Brandon Weston comes from a family of traditional Ozark healers, people who have home remedies to cure a number of things and believe in the power of having bedside company during illness.
Because he grew up surrounded by people like Uncle Bill, who treated warts, and other family members who cured ailments or went to a “witch woman” for a rash, Weston took it as part of the average life and never gave it a second thought. Not before going to college, anyway, and realizing that his experiences were markedly different from those of his friends who hadn’t grown up in the area.
Weston explores the traditions and practices of Ozark healers in his two books, “Ozark Folk Magic: Plants, Prayers and Healing” and “Ozark Mountain Spell Book: Folk Magic and Healing”.
So, how far back does your family go with its arrival in this region?
We have many generations here. We go back to a white Ozark settlement in 1810 or 1820. Before that they were in Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina — usually Appalachia. I love genealogy; don’t like to have unsolved mysteries. We still have a few areas where registrations are limited.
In your TedX Fayetteville talk, you mention a time when your perspective on your family’s abilities changed and you realized that not all families could do what yours did. Can you tell me more?
People don’t always know (that things like this) are part of the culture until someone outside tells them “You do things that we don’t”. I remember that moment of “Wait, don’t other people do that?” Because that’s how it was around an Ozark family.
We have always been a family of storytellers; my dad’s great uncles and aunt at family gatherings would have lots of stories and tall tales. I grew up immersed in Ozark culture as it evolved in the 20th century. Lots of moments defined by (this) type of culture. I’m talking about remnants of that that have survived with subsequent generations.
My great-uncle was a wart charmer; he could heal them.
“Ozark Folk Magic” seems like a unique book. I haven’t seen anything else that deals with these topics.
This work is really important. My primary goal with writing was to stimulate conversations and inspire other Ozarkers to collect their own family practices and community practices, develop a sense of identity, and connect with magical lore.
Coming from witchcraft and pagan communities, we don’t want to culturally appropriate them, we want to connect to ancestral traditions.
One thing I found in the United States is that we don’t know where we come from. In my family, genealogy has traced my family to 15 different countries. How can I connect to this when they came from all over Europe? We provide, first, a lost perspective – traditional healers from the Ozark Mountains.
I wanted to provide stories from teachers I have worked with and my own stories. I wanted to provide people who feel they have a gift of healing with a fundamental reference guide and practices to engage with. I went back and forth to see if I wanted to provide it because Ozark folk practices have been kept secret. There are still many things that I will never publish.
Everything I’ve published has been openly taught to me, and I feel like everyone will benefit from it.
How did you understand that the Ozark culture existed and that it was different from other cultures?
I didn’t know anything about that stuff until I got to college and found Vance Randolph, a Civil War-era folklorist who wrote about the Ozarks. Reading this, something clicked. It was exactly what I had seen from my family.
From there I devoured everything I could find, but there is very little about the Ozarks. Historically speaking, we’re getting better at Ozark history, but there’s not much on folklore. Most were about the turn of the 20th century, but I wondered, “Where are we today? Are there modern practitioners of the traditions?
I started touring, talking to people and learning what I could. I began to work with healers, teachers and small communities and identified with the ‘gift’, the innate power of healing. My work kind of went from collecting folklore to things I could use.
I consider myself a traditional healer and practitioner. Not only was I writing folklore but (I was conducting treatments). There is nothing from the point of view of practitioners. All previous writings were from strangers and storytellers.
How have healing practices changed in recent years?
Modern practitioners are very different from historical practitioners. The older ones were specialized like my uncle Bill in warts and the ability to stop blood in a wound. As the healers died and they couldn’t pass on the practices, it started to condense.
Neo-traditional practitioners fill in the gaps with other things we learn. We tend to work in more general terms, like a magical consultant more than anything else. The people I work with, I’m proud to be able to help them, whatever the problem, by connecting to the healing process, whether it’s bad luck, bad relationships, these are things that once lent themselves to healing as well. People tuned into the process and developed specific rituals for them.
Modern healers must therefore know a lot about many areas.
The work I do covers pretty much everything, which is hard at times, but I also find it very rewarding to do. It would be easy to specialize. I see myself as another aspect of the healing process. I urge people to see a doctor when needed and generally I get a lot of medical enquiries. If that doesn’t work for them first, I provide the mental, spiritual, and magical part of the healing process that our ancestors would have had alongside the healing of the body. Healers pick up where modern medicine drops people off.
What does this combination of modern healing and modern medicine look like?
I have clients who specifically ask for healing or prayer, for example to bless the medicine so that it works as intended. I develop rituals for sick or hospitalized people. I see myself as a kind of folk psychologist and help connect with their spiritual process.
I am a herbalist by training, but I work more with the mental and the spiritual than with medicine. That’s not to say I don’t work with plants, it’s still an important part of the practice, but for me there are things to be careful of in the modern world. We have to deal with a lot of things that our ancestors didn’t have.
We had a workshop that pointed out that (everyone) is probably on a prescription drug, which can react with herbal remedies. It is more important that they seek proper medical treatment. But we like to be there if the person wants to connect with the healing process in a different way.
In the ancient Ozarks there would have been no separation. Medicine and healers would stay in the patient’s home to watch over them, a (true, physical) way of bedside. Now we approach this in a different way (with a separation of medical, mental and spiritual health practices). In the Ted Talk I gave, I described this work as an important part of Indigenous cultures. A system in Alaska that has tribal nations working with medical professionals in hospitals found that having cultural representatives in the hospital allowed people to recover faster when they received proper medical care as well as culturally specific processes so that they feel comfortable in the process.
That’s what I do too.
Can you give me an example of your practice?
There’s a little stereotype that everything (healing seems) so simple. The healers I’ve worked with, you might not know they do anything. Some sit quietly on a chair. Or the more traditional can hold the Bible or have someone else hold it. Some make passes, taking someone’s hand.
But what surprises me is this idea that exterior simplicity does not always mean interior. There’s a lot going on.
There are long prayers to be recited from memory. There is a fear that if you say it out loud to certain people or write it down, it will go away. The things I published are not those.
One of my teachers who (helped) find the gift in me, criticized me for asking too many questions. She said that as a healer we should be able to do whatever we need to do in a completely empty prison cell. One of those core lines about Ozark practice is the idea that ultimately it’s all about innate connection, to my own (ability) do what you need to do, whether you have correct plants or ritual objects or correct setting or timing.