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Joseph Epes Brown
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Biography of Joseph Epes Brown

Joseph Epes Brown (1920-2000) was a renowned scholar, author, and teacher of Native American Traditions and World Religions. He believed that all great world religions are paths that lead ultimately to the same summit, and dedicated his life to bringing Native American Religions into the canon of World Religions. Through his teaching, writing, and friendships he served as a vital bridge, promoting understanding between Native American and White cultures. 

Joseph Brown was born in Ridgefield Connecticut, September 9, 1920. He spent his youth in Aiken, South Carolina and Southwest Harbor, Maine, where he enjoyed sailing, hunting, and horsemanship. It was in Maine that he was first exposed to Native American cultures and as a young boy made friendships with the Wabanaki, who taught him how to fish and hunt. These friendships were the beginning of his lifelong interest in American Indian spirituality.

As a young boy he attended boarding school in Aiken, South Carolina, and Asheville, North Carolina. A rebellious student, he kept his hunting gun hidden under his mattress and his bird dog at a nearby farm. He would spend his weekends hunting and roaming the countryside with his dog. During his early teens, his father developed tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium in New Mexico. Brown would spend his summer vacations there, riding and exploring. This was his first exposure to the American West, where he would later return to spend the majority of his life. His father died of tuberculosis when Joseph Brown was seventeen.

His undergraduate college education began at Bowdoin College (B.A. in Literature) and then continued at Haverford College (B.A. in Philosophy and Art History). He then postponed his graduate study and took his first teaching post at Aiken Preparatory School in South Carolina, teaching English.

During World War II, Brown chose to become a conscientious objector. In the early part of the war he washed bottles in a drab malaria research lab/morgue in New York City. Seeking to feed his spirit during this dark time he studied the sacred forms of different religions. To learn more fully about Christianity he took Gregorian chant lessons; and to learn more fully about Islam he befriended Yemeni sailors at the Brooklyn docks. They would dance hadrats (sacred Islamic chants and dances) in the holds of the ships. Later during the war Brown was shipped out to Nevada and California in a sealed railroad car, where he was relieved to perform civilian duty packing mules, clearing trails, and surveying the depth of the snow pack for the Forest Service.

After the war, in the late 1940s, Brown outfitted an old truck into living quarters and traveled west to seek out the Lakota Sioux holy man, Black Elk. He had read about this holy man in Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks and was determined to meet him. He found Black Elk and his family in the fall of 1947, living in tents, picking potatoes in Nebraska. Black Elk, nearly blind, was expecting him, and invited Joseph to return with him to their home in Manderson, South Dakota. He lived with Black Elk and his family on the Pine Ridge Reservation for several years, during which time Black Elk adopted him as a son.  He was given the Sioux name Chanumpa Yuha Mani or “He Who Walks with the Sacred Pipe”. During that time he recorded Black Elk’s account of the seven rites of the Oglala Sioux, later published as the well-known book The Sacred Pipe, an enduring and seminal record of Plains Indian religious expression, still in print today and translated into eight languages.

In addition to The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian, and The Sacred Pipe, Brown has also authored Animals of the Soul: Sacred Animals of the Oglala Sioux and Teaching Spirits: Understanding Native American Religious Traditions

In 1952, Brown married Swiss dancer and artist Elenita Roulet in Switzerland. He returned to the United States with his new bride where they lived on the Maine coast while Brown prepared The Sacred Pipe for publication and Elenita studied pottery. The couple then moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he pursued a Master’s degree in Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, and his wife studied art and Flamenco dance. Disillusioned by the dry and scientific anthropological approach to Native American cultures during that time, Brown eventually left graduate school. The couple then taught at Verde Valley School, a groundbreaking alternative private high school in Sedona, Arizona, where children Alexander and Marina were born. During a sabbatical, Brown lived in Safi, Morocco, where he taught English and studied Arabic, and where daughter Malika was born. After Morocco the couple returned to Verde Valley School where their fourth child, Veronica, was born.

Brown completed his M.A. in Anthropology at Stanford University in 1966. Joseph and Elenita taught at Prescott College in Arizona prior to moving to Sweden in 1969, where he received a Doctorate in Anthropology and History of Religions from the University of Stockholm under the tutelage of renowned scholar Åke Hultkrantz. His close relationship with Hultkrantz was to last for the remainder of his life.

In 1970, Brown created the first Native American Religious Studies program in the United States at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he remodeled a farm in the wooded countryside in order to have his beloved horses close at hand. A natural horseman, he had a lifelong love and knowledge of horses. In the fall of 1972, he joined the Religious Studies faculty at the University of Montana, Missoula, where he taught until his retirement in 1989. On his ranch outside of Missoula at the foot of the Bitterroot Mountains he raised and trained Arabian horses. His love and respect for the American buffalo (bison) resulted in the establishment of a small breeding herd of bison at the ranch. His daughter, Malika B. Coston, continues his horsemanship legacy today at the family ranch.

