ALBUQUERQUE — The third Navajo/Jewish dialogue, “Healing the Wounds of History, The Long Walk and the Holocaust,” was held Oct. 12 in Albuquerque between Navajo educator Frank Morgan and Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld at Congregation Albert, an event organized by Gordon Bronitsky of Bronitsky and Associates.
Finding myself in the odd position of being assigned to cover a talk that my partner Frank Morgan would be giving, I watched him preparing to navigate the treacherous shoals of cross-cultural language and dialectics to communicate the essence of the Navajo perspective of resilience and balance in order to explain indirectly the survival of the Navajo people and culture after centuries of shocks and insults from Northern European immigrants.
When I first heard about the topic, the Long Walk and the Holocaust, I thought it unwise. I frankly didn’t expect my fellow Jewish congregants to be receptive to hearing about the suffering the Navajo people had endured by comparison with their own.
My concerns dissolved entirely when Frank told me what he had chosen to talk about — “the Navajo perspective on healing, rebalancing, rather than focusing so much on the process of damage and destruction, the endemic problems of what trauma does to the psychological self.”
His framework, the Navajo perspective on healing, suddenly shifted the entire conversation, and I understood that his emphasis on healing comes out of his years of teaching about the Blessing Way teachings that reverse the effects of trauma.
That sunny Sunday afternoon, some 50 people gathered in the synagogue’s sanctuary. There were Navajos, Jews, Christians, children of mixed marriages, and children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of survivors of the Long Walk and the Holocaust.
After Frank’s presentation, Rabbi Rosenfeld went on to talk about some of the reasons why the Jewish people’s healing from the wounds of the Holocaust has been a slow process. Then they both addressed what it means to go forward from that place.
The audience remained attentive through two hours — twice as long as was originally planned — and many stayed to ask questions of Frank afterwards.
Healing traditions beginning from the Creation stories
Frank’s presentation began as an acknowledgement that there have been wounds dating back even before human history, as told in the Creation stories, when everything began to be formed into what it is today, and how there were frequent conflicts among the Holy People. “Adultery was the most severe of these,” he said, “and caused a separation of female and male entities. In order to have life, the Holy People had to get back together and heal to make everything better, more harmonious.” He explained that, to do this, “They created different healing methods. Today we know them as Chantways, such as the Night Way. Some of them have become extinct.”
In a direct way, Frank was able to convey the most basic of Navajo fundamental principles. “When they were creating these harmonious conditions,” he said, “they found two ways that everything moves: one that is consistent with the journey of the sun and then the reverse, going the other way. To reestablish everything so that it goes in the sun-wise direction, shábik’ehgo, according to the journey of the sun, is a way to create harmony because all that is good and beneficial moves in this positive direction.
“We rely on relationships in the universe, how things relate to each other, where things are compatible with each other, hózhó. All relationships are based upon principles that maintain order and natural growth and development of all that exists.”
So in this way, he explained the Navajo foundations of the restoration of wholeness, grounded in the natural world.
Then shift happened
Frank sketched the events leading up to the Long Walk in 1864 and the effects of those events. “The Mexicans were OK, we got along. But then came the American settlers, we couldn’t establish relations with them because they brought soldiers, weapons and war, and they wanted everything. They used biological warfare, like smallpox. Then, there was scorched earth. They sent the ‘esteemed’ Kit Carson, a small man, a trapper, to invade and force The People out to Fort Wingate, which is a place known as Bear Springs in Navajo, and from there the army marched them by gunpoint over 300 miles to Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner, southeast of Santa Rosa, near Clovis, New Mexico.
“We had established our whole being, our life on our homeland and when we were removed from that land — that was a huge, huge wound. In Navajo practices, we take a child’s umbilical cord, where they want their child or grandchild to be psychologically oriented, and place it in the ground. The particular place where a child’s umbilical cord is placed, that is the entire environment where the mind, thought and psyche are embedded or imprinted. If you remove the person, you’re breaking that umbilical cord like it’s still in the womb. People were later removed from their land to make room for coal mines, for example, but their whole lives were diminished.
“The Earth is my mother, my umbilical cord is in the earth, feeling us, like we’re feeling we’re still in the womb. We still feel we’re in the womb of earth. Sky and earth relate in harmony.”
A collective sigh rose up from the audience as Frank spoke about what it was like to be uprooted. It brought out the poignancy of what it means to be removed from one’s land. And it acknowledged the trauma of the long history of my people, the Jewish people, our diaspora of being forced to move from place to place across the earth, and shed light on why perhaps I have always felt a sense of impermanence, a faint undercurrent of alienation that never leaves me except when I am in nature. And since I had never fully known what it was to be nurtured by a place, the way he spoke about being mothered by the earth, I felt almost envy in hearing of his loss, an envy that I might have been covering over for years with the superficial annoyed impatience of an urbanite.
He went on with a clear voice: “We were exiled, alienated, just so they could take that land to be settled by immigrants from the East. We were marched and many died along the way, to the Pecos River, which was salty water, and told to grow crops, but the insects there destroyed the crops, many got sick, many died.”
Finally, after four years, the government acknowledged it was a failed experiment and allowed the Navajo people to return to their homeland, and they walked back.
Recognizing wounds as the first step towards healing
“Today, we are walking with our wounds,” he said, “much as an injured person or animal that moves or limps in pain. This is how we are right now, they say. So this wound, in the Navajo perspective, affects us in a certain way. Its effect is subtle and unseen and we are not aware that we feel hopeless or that we don’t have the strength to get up. It is like a cliff that does not allow us to go forward. That’s the way it is.
