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Winter 2009 | Volume 32, Number 1 | Features

Lessons of the Reservation

A Perspective on Reconciliation

By James Schaap

A Navaho Boy
In the last century, Navajo children in North American boarding schools learned that their families and cultural values had little or no worth.
That night on the reservation, Navajo homesteads glittered against the vast reaches of the uncluttered desert landscape. A ridge of mountains to the west was barely visible, and, I’ll admit, for a white man somewhat unsure of himself in Indian territory, I wasn’t feeling at home.

Earlier that night, I’d worshipped in an old church, the very first my denomination had built on the reservation, almost a century ago. We’d brought praise and thanksgiving to God, praying and singing old gospel hymns — in English and in Navajo. Then, along with just a half-dozen members of a large Navajo family, we’d retired to the cool of the church basement.

I was on assignment: Write about elderly Navajo Christians and their relationship to a century-old mission boarding school, Rehoboth, just east of Gallup, New Mexico. For three hours or so, I listened to their stories.

These stories are close to my own heart, my own history. I have in my possession an ancient and tattered Navajo rug, a gift my grandfather, the Rev. John C. Schapp, received many years ago for his service on the “Heathen Mission Board” of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. For a long time, the rug lay on my floor by the washing machine, becoming rather bruised and battered. When I finally recognized what it was, I hung it up on the wall of my study.

For 30 years in the early 20th century, my grandfather, a deeply pious man of God, supervised the Rehoboth boarding school, a school with a deeply troubled past. I am part of this history; it seems to me that all of us are.

In that church basement, the man who had just led our worship confessed to adultery. He told a tearful story about coming to terms with what he had become: too much drink, too many drugs, too much unfaithfulness. I turned to his long-suffering wife. I could tell by her face that none of this was new information to her.

Nearby sat the man’s mother — a wonderful woman, a faithful believer. It was her story I was assigned to write. Navajo people tell me their families are deeply matriarchal, and she is every bit the queen. With 11 children of her own and dozens of grandchildren, she told me that she spends hours each day offering prayers she learned from parents who became Christians at another mission school. People of real faith convey a gravitas that strengthens us all, a glow of hope. In that way, too, she was a queen.

This family’s stories of hard-fought lessons of faith were real and heartfelt. A blessing.

Still, it was dark when I left the church, and I felt my own foreignness, and maybe just a bit of the hurtful legacy of my own people.

Anglo Christians like me are discovering that the story of any North American Indian boarding school, no matter how righteous in intent, cannot be told in triumph or joy. Such histories are heavily burdened with pain.

One prominent Navajo leader, a Rehoboth graduate, reminded me that the attempt to teach Native people a new way of life carried an unmistakable corollary: Indian kids learned, even if it was never stated, that their culture of origin — in this case, the Navajo way of life — had to be completely left behind. They were told that the values they had learned, and the families that had raised them, were essentially worthless.

The dominant white culture — good Christian people, many of them — demanded that young Native people “assimilate” through the boarding schools. But they didn’t. They couldn’t. And yet those young people could not go back to their own Native world and be welcomed, either. They didn’t belong anywhere. While many remain grateful for the education they received, and the Christian gospel they discovered, in the boarding schools, they also know that they were wronged.

Today, we call it a kind of abuse: cultural abuse. The Bible calls it sin.

A few miles away, up on the ridge, flashing lights streamed through the darkness and smoke wafted across the four-lane highway. Something was burning. I couldn’t make out exactly what was on fire; it seemed to be someone’s reservation home.

I almost cried. I’d just come from a three-hour testimony where people praised the Lord’s unconditional love. I’d been in the presence of people who struggled to reconcile Christ’s message of love and the wrong that had been done to them by Christians. I’d been in the presence of a woman who’d taken her lost husband back more than once, and an older woman who recounted her daily prayers for all of her own. In the thick fog of smoke from that burning home, as I watched emergency lights hop-scotch through traffic, I thought of the immense price of human failure, of sin — all of ours. Mine, too, in fear and trembling, as an Anglo whose own God-fearing people, even a pious grandfather, had done terrible wrong in God’s name.

Grace is always sufficient. But I shuddered to think how all of us — sheep on and off the reservation — have gone astray. That we can be forgiven simply takes my breath away.

Somehow all of our failings, all of that grace, is a story tightly woven in the tattered Navajo blanket, my grandfather’s, that hangs here on my wall, miles from the reservation.

James SchaapJames Calvin Schaap is the author of several books, including Sixty at Sixty: A Boomer Looks at the Psalms; Things We Couldn’t Say, the Biography of Diet Eman, a Jewish Rescuer; CRC Family Album, a History of the Christian Reformed Church in North America; and the novels Romey’s Place and Touches the Sky. He has been teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa, for more than 30 years.

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