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History

[1] Righteous Acts, Filthy Rags, and a Mission Cemetery: Christian History Revisited

by James C. Schaap, Professor of English, Dordt College

The cemetery at Rehoboth, New Mexico, is hardly a tourist stop, even though thousands of travelers pass it daily, thousands more each summer.  Just a few miles east of Gallup, New Mexico, a city sometimes dubbed “The Indian capital of the world,” little Rehoboth sits quietly just off legendary Route 66 and its hurried descendent, I-40, its century-old cemetery beneath the hogbacks, a mile south.

Should passers-by happen to glance over there when they pass the village, what they see is a circle of homes and school buildings, two churches (one brand new, the other abandoned), a spacious, new athletic field, and, all around, fairly significant on-going construction.  Rehoboth, New Mexico, was once a dedicated mission compound, the very first significant outreach of a young North American denomination composed almost exclusively of immigrant Dutch, the Christian Reformed Church—my church, my people.   By 1920, the place would have resembled any of a dozen other mission compound fortresses on or adjacent to Native reservations throughout the west—school and hospital, dormitories and staff housing.   But even today you have to make a point of seeing the place.  It’s not hard to miss Rehoboth.

The hospital is gone now, moved west a few miles into the city, where in the early 1980s it was merged with McKinley County Hospital, the descendent of an infirmary created in 1895 for railroad workers and run, for many years, by the Poor Sisters of St. Francis.  Today, the new system’s centerpiece is a 69-bed acute care facility that stands proudly atop the city, the home of Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Systems. 

The oldest stories that rise, even unbidden, from the beguiling cemetery are those intimately connected to the hospital that stood for years on the north end of the grounds.    According to Rehoboth’s own historians, the idea for some kind of medical care facility on Rehoboth’s campus grew from a commitment to holistic ministry.  In fact, Ms. Cocia Hartog, the first full-time teacher at the school way back in 1910, took courses in nursing, in all likelihood to prepare for work which would arise once a hospital was up and running.

The need for good medical care on the Navajo Reservation, the nation’s largest, had to have been obvious to early missionaries; not only were no modern facilities available to the Navajos and Zunis the missionaries wanted to reach for Jesus, the medical care Native people sought, at least to the missionaries, was, at worst, demonic—the tribal medicine men.  Thus, they reasoned, a hospital with a Christian staff didn’t need to find ways to preach the gospel to patients; simply by their coming in for Anglo medical care, Native people from the vast reaches of the reservations were signaling at least some aversion to their own tradition of folk medicine.

In those early years when Rehoboth Mission was in its infancy, it was an undeniable threat to  the Native cultures of the Navajo and Zuni.  It may well be that those avenues of holistic outreach, like health care, most gracious, most Christ-like, perpetuated the most dramatic changes in the Native people who showed up at its doorstep. 

The story of the hospital, of the mission itself, of the boarding school and the entire outreach of the mission is, I believe, somehow best told by an early morning walk in that old cemetery.  It may not be a tourist trap, but, for Christians–for white Christians especially–maybe it should be. 

Most white folks would say the Rehoboth cemetery is not well-kept.  Yet, even months after Memorial Day, more fresh adornments festoon the burial sites, per capita, than at almost any graveyard off the reservation:  a miniature basketball and hoop on the grave of a young woman who only a year before her death had helped her Gallup team to a state championship; half-empty bottles of Coke half-buried in the dirt; stuffed animals galore, ceramic angels, all kinds of toys; rosary beads hung from a homemade wooden cross jammed in the ground beside a small statue of Mary in a Navajo blanket; hundreds—maybe thousands—of plastic flowers.  

Arlington National Cemetery’s impressive orderliness makes the soldiers buried there seem as heroic and selfless as they were in war.  But at Rehoboth cemetery the dead are remembered individually, strikingly, memorably, so that everywhere you look there is personality.  So many stories.  So much sadness.  Such deep faith.

Here’s a young woman, knifed to death by her ex-boyfriend.  There’s the daughter of a missionary—six years old, died in 1948.  Does anyone remember her story?   Off to the left, that little gray stone marks the body of a stillborn, one of the last deaths in the old hospital. 

And there’s Albert Henry—a single man, war hero, assistant pastor at a church nearby; and just beyond him, Sidney Nez, a missionary at Toadlena.  There’s Ben Musket, from a family that’s been part of the Rehoboth mission program for four generations—and Marie Davis, who worked in the school’s kitchen for years.  Just beyond a ways is Juke Den Bleyker, the mission’s faithful maintenance man for even more. 

Over there, a kid who played basketball as well as any in the last thirty years; he died of alcoholism.  And there’s Coolidge Begay, a quiet man whose son was a sheriff and today has a great-grandson in the 6th grade, at the new Rehoboth Middle School.  There’s David Charles—died tragically in a car accident, just 19 years old.

In a straight line running north and south, you’ll find a list of Dutch names:  the Reverend L.P. Brink, pioneer missionary, who came to the long shadow of the Red Rocks in 1901 and died here in ‘36.  Rolf Veenstra, a patriarch of more recent vintage; his stone, flat and tan and somehow perfect for this desert landscape, calls him a “saint.”  Then comes Casey Kuipers and his wife Martha, who spent a lifetime in and around the Zuni pueblo, talking to folks about Jesus.  

A number of Code Talkers are buried here, authentic World War II heroes, distinguished warriors from the Navajo nation who rattled off military secrets to each other in their Native tongue, words and phrases totally indecipherable to the most brilliant Japanese code-breakers.   Their wives are here too, beloved grandmas who stayed home and prayed—scores of them.   There are Damons and Oppenhuizens, Henrys and Bosschers, Kamps and Begays, Yazzies and Boumas. 

On the slope at the eastern edge, five rows of white crosses stand, fatigued as war-weary sentries—forty or more of them, some of their comrades already broken or fallen.  In a cemetery that’s as heavily decorated as this is with American flags, it’s impossible not to think of those crosses as marking something military. 

But, strangely, they bear no names.  For some time I didn’t know their origin.  Together, evenly spaced, they have the look of an anti-abortion demonstration, but I’ve never seen such a thing in a graveyard.  When I asked around, no one seemed to know why they were there.  Later, one of the ancients told me he believed they were erected long after the original burials to mark the graves of Native people who’d died in the old hospital.   

At Rehoboth, there were rules for Christian burials back then, just as there were rules at cemeteries all over the continent, rules long since loosened.  It’s quite likely that no one knows how many Native dead lie beneath the tawny soil marked by those old white crosses.  For every wooden cross in those lines, how many more are long gone?—I asked myself.  I was—as I sometimes am—ashamed of my people for what seems careless disregard, for racism.

And I know the antagonism among the Lakota for what remains of an Indian Insane Asylum not far down the road from where I live, in Canton, SD.  On what is now a golf course, 121 Sioux and Ojibwa are buried beneath a marker between the fourth and fifth fairways, miles and miles from the reservations where the deceased once lived.  Between 1902, when it was opened, and 1933, when it was closed by order of John Collier, the commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Roosevelt administration, Native people were sent to the Canton Indian Insane Asylum, more than occasionally for reasons that now seem specious, at best.  There, some died.  Those who did were buried on the grounds of what has become, ironically, Hiawatha Golf Course.