“How do we go to the next place, where things are better? We cannot remain where we were harmed. It affects the mind. The mind gets all distraught and disordered. There’s internal confusion, shock, your thinking has been impacted. Here you don’t feel good about yourself, you are angry, and even suicidal. The effects of this wounding are inside people.”
Prescriptions for healing a nation
When Frank met with the rabbi at his office two days before the dialogue, the question came up: How does an entire people heal? Frank said, “It has been shown that trauma can affect people as a whole group, as a whole nation. It has to be reversed.
“Therapy is available to reverse the negative effects. Relationships are re-established and re-connected to their normal states. Everything in life is able to work toward harmony and balance. The essence of kinship repairs our relations.
“To rebalance and reestablish k’é relations, begin by understanding how a problem affects the k’é relationship and by taking responsibility for your part in that problem. Most important, without blaming the other; talk over how this is not the way it should be, and talk about the ways that you have practiced k’é before and how good it was and express your desire to return to that kinship. You may determine what exchange you will give each other to satisfy the mind.”
This is similar to reparations after a war.
“You don’t have to say ‘I forgive you’ or ‘you are forgiven’ because that’s already done when you took responsibility and owned up to what you did, and that has the effect of asking for forgiveness,” he said.
Whether the wounds of history will ever be properly addressed for the Navajo is not known. He pointed out that the treaties that were signed were not favorable for them.
“We ended up with limited resources, and a system of three-branch government that we don’t know to make work (a member of the audience called out, “We don’t, either!” and everyone laughed).
“Who’s going to do this for us, re-establish k’é and find a better life for the People? Our leaders have to lead us there. To move forward and have a better life is an enormous challenge that will take a long time, but we have to reach for it.”
The Rabbi speaks
Then Rabbi Rosenfeld spoke, about how reluctant the Jewish people have been to move on from the Holocaust — it’s not something you get over. Also, he pointed out, today we are living much longer lives. In Babylonian times, a lifespan was 40 years, and history might be remembered by seeing a sculpted stone carving. Today we are living twice as long, and the TV history channel is a constant reminder of what happened during World War II.
But, Rabbi Rosenfeld said, that we must carry on as Jews and maintain our Jewish identity to show that Hitler couldn’t destroy us, doesn’t resonate anymore with a younger generation that wants positives to embrace for maintaining a Jewish identity. He said this is a major challenge facing the Jewish people going forward.
Again, I thought about the terrifying stories I had unearthed recently about what had happened to my relatives still living in Poland when the Germans came in 1939. The women and girls were forced to strip naked and, beaten with whips, dance around the bimah (the podium where the Torah is read) inside the synagogue while, outside, the men had to crawl on the cobblestones in piggyback races carrying heavier men while the Poles in the village laughed, their neighbors, before they were taken away in the trains.
I think it was wise that I was shielded from the knowledge of this insanity when I was younger. And I’m not sure what good it does to know about it now, when I am haunted by these images, but as Jewish people we say we will never forget so that it does not happen again.
I try to learn from Frank’s words, and while I often think the Navajo might learn something from the Jews about maintaining one’s culture through the written word, I think more, that the Jews could learn something from the Navajo, for whom it is a custom and an admonition not to speak so much of the dead and the wounds of the past.
I ask Frank if what I wrote about my relatives, if going back over historical trauma, was OK from the Navajo perspective, and Frank replied: “Begin with a positive story. What the older people say, they tell us that what we need to know, are the stories from the time of when the first hogan was made.”
That sounds like a whole other story I will have to wait for him to tell.
Added: Later, I am thinking about that as Jewish people our identity didn’t come from the Holocaust, it has always been grounded in basic ethical principles like the Golden Rule and like tikkun olam, repair and healing of the world, which I came to understand in writing my last column, An Answer So Simple, I Couldn’t See It.
### In May 2015 this article was awarded first-place in the Society of Professional Journalists Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism four-state (CO, NM, UT, WY) contest in the Education: General Reporting category for newspapers with a circulation of from 10,000 to 29,999, published in The Gallup Independent daily newspaper as “The Long Walk and the Holocaust,” October 25, 2014, p. 24. The article received a third-place award in the New Mexico Press Women Excellence in Communications contest in the category of Specialty Articles: History for an extended print version that appeared in the New Mexico Jewish Link, November 2014, on page 9, as “Healing the Wounds of History, the Long Walk and the Holocaust.” And, a commentary by Tim Giago, “Where the paths of the Jews and Navajo Crossed,” quoting both Frank Morgan and Diane Schmidt from this article Healing the Wounds of History, The Long Walk and the Holocaust, appeared in the Huffington Post. Tim Giago, Native Sun News editor, founder of the Native American Journalist Association, and winner of the H. L. Mencken award, focuses in his column on his call for a Native American holocaust memorial at Wounded Knee. A column by Harlan McKosato, “Building a Navajo-Jewish Connection” which included a new interview with Frank Morgan and also the background of the dialogues, was in the Santa Fe New Mexican, and coverage of the event also ran in the Navajo Times in a piece by Colleen Keane with my photo.
#Diane Schmidt is a nationally award-winning writer and photojournalist in New Mexico. She received 1st place in Enterprise Reporting this year from the National Federation of Press Women for Con Man Red Feather, Gallup Independent; a Robert R.McCormick fellowship to attend the Poynter Institute in Florida; 1st place in News at the Native American Journalist Association in 2012 for “Branded and Scarred” for the Navajo Times. She also received honorable mention in 2014 from the New Mexico Press Women for her columns on Judaism. She received a NEA Visual Arts Fellowship in Photography for her essays on Chicago at night, published in the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine.