Being There: A Summer in Navajo Nation

Maggie at Crownpoint

Maggie Nickels at Crownpoint, New Mexico

Several months ago, when friends or family asked what I would be doing in New Mexico for the summer, I did not have a definitive response. “I’ll be working on a Navajo reservation,” never seemed to suffice, as they usually wanted know what exactly my job was and where I would be living. I knew that I would be helping at the hospital and I knew that I would be staying with nuns, but that was about the extent of the information I had even up to the moment I boarded the airplane. Although the uncertainty with which I began my volunteer experience was a bit unsettling at the time, it was this same sense of continual mystery that made my six-week trip so fulfilling.

Driving into the town of Crownpoint, New Mexico, my eyes met the brown and red terrain before me. While the land there is dry and barren, it holds an unmistakable beauty. Canyons and mesas outline the town, and once monsoon season begins the landscape transforms into a gorgeous lush and green sight. But the most unforgettable natural aspect of the area is the setting sun each evening. As it descends beyond the mountains in the west, an explosion of red and orange brilliance lights the horizon. If the clouds are sitting just right—which they often are—the entire sky becomes dotted with pink and purple hues you would swear had been painted with a brush.

My job in Crownpoint, however, was not to sit and contemplate the beauty of nature, although I could have accomplished that quite well. My duties there consisted of helping with the public health division of the Crownpoint Indian Health Services Hospital, working at the used clothing shop owned by the parish, taking blood pressure after masses, assisting with Vacation Bible School, and most importantly, simply being there. Before Stella Yoon and I arrived in Crownpoint, we spent a week at Precious Blood Center in Kansas City receiving an orientation to prepare us for our journey. It was during this time that Fr. Al Ebach spoke about the importance of being present. He explained that too many times, individuals go into service opportunities with the expectation of changing the people or making grand systemic differences. Often, the most profound thing one can do is to simply be there for the community.  It was not until I spent my summer in Crownpoint that I came to understand what this meant.

Crownpoint is located in Navajo Nation, which is Native American-governed territory extending through northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. Like many other reservation towns, it is a very low-income area. There are no restaurants or recreational facilities, many people live in homes with tattered roofs and no running water, and the school system is extremely poor. However, behind the poverty lies a wealth of traditional wisdom. I was humbled by many pieces of Navajo culture: the profound reverence to the Earth, the closely-knit families, the stories and skills passed down with each generation, the fry bread, the weaving, and the love of laughter, to name a few.

That day I first drove into Crownpoint, Sr. Maureen told us that the lifestyle of she and Sr. Michelle was such that most days they were “flying by the seat of their pants.” It took me probably all of three hours to witness this. The Sisters were the safe-haven of the town,
a place where people could come for food, for advice,
or simply to vent their troubles. Some days it seemed that the phone never stopped ringing. And each time it did, Sisters Michelle and Maureen never wasted a minute in answering and in doing all that they could to help. Stella and I learned to emulate their flexibility so that we too could go where needed. Whether it was simply across the parking lot to paint doors, to the clothing shop to organize boxes, or over to a little girl’s birthday party to bring cookies, we tried hard to “be there” just as the sisters were.

Let me tell you about these Sisters in Crownpoint. They certainly were not what I had been expecting. I believe I had imagined serious-faced women wearing habits, perhaps singing a tune in perfect harmony or walking single file to prayer. Now these Sisters do have lovely voices, and they do pray, but they also are fun-loving, witty, and on some days you may even say “wild.” I’ll never forget my surprise when I awoke to gunshots and rushed to the window to see Sr. Barb casually pointing a rifle at squirrels. And never before did I think I would sit in a circle and smoke a native pipe with four nuns. But it happened, and I’m thankful it did.

I will also never forget the Sunday that Sr. Barb was back in Crownpoint. She had been in Rome for the past several years following her election to the Leadership Team, but prior to this she had spent nearly three decades in Crownpoint with Sr. Maureen. She returned to Crownpoint this particular week to visit, bringing along Sr. Zeta from Rome to see the town. The community could not have been happier to see her. It seemed we couldn’t go anywhere without hearing a “Sister Barb?!” and then watching joyous hugs ensue. On the Sunday during their visit, the parish gave a spontaneous blessing of the two sisters for their thirty years of service. They also blessed Sisters Michelle and Zeta, Father Kevin, and Stella and I. Standing in front of the altar and receiving that blessing, I felt a wave of simultaneous pride and humility. I closed my eyes and my heart filled with the appreciation of being part of such a wonderful community.

And then, just as I was beginning to remember the correct pronunciation of the Navajo word for “thank you,” just as I finally learned how to remove paint from my hair, just as I started getting the hang of driving a pickup truck, it was time to go. Six weeks passed and we were saying goodbye to the most kind and strong (and quite honestly, the only) nuns I had ever known, a priest who had taught us much about UFOs and about life, and a community of people so unique and loving that they have left a permanent impression on my heart. Some people say “Don’t worry, I’ll be back!” half-heartedly, in a way that really means “Well, I’ll be back if I find the time.” But from me, it meant “I will return, because I can feel that is what God wants.” The Navajo people of Crownpoint taught me a lesson that will help me grow both as an aspiring physician and as a human being. They have taught me how to overcome stereotypes and personal inhibitions in order to stand with a community in hardship and in joy. They taught me to listen even when it hurts, to honor the words of the elderly, to cherish the innocence of children, to pick up and go where needed on a moment’s notice, and to sit and listen and therefore heal. They have taught me to simply be there, and for that I am grateful.

2017-03-08T13:52:35+00:00 August 20th, 2013|Volunteers, Weekly Wine Press|