Every year, in May, some folks from the Rosebud Reservation make the three-hour trek east to Canton to burn sage, smoke tobacco, and pray for the spirits.  But the graves will not be moved; they will stay on the Hiawatha Golf Course because Native people have determined that moving the remains would afflict the spiritual journeys of the deceased. 

In The Dance Partner, Diane Glancy, who is Cherokee, recorded the voices she heard when she visited that fairway gravesite, including one of the deceased listed on the commemorative stone, “James Blackeye, d. 5-6-22”:

The inmates were brought to the asylum in the night.  By train or road.  The blizzards howled.  The train howled.  There was a stirring of sound from the cells below.  A baby cried.  We were ordered to be quiet.  To hold our noises, our cries and moanings. But in the asylum we could hear the ghosts, the spirits, the old ones, the dead ones, until we descend into death.  The world was insane.  They brought it with them.  It was the disease we caught like small pox.  They recorded our deaths.  I dug the graves.  Children were born here.  This hell they invented in God’s name.

From Diane Glancy, I know at least something of the injustice, the sacrilege that Native people feel about ancestors being buried in what seems a mass grave on the Hiawatha Golf Course; and I couldn’t help but wonder, when I first I stood before all those unmarked crosses in the Rehoboth cemetery, whether my own people were as insensitive with the remains of all those Navajos who died at the old hospital. 

In the gravelly New Mexico soil, several dozen weather-beaten, unlettered wooden crosses bear witness not only to the white man’s selfishness and greed, his cultural blindness and racism, but also to the heartbreaking tragedy created by all of our own very best intentions.  Those white crosses tell a story I’m trying hard to piece together.  And it is in no small part my own.          

The Rug

I’m not sure why I’m the grandchild who has it.  My Arizona cousins play an envy game with me every time we speak of it—they think they should have it; after all, an ancient Navajo rug deserves somehow to be displayed honorably someplace closer to its homeland.  Some might question whether any of us—palefaces all—should have it.  Perhaps it belongs to the kin of the weaver, whoever that woman was.

But once upon a time it belonged to our grandfather, a Dutch Calvinist preacher of Christian Reformed vintage, who belonged to what was then called “The Heathen Mission Board” for more than thirty years and thrice, according to his obituary, was sent to New Mexico to make “inspection tours” of the Rehoboth Mission.  Presumably—and by way of family lore—he received the rug as a gift for his good service, which sounds plausible.

By the time I recognized the rug for what it was, I was a college kid.  Back then, the rug was working, lying on the cement floor in front of our basement washing machine, where it likely took the bruising that has resulted in its being rather unfashionably unstrung.  If its whites once were, they are no more; today they’re dingy grays.  But no matter—the old rug hangs from a wall here in my study, one of my most treasured possessions, its discoloration and tattered edges the voice of its own history.  My parents had no objection to my taking it when I left home; I’m guessing they probably enjoyed their son’s thinking enough of family history to want it for his own.

That Navajo rug has been with me for forty years, and I’m only beginning to understand its character, largely because I’m only beginning to understand immigration and homesteading that comprises a formative chapter of my family’s history.  My ancestors marched west to the tune of “manifest destiny,” and in so doing displaced its aboriginal inhabitants.  What happened in America’s western movement is very much a part of my story.

In America, Dutch settlements, like the one I was born in and the one I still live in today, exist only in the northern tier of states because the Dutch Calvinists who immigrated in the mid-19th century would have nothing to do with slavery.   But running off the savages apparently never similarly gouged their steeply religious consciences—or if it did, they didn’t bother to confess. 

My immigrant great-grandfather on my mother’s side came to the lakeshore region of Wisconsin at a time when pioneering white folks had to wield axes because the new land “was in the midst of the forest and had never before been occupied by white settlers,” according to his obituary.  “Then the hardships and trials of the early pioneer were experienced,” says his obit, “for they had very little to eat, not much clothing, and scarcely any of the comforts of life. The red men were still numerous in this section, but were not troublesome to the white settlers, except as beggars.”

Were the “red men” he knew Winnebago, Pottawatomie, or Fox?–I’ll never know; but history makes clear that at least some of the Winnebago were dispossessed of their Wisconsin lakeshore lands and relocated to treeless plains just west of the Missouri River, 500 miles away, and not all that far from where I live today.  This fact seems irrefutable: my great-grandparents, and every generation since, were buried, with dignity, on what was once Winnebago land.

The rug that hangs beside me as I write is a relic of my father’s side of the family, the Rev. John C. Schaap, born here, in the States, to an immigrant couple who tried to farm in Dakota territory, just east of the Missouri River at the time of the Wounded Knee massacre.  In fact, it’s quite likely that his father and mother, like thousands of other settlers, grabbed the kids and went into town in late December of 1890, when word of what they would have called “a battle” spread eastward.   As a boy, my grandfather likely saw hundreds of Lakota, who regularly left the nearby reservations toting the blankets and coats and what not else they were given, by treaty, as reparations, then traded them for whatever they needed from white homesteaders, who were likely just as poor—maybe more so.

Perhaps my grandfather, the preacher, became a member of the Heathen Mission Board of the CRC because his South Dakota sojourn brought him into contact with Native people, even though they were Lakota, not the Navajo and Zuni of the Southwest.  Perhaps not.  What I know, however, is that my own grandfather, the preacher, played a significant role in the development of the Rehoboth Mission, then in its infancy.

Six years before he died and just a few years after he retired, my grandfather baptized me.  I own a scratchy recording of a sermon he once preached in the church where I spent my childhood, the only bit of his preaching I’ve ever heard.  He was no stemwinder, and I’m told he could be gruff, especially in his later years.  But the caricature of a Dutch Calvinist preacher, vintage 1930, didn’t fit him exactly.  By nature, he was not mean.  He may well have been better as an after-dinner speaker—if I believe the stories—than he was behind the pulpit.

Nothing in my collection of anecdotes and reminiscences, however, leads me to believe that he was anything less than sincere about his profession of faith, nor that there was ever any disjunction between his walk and his talk.  He was pious to be sure, but not pietistic.  He was a quiet man, determined, and committed to church doctrine, not at all unlike most other pastors of his vintage.  He would never deliberately poked a sharp stick in the eye of someone with whom disagreed.  He wasn’t the type. 

Yet, about Native people, about the purpose and mission of Rehoboth itself, it’s quite likely that this very good and righteous man, who undoubtedly prayed fervently for the Indians he thought his denomination was evangelizing, was—on most matters pertaining to those Navajo and Zuni people served by the mission–quite wrong, almost dead wrong. And therein lies the tale.

The Boarding School Controversy

Interestingly, that boarding schools—like Rehoboth–robbed Native people of heritage, culture, and dignity was clearly asserted even before Rehoboth itself existed, at least as early as 1900, with the publication, in the Atlantic Monthly, of “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” an essay by Zitkala-Š̌a (Gertrude Bonnin), a Yankton Sioux, who wrote vividly of her first days at a Quaker school in Indiana.  That she wanted to go to school is made clear in her memoir of her early years on the Yankton reservation.  Nevertheless, when finally she came to boarding school, what she faced was nothing close to what she’d imagined. 

