My Story

The Medicine Man

Remembering Raymond Begay

By James Donahue

I recently learned of the death of an old friend, Raymond Begay, who kindly took my wife and me into his home during the winter of 1995-96 after we found ourselves homeless and stranded in Arizona.

We sold our Michigan home and moved to Arizona on a strange spiritual quest in the summer and fall of 95 after Doris was offered a job in a government hospital on the Navajo Reservation. She also was promised a home for us to live in. But between the time she was offered the job and we arrived a few days later, President Bill Clinton froze all new government hires because of a fight with the legislators over the 1996 budget, which was to go into effect on October 1.

We ended up stranded in Holbrook, a small town along I-40 at the south edge of the reservation, and found a low cost motel on Old Highway 66 where we could hang our hats until something came along. Other people were coming and going from that motel. Among our neighbors that fall were Raymond and Elfrieda Begay.

 Everybody living in the place got to know everyone else because of two things: a community coffee center and the video rental network. Because there was no television service at the motel, and because there were no television stations within a hundred miles, our best source of entertainment was social contact and movie rentals. We developed a system of passing our rented films from room to room. With four or five families participating, we all had more than enough movies to keep us going for a full week.

The Begays, who temporarily took the room right next to us, were heavy movie watchers. Thus it was that we hooked up with them within a day or two of their moving in.

Raymond was a lean, relatively quiet man who was old enough to have been a veteran of the Korean War. We learned that he was one of the few practicing medicine men still working on the Navajo Reservation. Not only this, but he was a peyote practitioner, licensed by the United States government to buy, handle and distribute peyote, a “controlled substance,” to members of the Church of the Navajo.

Raymond had fought hard for this privilege back when President Nixon declared his War on Drugs and later Ronald Reagan accelerated the program. Peyote, known among the natives as the divine cactus, got included in the list of prohibited controlled substances. The Church of the Navajo used peyote as part of its rituals and Raymond refused to quit. It wasn’t long before federal agents were waiting for him after each service to arrest him and throw him in jail. He appealed each arrest, and largely through his efforts, the native people in America are today allowed to continue using certain natural substances in their holy rituals.

Raymond told us how he was magically trained as a peyote medicine man. He said he was visited one day by some Cherokee people who somehow selected him to be a peyote practitioner among the Navajo. He said they gave him peyote and he went into a trance that lasted several days. When he awoke, he knew all that he needed to know. He had all of the songs and the rituals implanted in his head and spent the rest of his life using his knowledge to reach out and help the people of his tribe.

When he first began practicing the rituals, Raymond said the plant was available throughout much of the Southwest. But changing weather patterns made it harder and harder to find. Eventually it was found only in certain areas in Southern Texas and in Mexico. When we knew Raymond, he had to travel far into southern Texas to get the peyote he needed. He brought the plants back in pails.

He told a story of confronting one of the more powerful Navajo gods, Spider Woman, while on one of his searches for the sacred cactus. He said he had been wandering all day and having no luck in his hunt. He prayed for help, then fell asleep under a small tree. While asleep he dreamed of walking down a dark tunnel and coming face-to-face with Spider Woman. She was a giant and fearsome appearing spider with strange spider eyes standing directly in his path. She was surrounded by webs. Raymond said he saw this as a test of his courage, and knew he had a choice of either turning back, or continuing forward directly into the face of Spider Woman. He chose the latter. As he got close he awoke and found himself surrounded by peyote plants. He considered them a gift from Spider Woman.

Raymond held his religious peyote rituals in a large tent at various locations on the reservation. Only one of them was held at his home near Greasewood during our stay. There was much preparation for that event. I helped Raymond and various other members of the church get ready for the ceremony. We first had to clear a piece of the land, a high sandy plot of ground, of any debris and carefully push the soil around until it was perfectly flat. Then we carefully prepared dried Juniper wood for the fire that was to burn in the center of the tent. Every piece had to be carefully scraped clean of any trace of bark so that the heart of the wood would burn clean, without making smoke.