Brown was well loved and respected by his students. In his quiet, eclectic, and dignified manner he combined humor, storytelling, and the arts into his teaching. The reciprocity and relatedness of all life was a major theme in his classrooms and he emulated what he taught.

During his professional teaching career, he was also contributing editor for many years to numerous publications including Parabola, The Handbook of Living Religions, and The Encyclopedia of Religion. He lectured extensively throughout the world during his career, established and chaired the first “Indigenous Religious Traditions Group” of the American Academy of Religion and was often invited to testify for Native American Tribes in court cases in defense of the Freedom of Religion Act. He was a sought-after book reviewer and consultant, advisor and consultant for film, and advisor to American Indian prisoners.

In 1984 Brown was a founding director of the Foundation for Traditional Studies, a non-profit foundation dedicated to “preserving and strengthening the religious traditions which have been transmitted through the ages and which have so much to teach contemporary society”. The mission statement for the foundation’s journal, Sophia, states that it is “the foremost journal in the field of traditional studies in the English language”. Brown was a director of the foundation and an editorial board member of the journal for the remainder of his life. 

Joseph Brown passed away in 2000, at the age of 80, at his home in Stevensville after a long illness. He was surrounded and loved by his wife, four children, four grandchildren, many four-leggeds, and the Bitterroot Mountains.

His close friend, the eminent scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, wrote a tribute to Joseph Brown in Sophia shortly after Brown’s death that concluded with this opinion: “America has not produced another scholar of the Native American traditions who combined in himself, as did Joseph Brown, profound spiritual and intellectual insight and traditional understanding, the deepest empathy for those traditions, nobility of character and generosity towards his students and everyone else who wanted to benefit from his unrivalled knowledge of the spiritual legacy of the first inhabitants of this continent.”

From Joseph Epes Brown, The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian: Commemorative Edition with Letters While Living with Black Elk, edited by Marina Brown Weatherly, Elenita Brown, and Michael Fitzgerald (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2007), pp. 127-130.


Books/DVDs containing the work of Joseph Epes Brown

Dr. Brown's work appears in the following World Wisdom books:


Joseph Epes Brown’s Writings Online
 TitleSourceAuthor 1Author 2SubjectWW HTMLWW PDFExternal Link
Brown’s article deals with three main points. First, the essential values of the Plains Indians and the “universal quality of the underlying values” which “constitute for these original Americans a valid dialect of what has been called the Religio Perennis.” Secondly, the question of whether it is possible with the constant assault of the modern world, for this way of cultural and spiritual life to continue? Thirdly, the author’s contemporary assessment of the situation of the wellbeing of the North American Plains Indian spiritual life.
The Persistence of Essential Values among North American Plains IndiansStudies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 3, No. 4. ( Autumn, 1969)Brown, Joseph American Indian
This article considers the ways in which seemingly unrelated animals and ideas are connected in the views and magic of the Oglala Sioux. Their attention to such things as whirlwind, cocoons and bison factor into their use of magic and protective powers by the association understood to be between them. Just as the cocoon is a protective covering for the caterpillar as it is gradually receiving the power of wind and flight, so the Oglala use the power of whirlwind to inflict confusion on their enemies for the sake of obtaining victory. Joseph Epes Brown examines the symbolism of several animals, such as the elk and spider, and includes some illustrations taken from traditional Oglala drawings. He concludes with the observation that the linking of everyday creatures and phenomena with supernatural realities account for the strong sense of the sacred that is a central characteristic of traditional Indian lifeways.
The Unlikely Associates: A Study in Oglala Sioux Magic and MetaphysicStudies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 4, No. 3. ( Summer, 1970)Brown, Joseph American Indian
The North American Indian Living ReligionsThe Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian: Commemorative Edition with Letters while living with Black ElkBrown, Joseph American Indian
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Quotes on Joseph Epes Brown

“America has not produced another scholar of the Native American traditions who combined in himself, as did Joseph Brown, profound spiritual and intellectual insight and traditional understanding, the deepest empathy for those traditions, nobility of character and generosity towards his students and everyone else who wanted to benefit from his unrivalled knowledge of the spiritual legacy of the first inhabitants of this continent.”
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, author of Knowledge and the Sacred

“Joseph Brown himself believed that all religions are expressions of the same wisdom. He cultivated this belief through his association with the philosophia perennis movement introduced by René Guénon and continued by Frithjof Schuon and Titus Burckhardt…. Joseph Brown’s agreement with the philosophia perennis movement is important to keep in mind when reading his publications. At the same time … his ideological commitments do not invalidate his empirical writings.”
Åke Hulkrantz, author of  Native American Religions of North America: The Power of Visions and Fertility

“The late Joseph Brown was a legendary mentor, whose gentility and grace in person and on the page lent dignity and depth to the indigenous ways of knowledge and ceremony he passed on to others.”
Peter Nabokov, author of Where the Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places