A paleface woman, with white hair, came up after us.  We were placed in a line of girls who were marching into the dining room.  These were Indian girls in stiff shoes and closely clinging dresses.  The small girls wore sleeved aprons and shingled hair.  As I walked noiselessly in my moccasins, I felt like sinking to the floor, for my blanket had been stripped from my shoulders.  I looked hard at the Indian girls, who seemed not to care that they were even more immodestly dressed than I, in their tightly fitting clothes.  (American Indian Stories, 52-53)

But even greater humiliation comes to her a few hours later when she’s told by another Indian girl that soon her hair will be cut off by the white matron.  Short hair, Bonnin says her mother had always told her, carried the onus of disgrace; only those Sioux in captivity or in mourning cut their hair.  Desperately afraid, she runs away upstairs and hides beneath her bed, but soon is found.

I remember being dragged out, though I resisted by kicking and scratching wildly.. . .I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids.  Then I lost my spirit.  Since the day I was taken from my mother, I had suffered extreme indignities.. . .In my anguish I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me.  Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only one of many little animals driven by the herder.  (55-56)

In Learning to Write “Indian”:  The Boarding-School Experience and American Indian Literature, Amelia V. Katanski explains how Bonnin’s essay angered the single human being most responsible for the widely-held belief in the efficacy of Indian boarding schools, Richard Henry Pratt, the founder, promoter, and long-time superintendent of Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Carlisle was the flagship of the movement, Pratt its draftsman and builder.  “By specifically invoking a story that supports degenerationalist ideology—a belief that humanity is not evolving, but devolving in the post-Edenic world—“ Katanski writes, “Zitkala-Sa refutes the assumption that going from the reservation to boarding school, from the West to the East, was the equivalent of progressing from savagery toward civilization,” the philosophical foundation, Katanski argues, of the Pratt-inspired boarding-school movement.

What’s even worse for Richard H. Pratt is that Gertrude Bonnin was employed, for a term or two, at Carlisle School as a teacher and a successful one at that, accomplished in writing as well as music.  But her shocking reminiscences served to refute Pratt’s basic argument, as well as that of his followers—and there were many—an argument concisely summarized in his own words in a speech in 1892:  “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Killing the Indian really meant destroying his—or her—culture.  That Pratt was not alone in his vision goes without saying—his followers included, apparently, my own grandfather.  But proponents of that basic dogma included some in far higher governmental positions than a military man turned educator like Richard H. Pratt.  It may be difficult to understand from the vantage point of the 21st century, but Indian policy in this country was dominated by an either/ or argument.  Himself an immigrant to this country, Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz felt only two alternatives existed for the American Indian at the end of the 19th century—absorption into American “civilization,” or extermination.  “The object of Indian policy was ‘unquestionably the gradual absorption of the Indians in the great body [of] American citizenship’” (as qtd. In Rehder and Eder 75).  What’s more, as Jon Reyhner and Jeanne Eder explain in American Indian Education, the overwhelming optimism which surrounded a commitment to the boarding school concept was palpable.  They quote John C. Oberly, the Indian Office’s Superintendent of Indian schools, in 1885: 

If there was a sufficient number of reservation boarding school-buildings to accommodate all the Indian children of school age, and these buildings could be filled and kept filled with Indian pupils, the Indian problem would be solved within the school age of the Indian child now six years old. (75)

That the boarding school idea—especially at Carlisle—was not going to be the success its proponents claimed was suggested by some early flare-ups between Native leaders who had given their early approval and even sent their children off to Pennsylvania with Pratt.  Sinte Galeksa (Spotted Tail), a Brule chief whose acquaintance with the white man had led him to believe—firmly—that there could be no more war, had, early on, given Pratt his assent and sent several of his children.  But when, a year later, he returned to the school and found his children homesick and heartless—one of them jailed—he pulled them out of Carlisle immediately and ushered them quickly back home with him.

All the optimism, all the confidence generated by fine and thoughtful people, men and women—many of whom were deeply sympathetic with the Native people who’d been run off their land—began to wane, however, when graduates of these institutions finished their schooling and it became apparent that their futures were clouded at best—who were they  now?  where would they find their homes?

In the earliest thorough description of the Rehoboth Mission (1910), Ms. Cocia Hartog opens up those questions.   “The future has always been a great problem,” she writes in a small pamphlet titled Indian Mission Sketches.  “What are these tender lambs to do? Will not all the good impressions in them be wiped out by the overwhelming influence of the old life?” she asks (27).  That question—at that early moment in mission history—had no clear answer at Rehoboth or Carlyle, or any of the many Indian boarding schools in North America.

The demise of the boarding school movement, on or off reservations, began, or so say the historians, in the late 1920s, when it became apparent to those Native students who had taken their education in those places either showed no tendency to “assimilate,” as Pratt and so many others had promised—or else returned home only to find they were no longer capable of living with their own families.  Some Native people found themselves outcast among their own, as much on the basis of their own transformed character as the perceptions of those around them back on the reservations. 

Perhaps the most famous story is that of Plenty Horses, a Lakota from Pine Ridge, who spent five years at Carlisle School, then returned home to South Dakota in late 1890 and was swept up in the Ghost Dance and, far more significantly, in the mad skirmishes that flourished on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the wake of the Massacre at Wounded Knee.  On January 7, 1891, eight days after the slaughter, Plenty Horses took sure aim at Lt. Edward Casey as Casey walked back to his horse after an hour-long talk and shot him through the back of the head, the last white soldier to die in the Sioux Indian wars. 

“I was an outcast,” Plenty Horses told people later.  “I was no longer an Indian.”   His seemingly cold-blooded murder of Lt. Casey, a story grippingly told by Roger L. Di Silvestro in In the Shadow of Wounded Knee, can and often is at least partially explained by the identity problems Plenty Horses faced back home in Pine Ridge.  After all, shooting a man in the back of the head would have not given him standing, traditionally, as a warrior among his own his own people.  “In the world of his own culture,” Di Silvestro says, “Plenty Horses had lost his way, and in his attempt to win a place for himself there, he had blundered” (157).

Simply stated, the boarding school movement in American Indian education stumbled over its own brash and racist foundation when, clearly, its end game simply was not successfully achieved—the vast majority of students didn’t “assimilate” with either the dominant white culture, nor the Native world, the reservation system, into which they’d been born.

The Decimation of Native Culture

It seems important for this white man to point out that the entire boarding school movement is itself but a means to an end—a way of dealing with the devastation which occurred when millions of white people determined the North American continent was empty land, there—and theirs—for the taking.  The bloody and shocking depredations—the gruesome murders and unspeakable violence—which occurred along famous overland routes during the 19th century occurred because white people wanted Native land, and took it. 

