Looking for a Story to Tell

The Navajo path to my Jewish past

| September-October 1997

The Navajos are a deeply religious people. They do not set aside Saturdays or Sundays to tend to spiritual matters, but attend to them full time. Their relation to the gods is so fundamental that they have no word for “religion.” Signs of the divine are perceived in illness, in lightning strikes, in the waxing and waning of springs. Gods are not abstract ideas—they are presences. When Bessie, the mother of my Navajo friend Ella Bidonie, picks a plant to make a dye for her wool, she offers a prayer back to Mother Earth in thanks. Bessie believes that at the spots around her home where she makes these offerings, the gods hear her and come to know her. The Navajos have a personal conception of humans’ role in the cosmos. The religious historian Mircea Eliade has put it this way in The Sacred and the Profane:

What we find as soon as we place ourselves in the perspective of religious man of the archaic societies is that the world exists because it was created by the gods, and that the existence of the world itself “means” something, “wants to say” something, that the world is neither mute nor opaque, that it is not an inert thing without purpose or significance. For religious man, the cosmos “lives” and “speaks.” The mere life of the cosmos is proof of its sanctity, since the cosmos was created by the gods and the gods show themselves to men through cosmic life.

Non-religious people feel uneasy hearing talk of sacred objects and moments, as I did when I first arrived in the Southwest. Such talk was thoroughly alien to the scientific, rational world where I was reared and educated, and where I thought I worked. But I was curious: How might it feel to believe the world “means something” or to be known by one’s gods?

This curiosity was one reason that I was standing in Ella’s house, that I had been drawn back to the reservation in 1985 to write a book after completing an article about a land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi tribes for Newsweek magazine. I had sensed the presence of the divine among these people, though it was still inchoate. And I sensed that this presence changed everything: our relations with each other and with ourselves.

Certain moments lodged in my memory. When I saw Bessie rise one morning, slip her hand into a cotton sack of corn meal, and step outside into the icy dawn to offer a blessing to the rising sun, upon which—as if on Phoebus Apollo’s chariot—she believed the gods rode each morning to survey creation, I observed a gravity and absorption in her face that consumed me for weeks. I noticed the same reverence about Ella when she spoke of her parents’ childhood teachings about weaving and planting. At those times, Ella’s voice would invariably lower and her eyes would change, as if she were no longer looking out, but rather looking inside herself. These moments produced a memorable, rich stillness.

It never occurred to me that I could find that reverence in my own tradition. I hardly knew what that tradition was. I didn’t think these experiences were something I could have or seek on my own.

After my book, The Wind Won't Know Me: A History of the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute, was published in 1993, Ella asked me if I would come back to write another book, this one about her father’s life. She wanted a record of the old ways, so her grandchildren, who would not grow up on the reservation, could learn about their great-grandparents. I agreed. The new book, Beyond the Four Corners of the World, evolved into a story of Ella’s own life, beginning with her childhood in the ancient world of planting, sheep herding, and religious observance, following her to government boarding school and then to a college education and the white world. The story of her difficult journey into modernity was intertwined with the narratives of her mother and father and grandparents, the echoes of her past, the North Stars of her life. I understood how loud were those echoes, how steadfast the guiding stars.