Navajo ‘Evangelism’ No Longer Means ‘Assimilation’

Returning from a food delivery to Navajo Nation homes, Canon to the Ordinary Cornelia Eaton gathers roadside sage for medicinal purposes | All photos by Asher Imtiaz

This is the second of two reports from the Episcopal Church in Navajoland. The first report is here.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

NAVAJO NATION – Having grown up watching her grandmother raise livestock using traditional methods, Wyone Adrian is passionate about claiming the ways of her Navajo ancestors. She attends Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz., where Navajo students learn not only math and science but also how to make moccasins, butcher a sheep and prepare traditional dishes.

Sedona Jacobson, left, her sister Savanna, and their mother, Paula Elmore, who manages the SHIMA soap factory

Yet when school is out, Adrian and friends work at an unlikely hub for adding to their knowledge of Navajo practices: Good Shepherd Mission, an Episcopal campus on the Navajo Nation reservation in Fort Defiance, Ariz.

On the Good Shepherd campus, the young women make soap at SHIMA’ of Navajoland, a church-based enterprise where ingredients are wild-harvested and blessed by local medicine men. They grow traditional plants in a greenhouse and cultivate a fast-expanding organic garden. All the while, the church provides a setting for sharing what the women know about their culture, lest it get lost in a time of steep adversity and struggle.

“Wyone here is a big asset because she’s more traditional,” says SHIMA’ Manager Paula Elmore. Soaking corn, roasting prickly pear cactus over an open flame – such ancestral practices aren’t forgotten here as the church makes venues for people like Wyone to teach them.

“Just hanging out with each other, we learn a lot from each other,” says Adrian’s college friend, Sedona Jacobson, who hopes to see the church greenhouse soon become a teaching site for a Diné College class. (Diné is the name the Navajos call themselves.)

It hasn’t always been this way. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Navajo children were among some 250,000 Native Americans sent away to boarding schools, which were routinely run by major Christian denominations with federal government contracts to address the so-called “Indian problem.” The philosophy, as Capt. Richard Pratt infamously framed it, was to “kill the Indian in him and save the man,” which meant wiping out ties to a student’s Indian heritage. Traditional dress, language and customs were removed as church-run schools, including Anglican enterprises, went about the work of erasing cultural touchstones.

“It’s why churches have a bad rep” on the reservation, says Good Shepherd Mission Curate Leon Sampson. “When you talk about evangelism, it’s a dirty word. It has a dirty name because evangelism was the practice that was used to assimilate: ‘Don’t use your language any longer. You are going to get whipped if you use that language’.”

Century-old graves near the Farmington, NM site where Episcopal missionaries established a hospital in 1922

Today, however, the approach is 180 degrees different. The Episcopal Church in Navajoland (ECN) offers an ever-widening bridge to connect Navajos with their cultural traditions. That’s now seen as a baseline for respect and an entry point for walking with God without giving up any aspects of Navajo identity.

“When I say ‘evangelism,’ it means going out into the communities around us and getting to know the people from all walks of life,” says ECN Canon to the Ordinary Cornelia Eaton. “It means having a conversation with somebody that I don’t know and saying, ‘Hey, I’m here. And I see you.’ It’s about that: seeing the other person and acknowledging their worth.”

The church’s growing role in passing down Navajo culture was gaining momentum — renovations underway, expanded programming taking shape – when the pandemic brought much of it to a sudden halt last spring. But it’s now continuing to a degree online as the church provides Zoom access for Navajo elders to reach youth. It’s also poised to ramp up in the future, buoyed by new relationships forged in the crucible of pandemic crisis response.

Navajo Nation has been pummeled this year by the novel coronavirus. Infection and death rates run far higher than in any state. Surging case numbers in October prompted a return to 57-hour curfews that prohibit travel on weekends anywhere on the reservation.

The Episcopal Church in Navajoland has responded by distributing fresh food and growing supplies regularly to about 400 households off the beaten track. New relationships are taking root as church leaders learn what’s needed both materially and culturally.

A mural by artist IronCloud evokes pride in Navajo culture in Farmington, NM

“Before seminary, I thought: ‘how am I going to develop this relationship with a congregation that sees me on Sundays and doesn’t come to my office?’,” says the Rev. Michael Sells, priest-in-charge at All Saints Church on the edge of the reservation in Farmington, N.M. “I have to go out into the community. Now I’m delivering food boxes and seeing how they’re doing.”

The church has mobilized to help on multiple levels. Through various partnerships, projects are in the works to haul water to homes lacking running water, to supply heating fuel and to address a bed shortage. Priests serving about 1,000 Episcopalians on the reservation also provide memorial services for Navajos with no church affiliations.

And now reinforcing Navajo cultural practices is increasingly central to what the church offers.

Passing down Navajo traditions has become a visible priority. For example, when a six-figure commercial kitchen renovation is complete at Good Shepherd, culinary students will prepare traditional foods as alternatives to processed ones that contribute to a diabetes epidemic on the reservation.