As reprehensible as that notion might seem to white people now—it seemingly didn’t bother us much then—what is painfully clear a century later is that, in so doing, we also displaced the continent’s aboriginal people from their culture, which is to say their whole way of life.  In destroying the buffalo, for instance, white people wiped out Lakota culture.

And we knew it.  In 1875, speaking of the buffalo hunters, Gen. Phillip H. Sheridan, Commander of the Division of the Missouri, said to the Texas legislature,

They have done more in the last two years to settle the vexed Indian question Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years.  They are destroying the Indian’s commissary… Send them powder and lead, if you will; but, for the sake of a lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.”

In a remarkable new book titled Radical Hope:  Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Jonathan Lear explains vividly what the death of a culture means to a people.  He begins by quoting a memoir by the Crow chief Plenty Coups:  “I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing.  But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them again.  After this, nothing happened.”

“Nothing happened.”  Lear speculates that what Plenty Coups meant by that haunting line is that, for him at least, the demise of his traditional Crow culture was, in a way, the end of history.  Lear explains that Plenty Coups did indeed have a life after that moment, but he says that the biographer, Frank B. Linderman, a trapper, hunter, and cowboy, who lived close to the Crows in Montana, claims that at that point, the story Plenty Coups was telling him simply ended:  “Linderman says he was unable to get Plenty Coups to talk about anything that happened after the Crow were confined to a reservation” (2).  It was as if life stopped, even though it hadn’t.

What Lear wants to do is to try to understand, not by digging more deeply into the biography of Plenty Coups or even studying American history, but by thinking through the happens when a culture is devastated. 

Central to his investigation is the Crow practice of “counting coups,” a tradition in the warrior society that became the means by which young men attained stature and station.  The coup stick had at least two purposes in Crow society.  First, when planted in the ground, coup stick demarcated an area, a line-in-the-sand, from which the warrior could not—at any cost, even his life—retreat; second, it was the weapon by which “counting coup” was accomplished, an assortment of behaviors by which the warrior touched or stung or hit the enemy first, without being similarly struck himself.  These events became the stuff of reminiscence at night, when the hostilities ceased.  And, more importantly, they became the means by which men measured their daring, their courage, and, in a very moral way, their value to the community.

Lear does all of us—especially his white readers—invaluable service by opening up the rituals that surrounded use of coup sticks so that the behavior of the warriors with those sticks is not simply an act of violence or even bravery, but a means by which value is adduced and attributed within the culture.  What he argues is that coup sticks are not simply recreational or even simply the armaments of warfare; they were the means by which morality is measured and defined in the society.

Life on the reservation meant an end to the institutional violence which characterized Crow—and many Native—cultures.  Suddenly, the coup stick, which was, in many ways, the measuring stick for morality, had no meaning whatsoever.  At that point, Lear says, the planting of the coup stick has ceased to be an intelligible act—in the sense that there are no longer viable ways of doing it.  The only ways of living forward with it are retrospective: one can remember it, recount its history, dramatize it at a powwow, mourn its loss. But as things now stand, there is nowhere to plant it.  Without living possibilities, it can no longer live as a coup-stick. (32-33).

What Lear documents so convincingly is that the measure of public and private morality had simply disappeared from Crow tribal life, leaving the people somewhere adrift on a sea where determining one’s own position in life itself is incalculable.  What had imminent and transcendent value had become value-less.

The only analogy I can make to 21st century American life is if suddenly the dollar, the medium of our economic exchange but also of our moral system, were to disappear.  If we were suddenly to lose our currency, the whole arrangement of our culture, as we know it at least, would have to be somehow restructured.

And we white folks would flounder.  Finding a new way to measure what is good and what is not would be incredible problem.  We would likely have to discover anew how on earth we should live.

Central to the entire story of Euro-Native relations since Columbus is the undeniable fact that white colonization of North America essentially robbed the Native populations—from east to west—not only of their land but also of their culture, their way of life.

Good people—good Christian people, my own grandfather among them—were among those who carried out that destruction, often with prayerful intentionality and the conviction that what they were doing was what the Lord himself wanted.  How faithful believers could be so wrong is the story I’m trying to understand.  Not simply them either.  We.  All of us.

Rehoboth Memoirs

In the last several months, I’ve been interviewing some aging Navajo folks whose roots grow back into the century-old story of Rehoboth Mission and mission school.  All of them remember the boarding school days very well—a few fondly, some very angrily.  Several have told me they know very good people who would not walk on the compound again—so deep is their resentment about what happened to them at the boarding school. 

One of them—we’ll call him Sam—was taken off to school in 1945.   “I didn’t know a word of English—didn’t get a word of what people were saying,” he remembered during those first difficult days.  Older Navajo boys would translate occasionally, which helped greatly, but it was the military-like regimen that still makes him shake his head, a behavior so alien to his culture.  Off they went, marching off to dinner, marching off to school, marching off to church, two-on-two, like soldiers, like cavalry. 

In those days, Sam also remembers how his teachers made them memorize the Heidelberg Catechism, a task, quite certainly, the CRC teachers themselves had to do when they were children.   Such forced memorization and an unflinching commitment to what seemed perfunctory obligations and meaningless religious ceremony made some people, Sam says, simply “go through the process, and a lot of people resent that today.”  When he explains why some Rehoboth graduates feel dishonored by the education they received at the mission school, he says the implication—whether stated or not—was often violent and stark:  “If you don’t do this—if you don’t do that, you’re going to hell.”  What was presumed worthy of damnation, for the most part, was behavior that arose from the hogan, from the Navajo culture; what was redeemed was what was white—and even CRC. 

Some antagonism, or so it seems, is borne from the perception that all children, regardless of history or race, might have when being sent away to any boarding school.  One woman I’ll call Livia told me that, at first, she wasn’t at all sure of what she was doing at Rehoboth school—“I just thought my parents were sending me here to get rid of me,” she told me.  And then she went to the editorial we.  “We didn’t have good experiences at boarding school.”  Livia told me that her experiences up until high school were most difficult.  “There were no gray areas—you either can or you can’t.”  And then she stopped.  “There are a lot of things that I will not speak of from my third grade until high school.” 

“It was strict—it was strict,” her mother added, a woman nearly ninety, who sent nine of her 15 children through Rehoboth schools. 

“There was no beating,” Livia says, “there was no physical abuse of any kind.  Most of it was mental—things that happened that you couldn’t do anything about.  And I was punished a lot—I spoke up too much.  I was punished a lot, and I was just a kid,” she told me, fifty years after the fact.  “I can forgive, even if I will never forget.”

Those elderly Navajos who do not regret their boarding school educations frequently balance whatever antipathy they have with what their parents or guardians considered the requirements of a future, more cosmopolitan, and less strictly tribal existence.  Sam’s grandfather, an exceptionally wealthy sheepherder and rancher, sent his grandson off to Rehoboth school in the late 30’s, when the boy, just ten years old, knew no English.  “When you’re in Rome, you do what the Romans do”—Sam claims that was his grandfather’s argument.   By the mid-20th century, even though sheep-herding was still the dominant way of life, it must have already been clear to at least some Navajo leaders that a certain kind of assimilation was going to take place, regretfully or not.

