Books

Doctor recounts lessons learned among Navajo people

Author Erica Elliott plans book-signing this week at SOMOS

By Dena Miller
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 5/16/19

“Yá’át’ééh sha’ ałchíní. Shí éí Erica Elliott yinishyé. Nisha? Haash yinilyé? The words mean, ‘Hello my children. My name is Erica Elliott. And you? What is your name?’”

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Books

Doctor recounts lessons learned among Navajo people

Author Erica Elliott plans book-signing this week at SOMOS

Posted

In 1971, a young teacher in her early 20s was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and assigned to a fourth grade classroom in a boarding school on the Canyon de Chelly Navajo reservation.

She had grown up with a Swiss mother and a father who was a general in the U. S. Army, had lived in over 40 different places, and had graduated from high school in Germany. Despite this worldly upbringing and her college education at the politically radical Antioch College of Ohio, she was unprepared for what awaited.

“I wasn’t given an orientation or any information about the Navajo community I would be serving,” Dr. Erica Elliott said. “It was just a big unknown desert to me and I had 36 students that would neither look at nor talk to me. I was in despair and convinced I had made the biggest mistake of my young life, until my teacher’s aide, Donna Scott [sister of late Taos artist R. C. Gorman], turned my self-absorbed angst on its head.”

“Donna pointed out the children didn’t often encounter Anglos, and hadn’t learned to speak English, so my difficulties in the classroom was a combination of their shyness complicated by our inability to communicate with each other. She told me the fastest salvo was to learn the Navajo language, and then proceeded to teach me my first words.”

“Yá’át’ééh sha’ ałchíní. Shí éí Erica Elliott yinishyé. Nisha? Haash yinilyé? The words mean, ‘Hello my children. My name is Erica Elliott. And you? What is your name?’”

Not surprisingly, it was the breakthrough Elliott needed to reach her students. And as her fluency in Navajo grew, so did her students’ in English. “They learned so fast because they wanted to be able to tell me their stories,” she said. “I went there to be a teacher, and found myself becoming a student of their rich culture and heritage, and a way of life that has mostly passed into history.”

Elliott is coming to Taos on Sunday (May 19) to share more of her fascinating stories when she reads from her new book at the SOMOS Salon and Bookstore. Beginning at 4 p.m., her years on the reservation and her journeys throughout other indigenous locales will come to vivid life with passages from “Medicine and Miracles in the High Desert: My Life Among the Navajo People.”

The SOMOS Salon is located at 108 Civic Plaza Drive, and this community event is free and open to all.

“It’s taken decades for me to write this story, which is truly a spiritual and mythological one, but the recent couple of years that have fostered hate and fear of the unknown compelled me to describe my own experiences with what happens when you open up your heart,” Elliott said, noting the lasting influence of the Navajos on her life.

“This book is sorely needed at this moment in America, when divisive voices incessantly warn us of the other, the foreigner, those who ‘are not like us.‘ [It] reveals how diversity and inclusiveness can enrich our own society—a lesson on which our future may depend,” said author Dr. Larry Dossey in a promotional quote.

Taos’ own Natalie Goldberg declared the book “beautifully written” and Anne Hillerman said, “[Elliott] leaves the reader with something to ponder: The abiding importance of reaching out to others with joy and respect. I love this book.”

After several years with the Navajo students, and having shared the hogan of a Navajo sheepherding family, Elliott was driven to continue her exploration of other native cultures through service in the U. S. Peace Corps, traveling to Ecuador and the high altitude Andes, and climbing the Western hemisphere’s highest mountains with Outward Bound. Then, at an age where most medical students are graduating, she received a full scholarship to begin medical school at the University of Colorado.

After completing her medical studies, “I returned to New Mexico and went to work at a clinic in Cuba where I was often the only physician on call to address an underserved population, performing emergency medicine, delivering babies,” she recalled. The depth to which she immersed herself in Native and alternative healing practices, combined with profound personal challenges, ultimately made her rethink the standards of mainstream medical care, which she characterizes as “pill pushing.”

Today, her practice in Santa Fe is a beacon of hope for those with chronic illnesses who have not responded to conventional methodology. She is board-certified in both family and environmental medicine and she employs a variety of integrative approaches, taking into account such factors as nutrition, food allergens, and environmental toxins.

Of the self-discovery journey through her childhood, and the time spent on the Navajo reservation, to where she finds herself today, Elliott says, “From an early age I knew I was here for a reason but I didn’t know what that was. Now, looking back I see the tapestry that I was weaving all along, and can now speak to the transformation that came. I’ve been able to heal others, and I’ve been healed myself. I’ve seen others receive miracles, and I’ve received them myself.”

The accomplished practitioner, mountaineer and world traveler will assuredly engage the audience with her tales of a life remarkably lived. You will not regret being a part of that audience.

The SOMOS Salon and Bookstore is located at 108 Civic Plaza Drive. For further information please call (575) 758-0081, or visit somostaos.org. You may learn much more about Dr. Elliot by visiting her blog, musingsmemoirandmedicine.com.

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