Corbin Harney: Mother Earth’s Medicine Man
Corbin Harney (1920-2007) was a spiritual leader and shaman of the Western Shoshone Tribe (Newe), which stretches from southern California across Nevada to southern Idaho. The land, called Newe Segobia, encompasses “the most bombed place on Earth,” as he called the nuclear test sites which lie in the midst of Western Shoshone lands. He became well-known late in life as a spokesman against environmental destruction, a stance which naturally evolved from his life as a medicine man.
Orphaned at a young age, he went to live with an uncle who said he could either attend a boarding school or learn to live off the land. He chose learning how to survive off the land. Later he learned traditional healing methods from medicine women and the sacred rituals of his tribe. He believed that all things were sacred, that everything has life, and that all people were part of the earth and had the power to help protect the land, the water, the plants, and the animals. This power was expressed in song and prayer.
An intense relationship to traditional beliefs made Corbin Harney keenly aware of the devastating effects of mining, nuclear testing, and other destructive modern practices. The contamination of water especially horrified him. He said, “I was praying to the water and the spirit of the water told me, ‘Pretty soon, I’m going to look like clean water, but no one is going to use me’. It was a cryptic message until he went to Kazakhstan and saw water that looked clean but was undrinkable because it was contaminated with radiation. To him, water itself has life: “All the water that comes from the Mother Earth, that’s her blood.”.
Harney’s travels enabled him to speak with authority about what he saw happening in the world, and his status as a shaman enabled him to speak with authenticity. His oft-quoted observation, which encapsulates his message, is: “The Mother Earth provides us with food, provides us with air, provides us with water. We, the people, are going to have to put our thoughts together, to save our planet here. We’ve only got one water, one air, one Mother Earth.”
People who witnessed the results of Harney’s prayers, songs and rituals have reported dry springs running again, rain in droughts, and the return of plants and animals to long-abandoned habitats. This medicine man was inclusive, believing that all people should pray for Mother Earth. He said, “Don’t feel foolish. This is how everything has been sustained for millions of years. This will open up a totally new world for you. Amazing things will happen if you are patient. This is how we will heal ourselves and our Mother Earth.”
Corbin Harney authored two books, The Way it Is: One Air, One Water, One Mother Earth, and The Nature Way. He made many recordings of traditional Shoshone songs. He was the founder of the Shundahai Network, an environmental justice organization, and co-founder and director of Poo Ha Bah, a traditional healing center.