Nonetheless, it’s probably fair to say that that the educational standards created at the small Christian elementary school I attended as a boy in the 1950’s were likely similar to those created at Rehoboth at that time.  Significantly, however, I’d come from a religious and ethnic culture which had deliberately created those standards.   What Navajo and Zuni kids undoubtedly encountered, even mid-20th century, was an educational experience that, perhaps not even by design, denied (at best  ) or even damned (at worst) the way of life which those students left behind them at their hogans.   In order to be, the children had to become.  But they knew they already were; it’s just that what they were simply wasn’t what they were supposed to be.  That moral equation was inescapable.

Canadian Truth and Reconciliation

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a part of the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, will begin hearings designed to determine a historical record of the story of its First Nations boarding schools.  Not unlike its neighbors to the south, the Canadian government, in the late 19th century, embarked on a policy of what they called “aggressive assimilation” with regard to its First Nations, instituting a national program to enroll its Native children in schools that would abandon their native (“savage”) culture and teach the children to find their way in the majority, white national culture.  Religious denominations were enlisted to undertake much of that education, not only because churches were vitally interested in missionary outreach among “the heathen,” but also because churches were more determined, and therefore more likely,  to go into largely unpopulated areas than were typical public-school educators. 

By the early 1930s, as many as eighty Native boarding schools were operating throughout Canada; estimates of exactly how many First Nations people were taken from their homes and brought to board range as high as 150,000. 

Stories of physical and sexual abuse abound.  There can be no doubt that sexual predators found a haven in such boarding schools; not only were the schools geographically isolated, the students, separated from family and tribal authority figures, were largely unprotected and therefore easy targets for all manner of abuse. 

Just who was and wasn’t victimized by sexual and physical abuse may be difficult to ascertain, as it always is in such cases, since many of the acts took place decades ago.  Nonetheless, in a 2005 settlement, the Canadian government determined to offer compensation for the abuse by announcing a $2-billion compensation package for those who were forced to attend those schools.  That compensation, called the Common Experience Payments, offered all former students of Indian boarding schools an initial payment of $10,000, plus additional payments of $3000 for each of those students’ years of attendance.   The government estimates that approximately 86,000 of its First Nations people are eligible for that compensation.

Part of the means by which to deal with the many horrible effects of government-mandated boarding schools is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a judicial body headed up by Canada’s first Native judge, Justice Harry LaForme, a member of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation in southern Ontario.  The commission’s other members include experts in public policy as well as in the health problems facing Canada’s aboriginal people.  The commission was given a significant budget by which to carry out its work, and five years in which to accomplish its task.

Like its famous South African ancestor, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission will seek to establish some kind of historical record and focus on “restorative justice,” as opposed to adversarial or retributive justice.  It will not, on its own, determine guilt and innocence; instead, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will attempt to determine truth, to find appropriate means to offer public mourning—to attempt, as did the South African commission—to forgive and to heal.

The most complex accusation—and least debatable—is that of systematical “cultural” abuse carried out on boarding school students.   Students enrolled in boarding schools were snatched out of their homes and offered very few opportunities to return, even to visit, during extended school years.  They were forbidden to use their native tongue and frequently separated from siblings since the avowed purpose of these schools—just as their U. S. counterparts—was to systematically destroy their association and allegiance with their own native cultures. 

In every way, Canadian Native people, like their cousins south of the border, were victims of a policy both created and carried out by Christians, many of whom fully believed that what they were doing, they were doing in the cause of Kingdom of the Lord.  But in the process, what was created, without a doubt, is what some Canadian commentators call “soul wounds.”

Believers, like me, have much for which to be sorry, much for which to feel shame.  “Aggressive assimilation” perpetuated upon Native people throughout the North American continent is probably most fully understood by non-Natives by way of a Bible verse frequently quoted by old-time Calvinists:  “All of us have become like one who is unclean,” the Old Testament says, “and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” Isaiah 64:6 (NIV). 

All of which is not to say. . .

Arne Duncan, the Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, unveiled a pilot program set to open in the fall of 2009, Chicago’s very first urban boarding school, an institution deliberately created to offer opportunities for the children of the homeless, as well as kids from troubled homes.  Few would argue that urban education in America, by and large, is not in catastrophic shape; many, many inner city schools are themselves at risk, and no one knows it better than the residents surrounding those schools.  “The proposal puts Chicago at the forefront of urban school reform,” the Chicago Tribune reported, “as cities struggle to raise the academic achievement of students hampered by dysfunctional homes and other obstacles outside school.”  

Unlike Pratt’s original boarding school plan, these new inner city boarding schools would not be placed in Kankakee or Champaign, but in the neighborhoods the kids themselves know well.  Furthermore, officials maintain that the boarding school concept does not intend in any backhanded way to indict parents for their inability to provide their kids with an environment conducive to educational success.  “This is not about doing something to parents because parents are bad,” Josh Edelman said, a man who has served for four years as the principal of The SEED School, Washington D.C., the nation’s oldest and most successful urban boarding school.  “This is about doing something in conjunction with parents and the community.”

It may well be easier for me, a white man, to say it, than it is for someone who is Native, but what seems clear is that “the boarding school” concept itself isn’t evil; educational reformers from a different time and place seem as enthusiastic about its possibilities to educate students today, as many such reformers—my grandfather among them—were a century or more ago. 

Getting children out of their homes to enroll in a residential campus is a measured response to what some consider present failure.  And while Chicago officials may well be loath to indict parents for providing a less than adequate environment for their children’s learning, clearly there would be no agenda for boarding schools in the city—and in other cities—if community leaders didn’t perceive real need. 

Oddly enough, those off-reservation boarding schools which still exist—whether under management of the Bureau of Indian Affairs or faith-based organizations—today often have waiting lists.  Recently, the first segment of a two-part story on National Public Radio, “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many,” featured the heinous record of such institutions.  But the second, “American Indian School a Far Cry from the Past,” told another story altogether, a story rich with successes—like Seana Edwards, a Prairie Band Potawatomi from New Hampshire, who was failing badly in her public school classes before transferring to Sherman Indian High School, Riverside, CA.  Today, Ms. Edwards attends the University of California at Berkeley and frequently returns to Sherman to urge students to excel at what they do. 

Charla Bear, the NPR reporter who filed the stories, says that Ms. Edwards knows very well the horrid history of such institutions, but also understands that such boarding schools as Sherman can still offer much-needed help to at-risk students.  “You feel part of that history and you get sad,” Ms. Edwards toward Bear, “but at the same time, you realize that it’s so much better today and you get the opportunity to change it. You get the opportunity to make it better. Not just for you but for other people, for younger generations.”

Discipline is rigorous, typical freedoms are withheld, and students who would rather not live within the well-defined limits are dispatched back home quickly since many other young Native Americans are seeking enrollment at Sherman. 