Once the firewood was ready, we went to the rear of the house where a wagon filled with long thin poles was parked. Raymond carefully selected the poles he wanted to use and we carried them to the site. They were raised as the support for the tent. Once in place, a large canvas tent covering was brought from one of the hogans and hoisted up and over the frame, thus completing the tent. Once raised, it was a massive structure, large enough to allow about forty to fifty people to sit around its outside rim. They made room for my wife, Doris, and me to attend, although we declined. We did not feel then that we belonged in this ritual, although I have since regretted that decision.

While the men were preparing the tent and the grounds, Elfrieda and other women of the church were busy gathering food for a feast that was to be served on the morning after the tent meeting. They slaughtered lamb, the Navajo’s favorite meat, beef, and brought a range of vegetables for serving along with the traditional fry bread that was part of every Navajo meal. On the day prior to the service, the Begay kitchen was a busy place as the food was being prepared.

That night people began driving in from all over the four-state reservation. They came into the house for their drink of the mixture of ground up peyote and water, then carried their personal pails with them into the tent. We asked why they all carried pails. We were told that the peyote caused most people to vomit and the pails were placed between their legs to catch the vomit while they sat on the ground for the service. When I heard that I was glad I chose not to participate that night.

The service started right at midnight. There were drums, and singing and a lot of shouting and speaking in Navajo. Doris and I were up most of the night listening to what was going on. Some of the women stayed in the kitchen, finishing up the meal and making sure everything was ready when it was time for the visitors to eat.

When the service ended the sun was up for the new day and the people ate heartily before getting in their cars and driving off. I asked if some might be too tired to drive after being up all night. Raymond said the effects of the peyote lingered for many hours and would surely keep them awake and alert. From our own observations, the drug did not make anybody dangerous or cause them to behave strangely. If anything, it made them very glad. Raymond said it opened their minds and made it possible for him, as the practicing medicine man, to find and treat all of the personal issues troubling each person in the tent. He said it caused all in the meeting to think as one and there were no secrets.

That day, a few men lingered at the house to be introduced to us. They seemed very curious about us and asked Raymond a lot of questions. They spoke in the Navajo tongue so we did not know what they were saying. But it was obvious, by the way they kept looking at us, that we were the subject of a very long conversation that went on that day. We later learned they were some of the most powerful medicine men and spiritual leaders of the Navajo, some of them having traveled a long distance to attend that service.

In addition to the meetings, Raymond treated many people who came to his home, much like a patient being treated by a doctor. They always spoke in the Navajo tongue, so we never knew what their problems were. Raymond had a special case filled with his tools as a medicine man. They included a special stone, a large eagle feather, and dried cedar. He burned cedar on the stone, chanted and did various incantations, and used the feather to whisk the smoke from the smoldering cedar around the room and especially over the patient. This was how Raymond conducted his healing.

He treated me one time when I was suffering from a severe headache and my blood pressure was out of control. The headache went away and I am sure that the blood pressure dropped, but not quite enough. I eventually made the long trip back to Holbrook to see a doctor about that and get my medication changed. I was sure Raymond headed off a stroke caused by the high altitude we were living at.

Because he used so much cedar, and because cedar was so easy to find in Michigan at and around the neighborhood where we had formerly lived, we contacted a friend in Michigan and made arrangements to have boxes of cedar shipped. The boxes came to an address the Begays had in Greasewood. When they arrived, Raymond was especially pleased with our gift. I remember him sitting for hours near one of the hogans, singing, as he carefully cut and prepared the branches.

We are sure that Raymond Begay is sorely missed by the people on that reservation. Because of his service to his country, his stand against government intervention on the peyote issue, his name will be well remembered among the people.

Raymond also had something to do with the founding and design of the main building housing Dine’ College at Tsaile, near the Four Corners. He once took us to this tribally controlled community college campus housed in a large circular building that had a large open wall circling it. On the inside of the wall was painted a mural that told the history of the Navajo culture. While there we visited college professors and various other people who knew Raymond personally and were all glad to see him.

Raymond surely left his mark among the people of the Navajo Nation.