Della GrayMountain

I don’t know much about Della GrayMountain; she is 83 years old and doesn’t speak much English.  Della lives near the isolated community of Rainbow Village, in the shadow of Navajo Mountain.  The nearest town of any size is an hour and a half away.  Until recently her small 2-bedroom home had no indoor plumbing and minimal electrical power.  She is a very regal lady and dresses in a traditional Navajo style.

Della GrayMountain feeding her lamb.

Della GrayMountain feeding her lamb.

In Saturday’s SL Trib, Pastor Corey J Hodges, of the New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Taylorsville UT, wrote a column whose headline made me apprehensive:  “Lessons learned ministering to the Navajo people.”  But I was encouraged to find out that the column was very sensatively written.  And addressed important issues, both directly and indirectly.

“The (Navajo) reservation is expansive and encompasses a mix of modern and traditional housing.  Homes are separated by miles of open land the locals use to herd sheep, goats, cows, and horses.  Almost every compound has a hogan, but many are used only for ceremonial purposes.”

The column then goes on to explain some of the social and economic woes of life on the reservation.  It then briefly discusses Navajo culture and religion.  “For American Indians, religion and culture are inseparable.  Therefore, converting to Western religion is a difficult decision that requires converts to relinquish some of their culture.”

The latter sentence causes me great anguish.  Should one culture try to superimpose its religion, values, traditions, and way of life on another?  How homogenized do we want our society?  Is there room for both animism, and Christianity, Bhuddism, Islam, etc. in America?  Is it possible for both Navajo pastoralism and Protestant Calvinism to coexist?  I hope so, but I’m pesimistic.  Maybe we all ought to take a step back.  Christians might want to reconsider their missionary work as part of an overall effort to help protect the traditional Navajo life style.

I would argue the same for other minority cultures around the world.  Are faith-based initiatives really the way to go?  Let’s find a way to eleviate poverty without tampering too much with native cultures.  Pastor Hodges’ one paragraph is excruciating painful:  “Some (Navajos) feel it best to completely abandon their culture once they embrace Christianity.  A 72-year-old convert exclaimed, ‘I don’t even entertain the old ways for fear that I may be pulled back in.’  Thus, she does not participate in any of the Navajo ceremonies and chooses not to wear traditional jewelry, which is usually symbolic of some Navajo customs, traditions or deities.”

Is there room on Earth for the Della GrayMountains of the World?  I sincerely hope so.  Should we try and improve her physical situation?  Yes.  Should we tamper with their culture?  I don’t think so.  Can you do one without the other?  I don’t know, I hope so.  I’m still looking for answers.  I hope Pastor Hodges is also.

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One Response to Della GrayMountain

  1. Roger Hansen says:

    In mid-October 2009, I visited briefly with Della (mainly her caretaker since Della doesn’t speak English). She indicated that the indoor toilet was difficult for her to use because of its height (too low). She had a booster toilet seat, but her grandkids keep taking it off (she has the only indoor plumbing in the area). And for some reason she doesn’t replace it. Her difficulties with the toilet have caused problems.

    Also, she is unconfortable with the pilot light on the stove and refrigerator (both propane powered). She keeps blowing them out. Her caretaker said she is afraid of the fire.

    At this point, our attempts to improve her life have only been partially successful. But we will keep trying. We may need a different type of refrigerator, a higher toilet basin, and handicap railing in the bathroom.

    In the recent Time Magazine, Joe Klein mentions a story provided by General Stanley McChrystal to justify a change in tactics in Afghanistan. It essentially deals with unintended consequences from good intentions. The parable deals with digging a well: “How could you do anything wrong by digging a well to give people clean water?” Well, you could create new enemies by where you dug the well and who controlled it. You could lose a village by trying to help it. Hopefully, our Della experiment is not doing something similar.

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