In Chamberlain, SD, St. Joseph’s Indian School, founded in 1927 by The Priests of the Sacred Heart (SJC), similarly has a waiting list of students—150 at any one time—who would like to be enrolled.  St. Joseph’s, which once was a typical dormitory-based facility, has changed over the years.  According to its web page, today, instead of housing its students in dormitories, St. Joseph’s offers “family living units offering a family/home environment.” It calls these living units “homes,” more familial-type residences where a dozen or so students live under the care of the institution’s own “trained childcare workers.”

What’s more, St. Joseph’s is very clear about what kind of student can enroll:  “Children who benefit from their present stable family situation,” says its own FAQ sheet, “are not accepted.”  In its attempt to locate and enroll only those students from nearby reservations who they perceive to be most “at risk,” St. Joseph’s educational mission is clearly related to the changes presently being undertaken in Chicago’s public schools.

No longer do such schools work at “aggressive assimilation.”  Both Sherman Indian School and St. Joseph’s deliberately educate their children in Native culture and history.  Not only are they taught Native languages, frequently Native arts are also offered—such as weaving or beadwork, even when—or so say some teachers at Sherman—those arts are rarely taught anymore in reservation homes.  

St. Joseph’s is clear in its emphasis on teaching Lakota heritage:

St. Joseph’s Indian School has a Native American Studies program that teaches the children traditional Lakota language, culture and traditions. The dance club teaches traditional Indian dances and songs and is dedicated to promoting a clear understanding and awareness of self. St. Joseph’s also holds a youth powwow on our campus each year.

In addition, St. Joseph’s Indian School is the home of one of the finest museums of Sioux history and culture anywhere in the state or nation, Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center, an institution which calls itself an “educational outreach” of the school on whose grounds it is located.  It is clear that both schools—two of the few Indian boarding schools left on the continent—have reshaped their curriculum and their day-to-day life to promoting the beauty and the importance of Native culture, rather than deny, even outlaw, its character.

According to Charla Bear’s NPR reports, at the Bureau of Indian Affairs there is no consensus whatsoever concerning the legitimacy of such schools—or whether the federal government itself should even be running Indian education in the 21st century.  “You can talk to 20 people in our organization, and 10 people will say we shouldn’t have off-reservation boarding schools, and 10 other people will say there’s a need for these kinds of schools because of the at-risk students,” one official in the BIA education office told Ms. Bear.

Rehoboth Memoirs II

That boarding schools, throughout their history, had devastating effects on Native cultures throughout North America is cannot be disputed.  Native children suffered cultural abuse from boarding schools, no matter who ran them, from their inception in the mid-to-late 19th century, to the disappearance of the vast majority of those institutions in the late 1970s.  Any attempt to deny or counter that truth is a denial of the stated mission and purpose of most of those schools, even—and maybe especially—those created and run by faith-based organizations.  That mission was to terminate the child’s subscription to his or her native culture. 

That having been said, there are angles to the story.  Without Carlisle, America would not have Jim Thorpe.  Without Carlisle, Charles Eastman, a Santee Sioux with a medical degree from Dartmouth, would not have treated the Lakota wounded and dying after the Massacre at Wounded Knee.  Many, many boarding school graduates are deeply thankful for the education they received in those institutions, even though they know very well that they suffered cultural abuse, at least, during the years they stayed.  One woman I spoke to, a retired medical officer at McKinley-Rehoboth Christian Hospital, the woman who wouldn’t tell me some of what had happened to her at Rehoboth School, a woman who understands why some of her Navajo friends and fellow graduates won’t come near the school they attended when they were kids, today works for that school, Rehoboth’s Director of Alumni. 

Another man, a retired lawyer who worked most of his life on the reservation, for the Navajo Nation or the federal government, couldn’t speak highly enough of the benefits he’d received from a Rehoboth education in the 1940s.   “I am always humbled by what I learned at Rehoboth and will be forever grateful to the wonderful people who made education available to me and continue to make it possible,” he told me.  “I learned how great our needs really are and how to think constructively and to be constructive.”

Interestingly, in the early 50s, when he was in the fourth grade, he was given the opportunity to make beaded belts.   “Many kids made beautiful belts, back then, and other artistic things that sold quickly,” he said.  “I was raised on a farm, and while I was familiar with farm and livestock work, I didn’t know a thing about art.”  So he was assigned to the janitorial staff around the boarding school, where he worked for a white janitor who taught him other things, he said, “like how to negotiate prices with the Navajos who provided meat and other things to the mission’s operation. He used to tell me that the way to succeed is to treat people fairly, to be friendly.  If you are, you will get what you want with mutual respect.”  He treasures what he learned from the man, a white man, the janitor: “I learned not to judge people by stereotyping.  I also learned that if you want someone to do something, you need to tell them what, how, where and when you want things done, then leave them alone, unless they ask for or need further direction.”

Some boarding schools—like Rehoboth—offered a higher quality of education, something which some Native people desired.  Tom and Nancy Tso, for instance, had relatives who’d gone to Rehoboth in the fifties, when the two of them were enrolled in the BIA school at Ft. Wingate.  Whenever Rehoboth kids transferred to Wingate, it was clear to the Tsos that those transfer students had stronger academic preparation. 

When their own children were born, the Tsos decided to send them.  “We were always thinking about Rehoboth.  After we had our children we said we would let her go to school there—all of them.  Even though neither of us went there, we both wanted our children to go there.  There was something simply different about Rehoboth kids:  “I knew some students there because we [Ft. Wingate High] played against Rehoboth—track and basketball,” Tom says.  “I knew those players, and I thought they were good and smart kids.”

Yet another man, eighty years old, remembers the white man, a missionary pastor, who came to the hogan frequently to speak to his father, who was a medicine man, not a Christian.  The pastor, he says, “spoke a little Navajo—just enough, but my dad understood just a little English too, just enough to get by, I’d say.”  Even though he himself knew little English, he understood the white man was asking his father to send his son to school at the Rehoboth mission. 

When his father assented, the experience of those first few days, sixty years ago, was unforgettable. “This was totally something new,” he told me.  “I didn’t even know what the outcome was going to be.  I went right away to the dormitory to Mrs. Van—she was our matron.  Her welcome was so great—it was like ‘come to my house.’ I don’t care what color your skin is, you’re my child.  From there on, I didn’t feel anything but welcome.  At that moment, the welcome was so great, I accepted.”

Amenities otherwise unavailable to him and totally new left lasting impressions—cow’s milk, for instance.   “The food they fed me that time was, ‘wow’—the first time I tasted fresh milk, right out of the bottle.  The milkman used to bring milk every day in fresh bottles, and you could tell when he was coming because you could hear the glass bottles rattle.  That milk every morning—and fresh wheat bread—it was so delicious.  That’s what I had in my mind every time I went to the dining hall.”

Miss Van, the matron, knew enough Navajo to speak to the little boys in her charge, he says, and she showed them love, not hate.  “As time went on, I learned to pray—bedtime.  And before bedtime she used to act like the engine of a train, and we’d follow her along like railroad cars, snaking throughout the dormitory.”

