goes a long way. Well, Erica, I am so thankful that you came on and chatted with me and shared some of these stories.

ERICA: Thank you. I enjoyed talking with you, Wendy. I can see that you have a big heart.

WENDY: Oh, thanks!

ERICA: You don't have to cut that out when you edit!

WENDY: I'll keep that in, too. That's cute.

OUTRO: All right, so I've got my fingers crossed that Erika's book will sell like crazy. So the next two books in her memoir series will be published and we can find out what happens next. Erika's memoir, Medicine and Miracles in the High Desert, can be found on the Inner Traditions website, (which is included in the Show Notes) bookstores, and at all the usual online book retailers.

And while you're shopping online, Why not check out the Lucid Path boutique on Etsy? It's a great way to support the podcast. I love Etsy. I started selling Shamanic frame drums with hand painted henna designs on Etsy years ago And I recently expanded the offerings to include T shirts, I got power animal T shirts and other trippy cosmic designs. I can get lost for hours making these designs. It's really fun right now, there's free shipping for all Tshirts and notebooks. A link to the Lucid Path boutique is in the Show Notes. Or you can just do a search for Lucid path on Etsy.
All right, that wraps it up for this episode. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time....

Medicine & Miracles Among the Navajo People with Erica Elliott, MD
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