Ministry of the Word Friar Preaches Among Navajo Indians

Raphael Bonanno, OFM Friar News

Raphael Bonanno, OFM, a Ministry of the Word friar, traveled to the southwestern United States during Lent this year to give missions among the Navajo Indians. In this article, he shares some of his observations and the history of the relationship between the Franciscans and the Navajos.

Br. Maynard Shurley, OFM, is a quiet man with long, black hair who lives in Gallup, N.M. He has cared for HIV victims for many years now among the Navajo Indians and is a provincial councilor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Province in the Southwest. Br. Maynard is the first Franciscan vocation from the Navajo nation. Others came, but Br. Maynard stayed.

He represents a fusion of two spiritualties and cultures, unique in today’s world. Franciscan spirituality is known to all Franciscans but Navajo spirituality is generally not.

A Turbulent Past
The Navajos are the single largest tribe among all Native Americans. They number 250,000 and live on 17 million square miles of reservation, mainly in New Mexico and Arizona, but also into lower Utah and Colorado.

Back in 1863, they were only 19,000 members. A dispute broke out between U.S. Army soldiers and Navajo warriors. Some would say it was over who was better at some athletic games. Some say it was more serious than that. The whole tribe was force-marched to Fort Sumner on the eastern border of New Mexico, hundreds of miles away — men, women and children. Many did not arrive alive. It was a holocaust.

By 1868, the chieftains sat down with the American authorities to write a treaty. The Navajos won the right to return home but their lands were diminished to what they have today on the “Big Rez,” as they call it. The other change was that a reservation was created within the Navajo block for the Hopis, a tribe hostile to the Navajos. Some Christian official in the government was possibly determined to force those people to “love their enemy” as good Christians should! The experiment only partially succeeded.

Franciscan Missionaries
St. Katherine Drexel, SBS, founded her Blessed Sacrament Sisters to educate blacks and Indians. She bought the land at St. Michael’s, Ariz., and gave money for a school. She journeyed by train from Philadelphia to Cincinnati to ask the friars of St. John the Baptist Province to run the mission. They accepted the challenge in 1898 and sent three men — Fathers Juvenal Schnorbus, OFM, and Anselm Weber, OFM, (the Apostle to the Navajo), and Br. Placidus Buerger, OFM.

When the Navajos were under Spanish control from Mexico, the Spanish demanded only two things of the Indians — they had to accept the Spanish crown and Spanish religion. The Navajos’ answer was simple: we already have our own chief and our own religion. So conversions were difficult.

In 1898, the friars decided to study the Navajo language. There were no books since language had never been written down. The friars enlisted the help of some school boys to whom they showed the Montgomery Ward catalog and asked the Navajo word of each item. Thus a dictionary was born, the first ever in Navajo. The book of grammar came later. Fr. Bernard Haile, OFM, was the “Scholar of the Navajos” and Fr. Leopold Ostermann, OFM, also wrote a great deal; Fr. Simon Conrad, OFM Cap., was another researcher.

Between 1900 and 1916, some of the Navajo boys were shipped off to a government boarding school in Carlisle, Penn. The boys had their hair cut, could not speak their native tongue, and had to dress in suits and ties. They were not allowed to use loincloths on the sports field. All of this happened by way of so-called “civilization.” Many graduated, went home, and reverted to their old ways. The school was finally closed. A few years ago, I visited the site of the school with my sister and brother-in-law.

The friars continued preaching and living the Gospel among the Navajos and learned to respect their culture. One visitator said, “You are more anthropologists than missionaries.” Or were they simply ahead of their time? The Navajos respected the friars and found common ground in their great love for creation and in the Canticle of Brother Sun.

The Navajos believe that the special Woman of the Sun gave birth to two warrior sons, one of whom is called the Monster-Slayer and comes closest to the figure of Jesus Christ, the great conqueror over evil, also called by them the “Beautiful One.” The Catholic and Navajo way is to walk in beauty with the Beautiful One.

The Navajos also have the Scriptures in their native language, thanks to the American Bible Society. The bishop of Gallup has approved it for Catholic liturgies.

Friars and the Navajos Today
From St. Michael’s, the OFM missions and chapels multiplied all over the Navajo reservation, in all 31 of them. Today, there is a cutback in personnel, but St. Michael’s, Tohatchie, N.M., and Chinle, Ariz., and seven others are still flourishing.

I preached parish missions for the first time in St. Michael’s and Tohatchie last Lent and probably will be in Chinle next Lent. The people responded well, to the satisfaction of their pastors. Fr. Dale Jamison, OFM, of OLG Province, is the bishop’s man for Indian affairs out of Gallup. He and the other friars, priests and lay brothers — including Br. Michael, who built many chapels, and Glenn Humphrey, OFM, who is a school counselor — continue the Franciscan fusion with the Navajo culture.

I think it is especially interesting that many Franciscan connections were made centuries before the pilgrims ever set foot on Plymouth Rock in 1619. We have our Georgia Martyrs from Spanish Florida. And the OFM Franciscans had the St. Francis Cathedral, Santa Fe, N.M., for hundreds of years, until recently. The Academy of American Franciscan History did excellent research work on Franciscan Spanish America, including Bl. Juniper Serra, OFM, and others. But we ordinary friars know little of these connections.

My first missions among the Navajos last Lent helped my to learn about our rich OFM tradition in the Southwestern USA and also about friars, such as Br. Maynard, the only Navajo Franciscan at this time, who said about his vocation: “I have come home and harmony is restored.”

From a Navajo Blessingway ceremonial, there is this closing prayer:

“Now I am long life, now happiness
As with the aid of a Beautiful One
I walked about.

Behind me blessing is extended to the mountains
As with the aid of a Beautiful One
I walked about.

Before me blessing is extended to the mountains
As with the aid of a Beautiful One
I walked about.

Below me blessing is extended to the sky
As with the aid of a Beautiful One
I walked about.”

 Fr. Raphael, a Ministry of the Word friar, is stationed at St. Anthony Shrine, Boston. This photo of St. Michael’s Historical Museum and Mission in Arizona was provided by