He’d never seen a bathtub, of course.  “My hands were all chapped, my knees were all chapped.  I learned how to get in the tub, and Miss Van would take out a brush and brush our knees and elbows,” he told me.  “I never thought nothing about a woman washing me and all of that.  It was so neat—how they took care of me—clean clothes, clean underwear, and every once in awhile we’d get candy.  Then the next morning, she’d ring the bell—ding, ding, ding—we’d get up and fix that bed—she even taught us how to make our bed—“pull the sheet this way and tuck it in.”  He was six years old, all by himself, miles from his home, in a dormitory, in a mission school; but when he tells the story, his eyes tear. 

But the story of Indian boarding schools on this continent has many angles, as I’ve said, and it’s important to note that the love and care he felt as a child didn’t remain a constant throughout his years at Rehoboth Mission school.  He stayed until he was 15 years old, 1946, when his father’s visits slackened a bit (in those earlier years, he’d come around and ask if his son was lonely or homesick).  He left when the discipline, he explains, turned harsh and repressive.   “I don’t know how many times I got punished,” he told me.  So one day he simply couldn’t tolerate life at the school anymore.  “I said, ‘What shall I do?’  So I ran away.  And I never came back.”

Probing the Mystery

From Mr. White’s memories of Rehoboth, I began to fit some pieces together, pieces of a story that include those lines of white crosses over unmarked graves as my grandfather, the preacher, and his significant part in this story.  As a member of the Heathen Mission Board for thirty years at the start of the 20th century, his role in the manner by which the mission undertook its work had to have been considerable.  I trust he prayed for the work frequently, maybe daily, maybe even unceasingly.  In all likelihood, almost a century ago he valued this Navajo rug that hangs here beside me today.  “He went to the hospital—and people there were so friendly and so ready to help the Navajos.  That was in the back of his head.” 

What drew him there?—a medicine man?  “My dad’s older sister is buried at Rehoboth.  She probably died in the hospital.  The Indian Health Service—probably didn’t exist in those days.  But Rehoboth hospital—our people, at least my family, got their medical treatment there.  That was the open door.” 

And more.  “My dad’s mom could have died there too.  We don’t know where she is buried.  They could have gone there for their medical needs.  The Rehoboth hospital was there for years already.”

The kindness, the grace, of the hospital staff persuaded Mr. White’s father, who was not a Christian, to believe that what would go on at the school would be as beneficial to his son as the medical services had been to his family, in their time of real need, at death.

Traditionally, the Navajo regard for death is uniquely their own, a view not shared, for instance, by Great Plains tribes.  According to Raymond Friday Locke, in The Book of the Navajo, “Death and everything connected with it is repulsive to the Dineh and dead humans are buried as quickly as possible (29).”  Locke says that, traditionally, the Navajo people had no vision of heaven or some sweet afterlife.  Once departed, the dead are met at the bottom of a mountain trail by relatives they recognize, who then guide them toward the underworld. 

What remains, the corpse, was simply and horridly repulsive to many traditional Navajo.  In Blood and Thunder:  An Epic of the American West, Hampton Sides argues that it is somewhat ironic that the Navajo could have been feared as greatly as they were by their neighbors in the Southwest—the Zuni, as well as the Mexicans—ironic because “the Navajos avoided killing whenever possible because theirs was a culture that had a deep-seated fear and revulsion of death.  They wanted nothing to do with corpses or funerals or anything connected with mortality.” 

Locke claims that “the shell of body of the deceased is buried with elaborate precautions by relatives” (29), but Sides defines more clearly what precautions were taken. 

When a person died inside a Navajo dwelling—the round, windowless, dome-roofed hogan made of mud and timber—the body had to be removed from the structure by bashing a hole in the north wall [the direction of evil] and pulling the corpse through it.  Then the hogan had to be destroyed. The taint could never be washed out. (18)

There is no Satanic-like figure in the constellation of Navajo supernatural beings, experts say, but such elaborate precautions were strictly adhered to because many believed the dead themselves were capable of inciting great terror.  “The ghosts of an Earth Surface People might return if they have not been interned properly or to avenge some neglect or offense,” Locke says.  “The ghost is thought to come back in many of several forms but only at night and while their appearance or actions are frightening, they are also believed to be an omen of disaster (30).”

Early Rehoboth missionaries obviously understood something of the Dineh traditional views of death.  Already in 1910, in her Indian Mission Sketches, Cocia Hartog tells her white readers, “Great fear of death exists among the Navajos.  When one is about to die, the relatives usually forsake him and leave him to die alone.. . .The hogan in which some one [sic] has died is henceforth a devil’s house and is shunned and feared as much as the graves over which evil sprits [sic] are believed to hover” (27). 

Navajos were, as some describe them, a semi-nomadic people.  Unlike their neighbors, the Pueblos, who lived together in ancient villages, the Navajo built hogans for individual family units out in the vast expanses of the region.  Unlike the Sioux, who annually followed the buffalo all over the Great Plains, then wintered in the forested shelter of the Black Hills, the Navajo were sheepherders, who guided their flocks to graze the desert slopes of the Four Corners area, the holy land of the Dineh.  They neither created nor kept any towns or cities, and thus likely knew little or nothing about a cemetery or graveyard, a specific corner of land designated for the burial, and even commemoration of much-feared human corpses.

Cocia Hartog recognized that a cemetery was a formidable threat to the established culture of the Navajo.  “Our children have entirely conquered these superstitions,” she writes, speaking of the fear-driven rituals that normally accompanied death on the reservation.  “They often visit the Rehoboth cemetery and decorate the graves.  At the last funeral the boys assisted in the digging of the vault and lowered the casket.”  Clearly, Hartog understood that when her students helped bury a dead body, they were rejecting traditional culture.  She goes on to say, “Many of the older Navajos, too, are losing their fear of death, and undoubtedly the time is coming when the Navajo people shall say, ‘Death where is thy sting?  Grave where is thy victory?’  When death shall be regarded not as a terror, but as a door opening into life everlasting (27).”

That species of traditional fear didn’t diminish as quickly as Ms. Hartog might have hoped it would.  A quarter century later, when Mr. White came to Rehoboth school and lived in the dormitory, he remembers an incident connected with the cemetery itself.  “During my early years there, it was a sort of spooky.  You know how boys talk about ‘skin man’ and all of that—the ghosts, and one time this boy came rushing in from way over there in the graveyard, [where they said they had seen] something white.  I wouldn’t know if they were serious, but I was scared to death.”

What Mr. White remembers is a specific evil spirit with a long and storied history in Navajo culture, a witch-like character they called a “skinwalker,” a werewolf-like fiend who dressed in animal pelts, crept around on all-fours, and often desecrated gravesites.  “Skinwalkers removed the dead person’s flesh and ground it up to make a lethal poison called “corpse powder,’” Hampton Sides says, “which the skinwalkers blew into people’s faces, giving them the ‘ghost sickness.’”

How broadly and heartfully accepted the myth of the skinwalker was is mere conjecture on my part; it may well have had the standing, traditionally, of urban myths, simply a scary tale drawn from the genre of late-night fireside yarn-spinning.  What’s clear, however, is that one little boy was fearfully convinced the skinwalker was out there just south of his dormitory, skulking about in the cemetery, desiring to perpetuate his own horrifying brand of evil. 

