by Fr. Al Ebach, C.PP.S., Pastor at St. Paul Parish, Crownpoint, New Mexico
This morning as I was sitting on the back deck of my house/office having breakfast, I looked across the vast land (the children who visit me call it my large back yard), and wondered what the spirit of the land has to say about the people who have wandered across these mesas, canyons and arroyos, and about the people who have settled in the area today. I contemplate it today, fascinated by the history of the Navajo people who have suffered at the hands of many people. The spirit of the land would not only speak about those who attempted to raise cattle and sheep or tried to till the arid soil, but would also address all the blood that has been shed through selfishness, ignorance and greed. There were people who thought they were doing the Native Americans a favor by forcing them to leave their familiar lands to settle in unfamiliar territories far away. The spirit of the land kept calling them back home where they could attempt to restore their traditions and culture. No matter how much American governments have tried to tame the spirit of the Navajo people, they were never really successful.
After being driven from their lands a number of times and suffering much physical and mental anguish, the Navajo people always returned home to their sacred land surrounded by their four holy mountains, protecting them in all four directions. They are still trying to shed the residue of the former days of displacement. Through years of determination, the Navajo Tribe has grown and has stretched its reservation boundaries.
As much as the Navajo people were preyed upon, they were not always timid bystanders: their lifestyles were not always innocent. Living among the Mexican people, there was tremendous rivalry and competition for land, property and slaves. Whether they were the victims or the perpetrators in the past, the past still affects the Navajo today, over a hundred years later. Much of the culture and traditions were lost and efforts continue to regain and rebuild what has been taken from them.
The Native American people all over the continent continue to suffer the effects of history. Prejudices toward Native Americans remain in our society today. Governments over the years have tried to respect the rights of the Native American people, but many injustices remain. Life seems to be better for many Native American people, but it is disconcerting that it has taken over two hundred years to address many atrocities. There is much more yet to be done.
Having learned about the history of the Navajo people this past year, I still wonder where my place is in this ministry. The Catholic Church did not do the Native American people any favors throughout history. The Navajo culture and tradition has been and continues to be threatened by church leaders. People still share about Christian denominations coming to the area and demanding people get rid of their superstitions in order to follow the way of Christ. Recently someone told me a minister in a local church forbade use of any Indian traditions in church services. Many of the early Catholic priests came to these lands with the attitude that the Native Americans were savages and had to be Christianized. Attitudes like these were a great disservice to a people who have always been very spiritual. Some are looking for places of worship that will accommodate their expressions of faith.
What impressed me the most this past year has been the parallel between the Navajo traditions and Catholic liturgy. The Navajo religion is filled with much symbolism. I love to watch the native people reach out and take in the smoke from the incense or sage, inviting the Creator’s gift to envelop them. The water in the baptismal font appears to be life-giving to them. Together they journey to the water, seemingly thirsting for the Spirit, blessing themselves from the top of their heads to their toes and blessing everything in all directions. Their reverence and spirituality have awakened my sense of liturgy. It has been disappointing to observe how the church has tried to remove what has been sacred to the native people. Just because something is different does not mean it is superstitious. We should embrace those elements of God’s creation, inviting them to be life-giving. Wind, water, fire and earth have taken on a new meaning for me, will forever be part of my spirituality and invite me to look at liturgy with different eyes.