Lectio Divina: Navajos for Christ
Nasbah Silversmith was a spiritual child. In the comfort of her warm hogan, while sitting on a sheepskin pad and watching the glowing fire, she nestled between her parents. One evening she listened attentively to her father’s cautionary tales of spirits leaving the body and traveling “down among the devils.” Although she did not know what traveling down among the devils meant, she was filled with fear and tears rolled down her cheeks. The stories troubled her little heart with worries of death and being alone. There were other stories of the Navajo religion: stories of the Goddess Who is Always Young, the God of the Dawn, the God of Twilight, Spider Woman, and many others; however, the stories of the devils stayed deep in her heart. Nasbah believed most earnestly in these gods and she learned at a young age to pray to them.
Growing up in a traditional Navajo home, life for Nasbah was full of daily chores (gathering wood and tending sheep) and work (carding sheep’s wool and preparing it for weaving) and play (running with her sisters and brothers in the yard). Her mother, Yaabah Silversmith, wove beautiful rugs that she sold to the trading post owner in exchange for family staples, such as flour, baking powder, lard, and sateen. She sewed the sateen fabric into ceremonial dresses for the girls. And her father, Antonio Silversmith, made silver rings, bracelets, and necklaces, which he sold to the traders who in turn sold the jewelry to Indians and tourists.
The Silversmith’s were a typical Navajo family. They had several children and worked the land and their crafts to support the young family. Evening meals consisted of Navajo fry bread, coffee, tea and the occasional mutton. When the meal was ended the father would tell stories.
When she was eight years old, Nasbah was chosen by her parents among her brothers and sisters to attend a government sanctioned boarding school at Fort Wingate, New Mexico, just east of Gallup. According to government regulation on the reservation at the time, every child entering school must be assigned to either a Catholic or Protestant school. Antonio Silversmith put his thumb print as his mark to enroll her in the Protestant elementary school.
A Gift From God
Although she was a delicate child, and a reluctant school girl, Nasbah’s parents felt she was especially chosen as a messenger to the Navajo. Arriving at the dormitory, the house matron gave Nasbah the English name, Dorothy, which translated as “the gift from God.” The Silversmiths felt that Nasbah, with her new name, would be the gift of light to the Navajo people.
Dorothy was a reluctant participant in the new Christian ways. During weekly religious instruction she sat quietly and ignored the Bible stories. She occupied her thoughts with the Navajo gods, remembering the stories that her father and mother said were part of the old Navajo traditions. Slowly, after some troubles on the reservation with her extended family, she began to lose faith in her Navajo gods.
As a fourth grader Dorothy moved to the Christian Reformed Mission School in Rehoboth, New Mexico. Instead of weekly, the Bible stories were recited daily, and Dorothy slowly began to listen to them. That spring, when she returned home for lambing season, she helped care for the new-born lambs. It gave her joy to take the little lambs out to graze. One day Dorothy noticed that a lamb was missing as she put the others into the corral. She was afraid that the young lamb would soon be eaten by a coyote. She walked along in the moonlight, trying to retrace the paths she had followed that day. One of the stories she had heard at school came to her mind, the story of the lost sheep and the Good Shepherd, who hunted for his lost sheep until he found it. She could picture the image of the Good Shepherd carrying the lamb over his shoulders. She wanted desperately to believe. If only there were a sign.
Dorothy walked on and scanned the ground closely as she went. Suddenly there came to her an “inner vision” of the lamb lying under a clump of bushes. She hurried to that place on the bluff and there lay the baby lamb. Instead of running away, the lamb allowed her to pick it up and carry it in her arms. In a fast revelation Dorothy opened herself to the light of the moon and the light of the Bible story and she allowed the moment to fill her with peace. Dorothy decided that she was the one who needed the Good Shepherd. Hugging the lamb tightly, she felt safe and close to the hand of Jesus.
From that day forward, Dorothy was never troubled by those gloomy Navajo spirits that had once filled her mind with dread. She sweetly repeated the words from the Bible story: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they know me; and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” Her family and friends called Dorothy “Enishodi” or Preacher and warned her that this change of heart would be dangerous for her. The family did not want her to leave the Navajo faith nor to convert to Christianity. Dorothy, however, was resolute and she made a public proclamation of her faith and was Baptized with water into the congregation.
Later that year Dorothy had some serious problems with her vision and the doctors said that she needed an operation. Her parents would not give their consent to the doctors. Antonio Silversmith rode his horse to the Mission and told his daughter that he knew the reason for her vision problems: “Just before you were born, when I was dancing in the Yeibichai ceremony, I put the mask on crooked and danced with it that way. No white man’s medicine or operation will help you. What you need is to have a Yeibichai performed over you. (It is a nine day ceremony conducted by a medicine man.) But you have chosen the white man’s way and his religion. You have left us and you are no longer our daughter.”
Deeply wounded by her father’s words, Dorothy prayed to her new Holy Spirit: “My grace is sufficient for thee, and my strength is made perfect in weakness.” She left the school during her convalescence and volunteered to serve as a translator, interpreting the Navajo’s words for the Missionaries in meetings at the day school, which was not far from her home.
Gradually, although he was not accepting of the Gospel as articles of truth, Antonio Silversmith’s anger faded and turned to pride for his daughter’s work as an interpreter.