Before the pandemic, teens were coming together in church buildings to learn the Navajo language by listening to a Navajo radio station. Steps away from the Good Shepherd Chapel, a circular structure called a hogan is being built to host traditional Navajo ceremonies such as weddings.

At ECN headquarters at San Juan Mission in Farmington, N.M., a new Hózhó Wellness Center is taking shape where Navajo women can support each other in part by tapping cultural roots to battle alcoholism’s effects and other challenges. Elders likewise have a venue to share resilience techniques, wisdom and heritage stories via the Hogan Learning Circle.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” Canon Eaton says. “We had families come from Shiprock who weren’t Episcopalians, who weren’t Christians, who showed up at this church and sat for the program. They said, ‘I brought my kids to listen to the elders, to listen to the stories, to learn’.”

Undergirding all this work is a vision, codified in 1978, to establish indigenous church leadership for the Navajoland Area Mission. Over the past decade under Bishop David Bailey, ECN’s ranks of indigenous ordained have swelled to seven. Now when Navajos encounter church leaders, they see men and women who look more like themselves and share their high regard for Navajo roots.

They also encounter a revamped approach to evangelism. Sharing the Good News now involves recognition and acceptance of another person’s whole identity.

Inside a hogan built for traditional Navajo ceremonies, under construction at Good Shepherd Mission on the Navajo Nation in Fort Defiance, Arizona

“There are so many Pentecostal churches [on the reservation] where they have the fundamentalism of – ‘you must either be this or be that’,” Fr. Sells says. Thus, he says, many Navajos conclude: “I can’t be a Christian. I can’t be a follower of Christ. So they come here with lots of hurt and questions, and they see someone open. They see the cedar beads [around a priest’s neck] next to the cross and say: ‘She’s a Navajo Christian! She’s someone I can talk to’.”

Coming to faith in Christ involves resisting evil and repenting of sin, as formulated in the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church. But that doesn’t mean jettisoning trust in the Navajo’s Creator. Giving thanks to the Creator is compatible with Christianity because the same God is being worshiped, according to ECN Communications Director G. J. Gordy.

What Navajo are encouraged to abandon when they endeavor to follow Christ are ways they know to be associated with despair and death. Examples include domestic violence, substance abuse, poor nutrition, dependency, and suicide. Such patterns trace to colonialism, according to ECN priests and staffers, and to trauma passed down by parents and grandparents who attended boarding schools, experienced disrespect or abuse in those settings, and became abusive themselves. Seeking strength for this renunciation involves drawing on Christ and heritage – Navajo heritage in particular.

Sampson, who aspires to add Navajo medicine man to his credentials, explains how the Navajo Beauty Way sets people free to live well. He says Navajo grandmothers teach grandkids to pray each morning – “I will walk in beauty” – and Christian leaders can commend the Beauty Way, or hózhó, as well.

“It’s not a fad. It’s the way of life. You have to commit to it,” Sampson says. “In order to commit to that, you have to remove alcoholism and domestic violence because then you are honoring yourself through creation, through your surroundings, through the sunrise, through a commitment to: ‘I will not talk in evil. I will not think in evil. I will not walk in evil.”

Church leaders are living what they’re teaching when it comes to integrated Navajo-Christian spiritualities. Canon Eaton raises sheep, which she describes as “our spirituality” in Navajo Nation. Gratefully using every part of the sheep is a way of life, as is looking to wild plants for healing.

Returning from a food delivery to homes outside Huerfano, N.M., Eaton stops the car to forage for sage by the side of the road. The Navajo use it for medicinal tea, including as a respiratory treatment to help ease symptoms of COVID-19, which has afflicted one out of 15 residents on the reservation this year. She pulls a few branches and gets back in the car.

Director of Communications G.J. Gordy outside her home at Navajoland’s Episcopal headquarters in Farmington

“People say, ‘I didn’t know this was how the Episcopal Church is: that we could be Christian or not be Christian but still be here, practicing our traditional values, and not be judged for it,” Eaton says.

At this point in history, claiming a Navajo cultural identity often depends on institutional support and guidance, just as claiming a Christian identity does. That’s because rising generations don’t always have access to elders in the family who can teach them Navajo ways, Gordy says. The average Navajo man dies before age 70, according to the Navajo Epidemiology Center, and women live just four years longer than men on average.

“Because of intergenerational trauma [and deaths of parents and grandparents], a lot of the family members are not really there or present in some homes,” says Gordy, who shows Navajo congregations how to eat a vegan diet and prepare healthy traditional foods, such as blue corn mush. “So the schools and different programs are trying to instill the culture into the younger generation by making it more accessible and free.”

For its Farmington headquarters that first started as a mission hospital, the Episcopal Church in Navajoland is focused on healing once again. This time, Navajo culture is regarded as an asset to be developed.

“We had a meeting yesterday when we were outside amongst the corn,” Sampson says. “A lot of the feel that came from people testifying referred to the corn: ‘Oh, I can feel the Holy Spirit through the corn!’ It’s a different presence when we’re among corn, among birds, among the air. That’s where resiliency starts.”


Online Archives