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Tribal understandings: Jewish and Navajo spiritual leaders speak of sacred lands

by Edmon J. Rodman, JTA

May 29, 2012 | 4:29 pm

Window Rock in Arizona, where the spiritual leaders of two tribes met at the Navajo Nation Museum to talk about sacred lands. Photo by Edmon J. Rodman

Window Rock in Arizona, where the spiritual leaders of two tribes met at the Navajo Nation Museum to talk about sacred lands. Photo by Edmon J. Rodman

A Reform rabbi, a Navajo medicine man and a professor walk into a museum.

It sounds like the opening of a joke, but on a recent May Shabbat at Window Rock, Ariz., capital of the Navajo Nation, it’s the beginning of a cross-cultural discussion that pondered the question “What makes land sacred?”

The dialogue featuring the spiritual leaders of two tribes, Navajo medicine man Johnson Dennison and Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld of the Reform Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, N.M., was held at the Navajo Nation Museum.

Anthropologist Gordon Bronitsky moderated the event with an audience of more than 40 Jews and Navajos.

It was the second in a series of Navajo-Jewish exchanges.

The first program was held in November at Congregation Albert, where the duo wrestled with how each group managed living in “Two Worlds”—one of tradition, the other of contemporary life.

Bronitsky, the program organizer and a longtime resident of the Southwest, took a Navajo language course in college and knew some Hebrew. The former university professor suspected that when it came to land and sacredness, the two unlikely desert neighbors had some views to share.

Before the second event, Bronitsky observed that the Navajo have a phrase, “dineh bikeyah” (the people’s land), that expresses a feeling of rightful ownership.

It is similar, he said, to when Jews say “Artzeinu” (our land)—as in the “Hatikvah” verse, “Lihyot ’am chofshi be’artzeinu,” “To be a free people in our land.”

Opening the discussion with “Shabbat shalom,” the kippah-wearing, white-bearded Rosenfeld explained that the Hebrew word for “holy” was “kadosh,” and that the word for profane, “chol,” was the same as the word for “sand”—something, an audience member later pointed out, that both groups had seen much of.

“The biblical land of Israel is sacred land for the Jews,” Rosenfeld said, sidestepping the charged issue of boundaries.

“It is sacred because God promised it,” added the rabbi, who in his previous pulpit in Anchorage, Alaska, had worked with native peoples.

Dennison, wearing a turquoise necklace typical of the Navajo, greeted the audience in both English and his native language. “You are all welcome to the Navajo land, it is a sacred place,” he said.

For Dennison, a medicine man with a master’s degree in educational administration, Navajo land is both a homeland where he found “harmony and beauty” as well a place where, he related later, his family could raise a flock of sheep and a herd of goats.

“There is a spiritual and emotional connection to the land,” he said. 

Dennison defined Navajo land as lying between “four sacred peaks” that “were established by the holy people as the cornerstones of Navajo country”: Blanca Peak to the east, Mount Taylor to the south, San Francisco Peak to the west and Mount Hesperus to the north. 

The Window Rock for which the area is named—a windswept, red rock opening that stands about a half-mile from the museum—illustrated the connection.

Taken at its physical geographic description, Window Rock is simply a 200-foot-high natural arch of Middle Jurassic Bluff Sandstone. But as a sacred place, according to Lapahie.com, “portal to the Navajo Internet,” “It was one of the four places where Navajo medicine men go with their woven water bottles to get water for the ceremony that is held for abundant rain.”

Adding emotional attachment to Window Rock is the Navajo Code Talkers Memorial at the base of the arch. The Code Talkers, made famous in the film “Windtalkers,” were a group of Navajo-speaking U.S. Marines who during World War II devised a Navajo-based code that the Japanese were unable to break.

As for the Jews’ attachment to their holy land, Rosenfeld pointed out that “you don’t have to live on it.”

At the same time, he stressed—quoting Psalm 137, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither”—Jews are not allowed to forget their attachment.

Both speakers saw rays of sacredness emanating from the east.

Dennison remarked that the traditional Navajo home, the hogan, was to this day oriented with its entrance to the east.

“The tip of light of where the rising sun first strikes is considered sacred,” he said. “First light enters our whole being.”

Rosenfeld saw “spirituality coming from the east,” east being the symbol of Jerusalem. “Jews face east when they pray,” he said.

Several audience members, speaking in Navajo or in English with a bit of Hebrew, also spotted similarities in experience and ritual.

Navajo Lydell James saw a connection between his tribe’s Long Walk and the Holocaust. The Long Walk, known as “Bosque Redondo,” was an 1864-66 forced relocation of the Navajo from their historic tribal lands to an area around Fort Sumner, N.M.

“The hurt doesn’t end,” he said.

Laura Jijon, who is Jewish and works with the Navajo as an adult education administrator at the University of New Mexico Extension in nearby Gallup, N.M., cited a similarity to the spiritual significance that Dennison placed on the four directions and the six directions that Jews wave the lulav on Sukkot.

She also pointed out that “the hogan and the sukkah are both sacred dwellings.”

As to the generational challenges facing each group, the rabbi and medicine man acknowledged that their respective people’s commitment and sense of holiness about their lands could be at risk.

“We don’t own the land,” Dennis said. “It’s a Western concept of marking the land and water. It becomes a property. In the future we could lose sight of the sacredness of the land.

“How do we keep the fire burning?” he asked.

“Is something inherently holy? Only if a community takes it as such,” said Rosenfeld. “Fifty-nine percent of American Jews have not been to Israel.”

Historically, Navajos and Jews have long had some ties.

In the 19th century, Solomon Bibo, a Jewish immigrant from Poland and New Mexico trader, “was the only white man ever to be the chief of a Navajo pueblo,” Bronitsky said.

And before the event Bronitsky, standing before a photo display of Miss Navajo contest winners, pointed to the photo of the second winner, in 1954-55, Ida Gail Organick.

“She was married to a Jewish doctor,” he said.

Bronitsky believes it was unlikely that the Navajo had their own term for Jew.

Now they do.

Touring Eastern Europe with a Navajo choral group, Bronitsky had worn his kippah during side trips to Holocaust memorials.

At the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, awaiting the flight home, he wondered if the singers could come up with a word for a Jew.

“Bich’ah yazhi dineh’eh” was the phrase one of them coined, “people who wear little hats,” he recalled following the Shabbat discussion. 

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.

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