World awaits pope as pueblos hope for respect

By Duane A. Beyal

Special to the Times

March 14, 2013

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T he selection of a new pope received heavy television news coverage. Also in the news is an auction in Paris of 70 Hopi and Zuni religious items that date to the 1800s.

The ironic clash of these events made me pause and reflect. The day-by-day TV coverage of a centuries-old tradition in Rome leaves the impression of the world waiting breathlessly. The auction of centuries-old religious items plainly exposes a continuing standard in which tribes and pueblos are viewed as extinct, archaeological curiosities.

Granted, a new pope is important to the billion or so Catholics around the world. But Native Americans today must still struggle to assert and protect their cultures.

When we were youngsters, our mother took my siblings and me to the local Catholic church, which was a small chapel in the old village at Church Rock. It was so small it could accommodate only about 30 people.

Occasionally we attended the midnight mass at Christmas in the vast cathedral in Gallup. These were long, exhausting affairs - once we saw a woman faint - and in that way similar to the all-night ceremonies held in hogans.

I asked my mother once why she took us to church.

"I wanted to expose you kids to it," she said, "and if you want to continue it is up to you."

Today I am not Catholic, Christian, Mormon or Muslim. As my mother taught us, such decisions are up to each individual and should be respected.

In the same way our grandpas and grandmas set examples to show us how to live, humanity and its expressions cross all barriers.

For example, some of my best friends in my childhood were the Anglos who tried to save me. They were Christian youth who spent a summer or two at our village. They gave us crayons and paper, Kool-Aid and cookies.

Never mind the history of war and oppression that stained society throughout past centuries, these young people only had good intentions.

A favorite of ours was a pastor who each Easter took a group of us to the Grand Canyon. We camped out for four days with other groups from the reservation and elsewhere.

We hiked the trail from the south rim to Supai, then camped beside the Colorado River, hearing and feeling its power.

One of the times I felt the spirit they spoke of was when our bus had passed a car parked beside the highway east of Tuba City. There had been a big snow that year and a foot or two covered the land.

Later, during a group meeting held under the tall, enveloping cottonwoods at the bottom of the canyon, a leader of the campout said the car had broken down and the occupants let the engine idle so they could stay warm until help arrived.

All had perished, he said, due to carbon monoxide poisoning. "Now let us pray," he said to the 150 young people and their group leaders.

Everyone bowed their heads and after the prayer he asked for a moment of silence.

The day was bright and warm, the sunlight golden, the trees green with limbs that reached for the sky and breathed with the gentle breeze. I looked around the quiet scene, each person motionless, and felt a strong, comforting presence.

Similar feelings were conjured by the many ceremonies I've attended, presided over by my grandfather, uncle or another medicine man. This was my friends' religion expressed that day on the bottom of the canyon and I could feel why they believed the way they did.

Another camping trip to Mesa Verde was with another church group. The young men and women were from all points of the compass and, like the others, had spent a spring or summer at our village, reaching out and trying to save us heathens. Again, they were nice, friendly and only had good intentions.

We had a dinner at a home in Gallup and the friendship and camaraderie was strong. After a group prayer we sat for a moment of silence and I remarked again the presence of wellbeing.

Unfortunately, there are other sides to this subject. One of my daughters attended a church-sponsored school on the reservation when she was very young. At a graduation attended by many parents, the speaker railed against Navajo traditional beliefs, urging us not to participate in or practice Diné ceremonies. My daughter attended that school for only a short time.

Many years ago, I lived off and on with a girl in Zuni. We had met at school in Santa Fe and, in those glory days of youth, our tribal affiliations did not matter.

One day she looked out the window, gasped, then pushed me into the hall closet and closed the door. Later, she explained that mudheads had come by and a small ritual was performed in the living room. I didn't mind that, as a Navajo, I'd had to be hidden. That's their culture and she had done what she thought was appropriate.

But humanity transcends all. That period of my life was one of the happiest and my mother said there will always be a place in her heart for that girl.

Many of the richest moments of my life revolved around Diné culture. As a young child, I often sat on a sheepskin with family and relatives in a hogan at the winter camp as grandpa sang all night. One time I was given a black stone to hold. His strong voice never wavered and the rhythm of the songs made us one with the universe.

My brother had a Hozhonjí near Crownpoint. One of our paternal uncles - the one who had blessed the new highway from Crownpoint to Farmington - conducted the one-night ceremony.

After singing all night, the medicine man, white-haired, frail and elderly, stood outside the hogan and sang to the dawn with a loud, strong voice. I'll never forget that image and the names of the four sacred mountains as he chanted. The earth and the universe seemed to pause.

As the masses await the smoke at the Vatican, which signals a new pope, we can collectively express - in our own ways, of course - the hope that the discussion over the Hopi and Zuni religious items will lead to a positive result, one that is an expression of humanity.

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