Mr. White remembers more, however.    “I covered my head with a sheet in my bed.  And finally, Mrs. Van came out—[and I told her] ‘so-and-so is telling us he saw a big old light over there tonight.’  ‘Don’t you ever think that way,’ she says, ‘–doooda, doooda’—‘no, no, no.’”

That he remembers her speaking to her as she did is itself interesting.  Obviously, there in the Rehoboth dormitory, use of the native language was not forbidden; in fact, even the white matron preferred to use the Navajo language.  That she would comfort this little boy, far from home, in his deep fear illustrates plainly her loving regard for the children she served. 

But did she understand that the very simple act of comforting a little boy’s fears that night may have brought him another step away from his native culture?  Did she understand that by attempting to destroy the terror of the skinman, she was robbing him of an expression of his Native culture?  I don’t know that, nor does anyone a half–century later.  Maybe what she did that night was nothing more than what any mother might have done.  “She was just like a mom,” he’d told me earlier.

Today, years later, Mr. White is a radiant Pentecostal Christian who was baptized in the Spirit years ago, after he’d spent most of a lifetime battling chronic alcoholism.  His son is on the Board of Rehoboth Christian School; his grandchildren attend.

Best Deeds and Filthy Rags

When I think about all of this—my grandfather’s work, his prayer, his deep faith that he was doing the right thing about “the Indian problem”—I can’t help but doubt my own grasp of what I consider to be truth.  I can’t help but imagine where I too might be wrong, where even my blessed faith in God may well have led me wrong.

But I’m drawn to that moment, upstairs in a mission dormitory, a half-century ago, a shivering little boy, barely conversant in English, hiding under the very first sheets he’d ever known, scared to death of a skinwalker lurking somewhere outside his window, skulking through the Rehoboth cemetery just a half-mile or so south.  And of a woman who held him in her arms, much as any mother would, spoke to him reassuringly in his own language, and tried to take his burdens on her own shoulders.

I wonder sometimes if old Calvinists understood only half the truth of that Old Testament judgment about good and evil.  “All of us have become like one who is unclean,” the Old Testament says, “and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” Isaiah 64:6 (NIV).  Maybe there’s a flip side to the injunction, something to offer comfort on stormy nights when all of wonder who’s stalking.  Maybe that old line can be read as if in a mirror.  Perhaps what I need to understand about my grandfather and his role in “the Indian problem” is not that our best deeds are as filthy rags, but that our own filthy rags may well be, in fact, our best deeds, transformed by his righteousness and never our own. 

This complex story—which belongs to all of us who live on the North American continent—has one more mysterious angle, one that brings us back to cultural attitudes the Navajo people once carried toward death and dying.  The duties that attend the death of a relative and loved one were so repulsive, Locke says in The Book of the Navajo, that earlier in tribal history, the job was assigned to its slaves.  Later on, he says, “white traders were often asked to bury the dead” (30).  If white traders, why not the first Protestant missionaries to the reservation?  That’s what I’m thinking.

Today in the Rehoboth cemetery there stands several rows of wooden crosses that show their age.  Some are already down.  None are marked, nor do any of them mark a particular grave.  Together they stand like sentries, but no one seems to know exactly anymore why they’re there.   

I asked around, and the daughter of a ninety-year-old, life-long, ex-maintenance worker at Rehoboth mission spoke to her father, who today is in a rest home a couple thousand miles east of the Rehoboth cemetery.  Here’s how she explained her father’s answer: 

He says that the maintenance department placed the crosses there in an attempt to mark where the graves were.  During his time, there already were numerous graves for which there were no records, so the cross idea was to mark (if not identify) the individual graves.  The cross idea was an effort to make the place neat and pretty.  Dad said that the graves are probably Navajo Christians or students who died.

And then this.  A retired college professor who’s been trying to shape up the Mission’s own archival materials came across some old note cards recently, three-by-five, that document something of what went on in the earliest years of the hospital, “listing the patients that came to the hospital, how long they were there, and noting the ones who died and (usually) where they were buried,” he told me in an e-mail note.  And then this:   “It is interesting that some people were brought to the hospital dead because it was assumed that the hospital would take care of it.”

In its earliest years, it’s quite likely, in other words, that Rehoboth hospital acted as a kind of mortuary for Native dying and dead.  It would have been consistent, after all, with the practices—which is to say, the culture—of the Dineh, who despised the job so much they assigned it to their slaves and whatever white traders they could locate.  And I’d like to think it would have been consistent with the “holistic mission” of Rehoboth, those early missionaries and medical personnel who not only couldn’t refuse a suffering patient, but, if the cards tell the truth, wouldn’t refuse even those whose souls had departed.

I’m unsure of how those early missionaries qualified their acts of mercy, what Bible verse they based their decisions upon, but I’m grateful that today—if the cards are right and my reasoning is sound—the Rehoboth cemetery holds many a mortal coil of Navajo folk who were brought to the mission, for no reason even close to hearing the Christian faith, but simply because the men and women of the institution—even if they didn’t understand it all that well themselves—appeared at least to understand the depths of Native fears, the fearful urgings of their cultural heritage. 

Maybe—or so I’d like to think—even my own ancestor’s filthy rags, in the hands of the Lord, can become their very best deeds.

A Return to the Cemetery at Rehoboth

It would be difficult to find any single place in all the open country of McKenley and San Juan Counties, New Mexico, that tells the story better than the Rehoboth cemetery.  In its silence, it is a testimony to the dogged persistence of faith, Native and Anglo.  Today, even here in a century-old cemetery, it’s vividly clear that not all of the efforts were as blessed as some white folks, good Christians, might have thought.  Much of the story of Anglo missions is buried here too—and should be.

But someday—maybe soon, maybe not—the Bible says a trumpet will sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible.  Someday, the desert brush will fall back and Rehoboth cemetery will come alive.

Stand out there yourself some morning, in the bright New Mexico sun—stand out there alone and marvel at what that day will bring:   in the twinkling of an eye, graves—even the unmarked—will be opened triumphant for a host of witnesses stepping out of the desert dust in blaze of colorful get-ups, a museum of turquoise, of cowboy hats and swallow-tail coats, of coats in many colors and hand-woven shawls and blankets as memorable as a desert sunset.

Just imagine them—men and women, boys and girls, ancients and stillborn, red and white, singing together in a chorus of Navajo, English, Zuni, of Dutch and Spanish, a chorus of multi-lingual praise.

From the new church at Rehoboth, from the brand new high school gym, it’ll take you no more than fifteen minutes to walk out there—maybe a half-mile due south of the old Mission House. 

Go out by yourself some bright morning and wander through the plots, sift through the stories, take note of the love and care all around.  Make it a pilgrimage.  Dream of graves razed, the whole place suddenly opened. 

“Never again will there be an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years,” says the prophet Isaiah.

Every knee shall bow.  Every tongue confess.

That vision is the richest of any in the snakeweed and larkspur, in the eerie stony silence of an old mission cemetery.

Dr. Schaap, is an award-winning author.   Visit ccblogs.org for more information on him.

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