“Healing the Wounds of History, The Long Walk and the Holocaust” received First-place for Reporting: Education Reporting, Society of Professional Journalists Top of the Rockies, 2015 as published in the Gallup Independent newspaper Oct. 25, 2014, and third-place for Specialty Articles: History in the New Mexico Press Women Communications contest, as published in the New Mexico Jewish Link, November 2014.
The Third Navajo/Jewish Dialogue, “Healing the Wounds of History, The Long Walk and the Holocaust.” took place on October 12 in Albuquerque between Navajo educator Frank Morgan and Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld at Congregation Albert, an event organized by Gordon Bronitsky.
Finding myself in the odd position of being assigned by the newspaper 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 of insults from Northern European immigrants.
When I first heard what the selected topic would be, The Long Walk and the Holocaust, I thought it unwise. I frankly I 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, he said it would be “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 fifty 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 of the Holocaust.
After Frank’s presentation, then 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, and 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 plying Frank with questions afterwards.
Frank Morgan’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. He said, “When they were creating these harmonious conditions, 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.
He continued, “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 okay, 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, NM.”
“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 who were later were removed off their land to make room for coalmines for example, but their whole life 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 hearing Frank talk about what it was to be like to uprooted from their land. It brought out the poignancy of what it means to be uprooted 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 the wounds as the first step towards healing
“Today, we are walking with our wounds. 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, and challenges to be faced
When Frank met with the rabbi at his office two days before the dialogue the question came up around how does a 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 state. 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.”
As to 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.”
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, who want 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 in a circle inside the synagogue, while outside, the men had to crawl on the cobblestones in piggyback races carrying heavier men while the Poles laughed, 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, 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 who 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 okay from the Navajo perspective, and Frank replied, “Begin with a positive story. What the older people say, what they tell us that 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.
“Healing the Wounds of History, The Long Walk and the Holocaust” received first-place for Education Reporting, Society of Professional Journalists Top of the Rockies, 2015 as published in the Gallup Independent newspaper Oct. 25, 2014.