In the summer before her last year at school, Dorothy attended the Bible and Missionary Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona. She heard sermons about God’s constant protection of the Israelites. Despite their continual murmuring and complaining during those years in the desert, He never abandoned them. Dorothy returned to her home to hear news that the family could not afford to send her to school any longer With finances tight, the Silversmiths needed all of the children to lend a hand making an income. God tested Dorothy that summer and she learned to submit to His greater plan. She had no idea what the future would bring.
Then on the very day that the school was to open, a wealthy couple, who worked with Dorothy’s brother, heard of Dorothy’s plight and they left the tuition money for the family. Dorothy was able to pack her things and go to school for her final year.
Soon after arriving back at school, Dorothy was flipping through the Bible and came across the verse: “For by grace are ye saved, through faith, and that, not of yourselves; it is the gift of God: not the works, lest any man should boast.” There is was: “gift of God” — the translation of her name, Dorothy — in the Bible. She felt as if she had to be true to her name. She felt as if God was asking her to be a gift to the Navajo. He seemed to be asking her to set an example of serving others, as Christ had in his life. It became her settled purpose to give her life to Christian service.
After she finished school at the Mission, Dorothy returned home and awaited God’s plan, which she felt would arrive in God’s time. She took up a role as a teacher at the Navajo Bible School and Mission in Pine Springs, Arizona. She began to read the Bible in Navajo and to express the gospel message to herself in her own tongue. Since less than half of the Navajo spoke English at the time, the translations were critical to her mission work.
The Long Walk
One discovery for Dorothy surrounded her listening more intently to family stories of abuse of the Navajo people. The most powerful story was one of mistreatment of the Navajo nation called The Long Walk. In 1864 a tribal travesty which befell the Diné people: the US government wanted to punish the Indians for transgressions against white citizens. The government vowed to move the Navajo off their reservation. Dorothy heard stories about the Navajo battles with Kit Carson and his army. Carson commanded his troops to round up the Navajo in Canyon de Chelly, Gallup, and Window Rock.
Carson’s Army captured 50 different groups of Navajo and marched 9,000 men, women and children into captivity. His troops forced the families to walk on foot over 450 miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, located in the Pecos River Valley. The Navajo suffered greatly during their internment at the hands of the US Government. Over 200 Navajo died on the 18-day walk and 1,200 more died in that first year of internment. The camp in Bosque of the Pecos River, also called Hwéeldi, was not suitable for farming and the crops mostly failed.
The Long Walk was a dark time for the Navajo and the US government as the treatment of indigenous tribes was put in the spotlight. Ultimately thousands died in the camps.
Finally in 1868, the Government allowed the Navajo to return to their homeland, which had been designated as a 3.5 million acre reservation. The once-scattered band of 50 different groups became more cohesive. The Navajo successfully negotiated the increase of the size of their reservation to over 16 million acres.
As Navajo shaman, Howard Gorman, concluded: “Our ancestors were taken captive and driven on the Long Walk to Hwéeldi for no reason at all. They were harmless people, and, even to date, we are the same, holding no harm for anybody…Many Navajos who know our history and the story of Hwéeldi say the same.” (Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period)
Dorothy Silversmith’s Language Lessons
The Navajo were only permitted to return to the reservation once they submitted to the Government. Dorothy Silversmith felt the trials and hardships of her people were the same as those suffered by the Israelites in the desert. The Dine’ deserved to hear the good news of the Bible in their own language. Along with the other native workers and evangelists of the Mission, Dorothy used The Long Walk as an allegory. They told the Navajo that the Message of Submission should be to God, who can lead them in their wandering in the wilderness.
The missionaries gave the Navajo the powerful Word of God in their native language, which gave them the courage to tell the stories to their children. In her heart Dorothy thanked God for the Bible training she had received at the Mission. She continued to bring her gifts to the Navajo Nation for the rest of her life.
The Navajo now number over 175,000, representing the largest tribe of indigenous people in the US today. Many, like Dorothy Silversmith, were gifts to her people. Her saving grace was the Gospel, which she first encountered during her schooling. She became a powerful force for good as a translator and interpreter for the Navajo. Dorothy firmly believed that hearing the Word of God in their native language would shine a light on the Bible stories. She allowed the Good Shepherd to gather her into His fold. She was saved from the Power of the Devil who “goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”
Dorothy and her fellow missionaries were not alone. Their numbers grew year by year under the guidance of Howard Clark and colleagues (shown below), who founded the Navajo Bible School and Mission.
The story of Nasbah “Dorothy” Silversmith was written by Reverend Howard A. Clark (1879 – 1963). Clark’s wife, Alma, and he were the founders and driving forces of the Navajo Bible School and Mission in Window Rock, Arizona. Clark wrote the pamphlet about Dorothy, after hearing her story, told an adult. He entitled the biography “The Gift of God,” and subtitled it “The True Story of a Navajo Girl.” I received a copy of Clark’s story through Irene Notah, whom I met on the Board of Directors of the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation. Irene Notah is Dorothy Silversmith’s niece. The entire Notah, Henio, and Silversmith families were influenced by Dorothy Silversmith’s faith. The story was edited for clarity and brevity.
From my discussions with several Navajo families it is apparent that the Navajo are a deeply faith-filled people, and not only with their native beliefs and religion. Antonio and Yaabah Silversmith had believed their daughter was stained by “the white man’s religion.” Their children and grandchildren now know that Christ has one message for all. From personal observation, many of the Navajo of today are more fervent followers of Christ than the whites who call themselves devout Christian.