“Mr. Brown brought to his task genuine respect for the vanishing culture of the Sioux and for the values of their religious system.”
Library Journal

“Ritual literature is often dull reading, but Brown’s prose is free of archaism and pedantry, and conveys a quality of the deepest sincerity.”
The American Anthropologist

“Joseph Epes Brown explains [in The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian] what it means and takes to be an American Indian. Searching out ‘commonalities’ that form and elucidate Indian spiritual beliefs, Mr. Brown shows them in crucial need of revaluation by other Americans and demonstrates how much poorer the nation will be if it continues destroying the richness of tribal life and thought.”
The New York Times

“Joseph Epes Brown, perhaps best known for The Sacred Pipe … spent a lifetime helping to situate the religious heritage of the American Indians within the context of the world’s religious traditions. The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian is the collection of his essays written over the period of twenty years, the record of his efforts to bring American Indian religions their due recognition and respect.”
Leonard J. Biallas, author of World Religions: A Story Approach

“This collection of essays [The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian] is a fine sequel to Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man. Joseph Epes Brown offers a vivid portrait of American Indian Spirituality and argues that it should be studied alongside the great world religions…. He has accomplished the difficult task of providing a strong introduction to one of the world’s great living religious traditions.”
Amanda Porterfield, author of Healing in the History of Christianity

“This commemorative edition [The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian] of a landmark work furnishes new material which dramatically illuminates hitherto unknown aspects of the lives of both the author and the Lakota visionary, Black Elk, his most important informant. A new introduction, previously unpublished photographs, fresh biographical material, and a series of remarkable letters all provide a richer context within which we can appreciate anew the beauty and profundity of this primordial spiritual tradition.”
Harry Oldmeadow, author of Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy


Articles on Joseph Epes Brown
 TitleSourceAuthor 1Author 2SubjectWW HTMLWW PDFExternal Link
In this short biography of and tribute to the late Joseph Epes Brown, Seyyed Hossein Nasr sums up the importance and character of the man in this way: "But for the world of traditional thought, his death is in any case a great loss. America has not produced another scholar of the Native American traditions who combined in himself, as did Joseph Brown, profound spiritual and intellectual insight and traditaional understanding, the deepest empathy for those traditions, nobility of character and generosity towards his students and everyone else who wanted to benefit from his unrivalled knowledg of the spiritual legacy of the first inhabitants of this continent."
Biography [of Joseph Epes Brown]seriousseekers.comNasr, Seyyed Hossein Biography
This article by renowned religion scholar, Huston Smith, is a tribute to the North American Indians and the life and work of Joseph Epes Brown, the pioneering scholar of Native American Indian studies. Smith opens his article with the words of former United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier—“They had what the world has lost…”—and then proceeds to identify the wisdom elements within the Native American worldview that have been partly forgotten in the modern scientific world. Among these Smith singles out the crucial ability to distinguish knowledge from mere information; he also mentions the importance of having a “symbolic mind” capable of viewing Reality as a “Great Chain of Being”, or a hierarchy of existence, that includes spiritual worlds “above” the material world.
What They Have That We Lack: A Tribute to the Native Americans via Joseph Epes BrownThe Essential Sophia: The Journal of Traditional StudiesSmith, Huston American Indian
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Joseph Epes Brown’s Bibliography

Books

The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953, 1989; New York: Penguin Books, 1971.

The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian (pamphlet). New York: Pendle Hill, 1964-1976.

The North American Indians: The Photographs of Edward S. Curtis.New York: Aperture, 1972.

The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1982; second edition (The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian, Commemorative Edition with Letters While Living with Black Elk, edited by Marina Brown Weatherly, Elenita Brown, and Michael Fitzgerald), Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2007.

The Gift of the Sacred Pipe: Based on Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux,edited and illustrated by Vera Louise Drysdale. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982, 1995.

Animals of the Soul: Sacred Animals of the Oglala Sioux.Rockport, MA: Element, 1992, 1997; London: Chrysalis Books, 2005.

Teaching Spirits: Understanding Native American Traditions (with Emily Cousins). New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.


Photographs of Joseph Epes Brown




All rights reserved. Contact our webmaster for permission to reproduce.

This is a photograph of Thomas Yellowtail holding a sacred pipe bag that originally belonged to Black Elk, the famous Sioux holy man. Black Elk gave the pipe bag to Joseph Brown in 1947, Brown gave it to Frithjof Schuon in 1949 and Schuon then gave it to Yellowtail in 1953. It remained one of Yellowtail’s most prized possessions until his death in 1993. Read footnote 15 on pages 16 and 17 in an interview in the online journal Vincit Omnia Veritas with Michael Fitzgerald, Yellowtail's adopted son, for more details on this story..



Slideshows on Joseph Epes Brown



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