MEDICINE AND MIRACLES IN THE HIGH DESERT
Erica M. Elliott, M.D.
Balboa Press (2019)
Reviewed by Araceli Noriega for Reader Views (2/2020)
In her memoir, “Medicine and Miracles in the High Desert: My Life Among the Navajo People,” Dr. Erica Elliott takes readers to a place where most non-indigenous readers have never been. She invites readers to join her on an apprentice’s journey to Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico in the 1970s & ‘80s. As a young woman learning about her limits and strengths, Dr. Elliott’s journey teaches readers about the value of developing a strong work ethic on the path to personal and professional success.
Dr. Elliott’s writing swiftly and effectively immerses readers into a spell-binding adventure filled with life lessons and tenderness throughout. She sets out to turn years of experience into an ethnographic summary in story form—and she succeeds!
Her writing style is accessible to all readers, poetic at times, and with a steady of flow harsh reality to ground the reader. I absolutely love the way she demonstrates her growing ever-growing self-awareness as seen here:
“I understood that they probably viewed me like all the other white people who had come to the reservation to “help” them by trying to change their ways. And why shouldn’t they?” (p. 14)
As for the dose of reality, she ethically shares the story of a time when she and a close friend lived through a sexual assault:
“I have honored her request for anonymity by changing every identifying piece of information in this recounting of that terrifying night. Sadly, this incident is not unique to my friend. The number of rapes, murders, and unexplained disappearances of Native women across the country is alarmingly high.” (p. 75)
Wrapping up her story, she gracefully brings the reader full circle:
“During the long drive back to Colorado, my past life with the Navajo people flashed in front of me, filling me with nostalgia and gratitude, along with a vague sense of longing for something from long ago that was no longer there” (p. 153)
Dr. Elliott is able to take her readers from insight, to terror and back—a parallel to the moving narrative arc in the book.
I am grateful to have found Dr. Elliott’s book as it has served many purposes for me personally. Initially, I was drawn to the fact that the memoir was set among the Navajo people. Several years ago, during my career in Social Work, I worked with a Navajo woman who had relocated to the East Coast. She grew up in the area commonly known as “The Four Corners” and introduced me to her culture through our many talks while we worked together. Reading Dr. Elliott’s book took me back to all the feelings I experienced when she shared her stories: serenity, love, struggle, deep pain, and undeniable resolve. Dr. Elliott’s memoir rounds out a series of beautiful exchanges that I treasure with humility and respect.
Later, I found myself relating to Dr. Elliott’s trajectory as she discovered her own resilience by confronting one challenge after another. It is refreshing to read about a woman who isn’t hindered by the many forms in which we are socialized to adhere to stereotypical expectations about gender roles. In her memoir, Dr. Elliott proves to be unapologetically unconventional while courageously fighting for those people and ideals she holds dear to her heart. I hope to use the wisdom she shared in her book as a guide for my own life while I navigate similar experiences.
One challenging aspect of the book centered around the explanation of the Diné language. I am, admittedly a fanatic of linguistics (but by no means an expert), and there is one phrase that caught my attention:
“They referred to their land as Dinétah, literally meaning ‘among the people.’” p. 57
“Navajos call their land Diné Bikeyah, meaning ‘The People’s Land.’” p. 107
Initially, I was slightly confused by these explanations because it seemed that the definition was established one way, only to be re-established differently later in the book. However, my ignorance of the language proved to be the actual challenge after I watched an interview Dr. Elliott gave in 2019 on PBS. She explained and provided examples of the complexity of the Diné language. In the book, she referenced the unique sounds needed for correct pronunciation. However, listening to her speak the language made it clear that she learned a language with incomparable difficulty. My only recommendation would be that in future editions, a sentence or two can be added to underscore the complex and nuanced nature of the Diné language.
I cannot ignore the powerful spiritual element of the book as described by Dr. Elliott. Without the spiritual experiences she mentions, the book is still movingly insightful. However, by including them, she adds a dimension to the story which few writers can. Readers are taken through the book with descriptions testing our sensory perception, not uncommon in well-written memoirs. What is less common is the ability to engage the soul through metaphysical experiences which are intertwined with medical training. Dr. Elliott gracefully balances the two elements as she dispels the myth that outsiders are incapable of shedding their privilege when indigenous people accept them on their own terms.
I highly recommend Dr. Erica Elliott’s ““Medicine and Miracles in the High Desert: My Life Among the Navajo People”. While many may have heard of ‘Indian Reservations’, few have ever communed with the people who inhabit these spaces. Dr. Elliott presents her readership with an opportunity to read about a people and lifestyle they may never learn about otherwise. She is able to demonstrate a deep respect for the people who opened their hearts to her as a young white woman finding her place in the world. With this memoir, Dr. Elliott lovingly honors the life-changing experiences she had while embraced by the families of the Navajo Nation.