Joseph Epes Brown


(1920 - 2000)

The foremost authority among traditional authors on the traditions of the Native Americans, Joseph Brown, died from Alzheimer's disease on September 19 at his home in Stevensville, Montana after a protracted illness. Cared for by his wife of 48 years and his four children, he remained in his beautiful home amidst the majesty of the mountain ranges nearby as the disease gradually wore out his brain and sturdy body.

Born in Connecticut, Brown studied at Bowden and Haverford Colleges and later at Stanford University where he received his master's degree in anthropology. After many years of teaching, he returned to formal studies and received his doctorate in the history of religions and anthropology from the University of Stockholm, concentrating on the culture of the Natives of North America.

It was during the Second World War that Brown became familiar with the works of Coomaraswamy and later Guenon and Schuon. This discovery led to his adoption of the traditional perspective and his meeting later with Schuon to whom he became closely devoted resulting in his embracing the Sufi tradition while deepening his study of other traditions particularly the Native American. Brown was to teach and travel in many places in addition to the reservations of the Souix and other tribes of the Western regions of America. for some years he taught in Sedona, Arizona, spent a year in research and study in Morocco,k and later became a professor at Indiana university where he established the first Native American religious studies program. In 1972, he accepted an appointment in the department of religious studies at the University of Montana where he was to remain until his retirement in 1989. He was a founding member of the board of directors of the foundation for Traditional Studies which was established in 1984. Joseph Brown was an excellent teacher wherever he went and was deeply admired by his sutdents. His presentation of the Native American traditions was so authentic that tribal elders would often send their most qualified students to study their own traditoin with him.

A seminal event in the life of Brown was his meeting with the Lakota Sioux holy man, Black Elk, who realized the exceptional spiritual qualities of the young white man who had come to seek and understand the traditional wisdom of the Sioux. Black Elk adopted him as his son and Brown was given the name "Chanumpa Yuha mani" (meaning he who walks with the Sacred Pipe). Such a close relationship developed between the two tht Black Elk decided to reveal the inner meaning of the seven sacred rites of the tribe to Brown. The oral wisdom transmitted to the young seeker in the cold winters of the Dakotas was dutifully recoreded and published later by him as The Sacred Pipe, a Work that gained international renown for Brown. The book has since appeared in many editions and been translated into several languages including French, for which Schuon wrote a long and majesterial introduction. In fact, Brown was the link between Black Elk and Schuon who was himself so deeply attracted to the Native American traditions. For years it was Brown who through letters and journeys to Lausanne would speak of the Native Americans to Schuon and would create possibilities of exchange between Schuon and that world, exchanges that were to play an important role in the last period of the latters' life.

From the early 1950's when he met Black Elk until he became debilitated by Alzheimer's disease, Brown wrote continuously on traditional themes and especially on the Native American traditions. His later books include The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indians and Animals of the Soul. A work entitled Teaching Spiritus: Understanding Native American Religious Traditions is now in press and should appear soon. These works represent profound studies on many aspects of the North American native traditions, studies based on the one hand on universal traditional principles and on the other on first hand knowledge of these traditions as they still survive in the American West. 

Joseph Brown was a person of gentle character blessed with a keen sense of the sacred wherever it might be found, first of all of course in orthodox religions themselves and secondly in the world fo virgin nature and sacred art. he loved the outdorrs, the prairies, deserts, mountains, and forests, as well as animals both wild and domesticated. he was especially fond of horses and bred Arabians on his Montana ranch while teaching at the University of Montana nearby. There was something in his character of a Sioux warrier and Arab Bedouin combined with a gentlemanly Anglo-Saxon disposition. As his faculties became gradually atrophied, he could no longer read and so his wife and children would read traditional and sacred texts and especially poetry to him. Later, even this was not possible for him to hear but he still enjoyed music and his last outward contact with the world areound him was through traditional Arabic, Indian, and Western music which would be played for him regularly. And so his soul entered the ocean of silence after bathing in the melodies and harmonies of traditional music. It seems that he had become ready to listen to what Plato called silent music heard only by the sages.

After his death after nearly a decade of illness was surely a release for him and it was a consolation for those near him to see that his suffering finally came to an end. 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.

-Seyyed Hossein Nasr



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Animals of the Soul: Sacred Animals of the Oglalla Souix

Spiritual Legacy of the American Indians

The Sacred Pipe

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