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Reflections in the Silver Cup

INTEGRATING NATIVE PERSPECTIVES WITH CHRISTIANTY: AN INTERVIEW WITH DARLENE SILVERSMITH

Meeting Darlene Silversmith was a surprise. It happened while I was serializing To Drink from the Silver Cup on my blog. She must have found the blog through a Facebook post and commented something like this: “Wow! Christian Reformed [CRC and the church I grew up in] and in the Navajo Nation. Have to read this.” After she’d read a few chapters, she shared some of her own story about being in the CRC. Darlene is Diné, and her family roots are in Crownpoint, New Mexico, although she was born in Oakland, California, her birth there being one more example of the colonization of indigenous people. It was US policy, especially in the 1950s and 60s, to try to integrate Diné into the society at large through a program known as relocation, in which Native people were sent to urban areas to vocational training programs, where it was hoped they would settle.

Darlene’s Facebook posts intrigued me, as she was clearly very involved in the CRC. At the time she was going through its Leadership Development Program and seeking what is known in the CRC as a license to exhort, which means basically a license to preach without being ordained. At the same time, she was clearly aware of and raising consciousness about the need to decolonize Christianity. I asked if I could interview her at some point when I would be in the area. Her reply was a single word: “Sure.”

As my book tour evolved, it turned out that I would drive through Crownpoint en route to an event in Cuba, NM. We agreed to meet at the Crownpoint CRC. Darlene brought her elderly mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer Disease with her. We had no sooner opened the windows for some air and seated ourselves—Darlene and her mom on a church pew, me on a chair facing them, than we heard a knock on the church’s front door.
Darlene got up, and I heard snatches of conversation—it was a mother hoping for schoolbags for her children in the new school year. It was clear to me from the way this scenario went that Darlene plays a leadership role in which she is at ease.

When she rejoined us, I began by asking her how she had experienced her spirituality as a child. Without hesitation, she said, “I grew up in an alcoholic home, so I repressed my feelings a lot.” To me this said volumes about how Darlene thinks of spirituality—as an experience that involves our emotions.

She went on, “My first encounter with spirituality was when I was about four. We went to a Yeibichei [a sacred Diné winter ceremony] in Pinedale, near Gallup. My grandpa was one of the Ye’ii. Me and my brother slept by the fire, and when it was time for the Ye’ii to come out from the arbor, my dad woke us. He indicated one of the Ye’ii and said. ‘That’s your grandpa.’” In an aside, Darlene said, “You can’t tell because they’re painted and wearing masks.” Then she added, “That’s my first recollection of anything spiritual.

“I started church when I was about ten when we moved to Denver after living here in Crownpoint for two years. The family above us attended the Indian Bible Church (IBC) there, and their daughter was in same grade as me. They invited me to go with them, and that was my introduction to church. But my father and mother were drinking. Because of that whole dynamic, eventually I learned to repress my feelings, so I just followed along in church. It was a fundamentalist but nondenominational church. When they gave the altar call, after I’d been going there for three years, I realized I was the only unbeliever, so I thought the call must be for me, and at thirteen, I went down and accepted Jesus as my savior.”

Because of how she’d described the event, I asked “Did you become a believer when you walked forward?”

“Not really,” she said. “The pastor’s wife sat with me and prayed with me. That family was like family to me, taking me home for dinner, things like that. So to me it was like part of wanting to be a deeper part of family because ours was not ideal.

As we talked, Darlene’s family’s alcoholism and her need for recovery would be a recurring theme, one she returned to with straightforward candor. I asked next about her experience of spirituality as an adolescent.

She said, “We [people from the church] had gone to Christian Native American conferences from the beginning, plus our own summertime retreats, and I watched older Native Americans. I learned from them, but it wasn’t a personal commitment on my part. I wanted to belong. I don’t think I understood a lot, but we sang—the pastor’s daughter and her friend and I. Their family became my family. The three of us, Jennie, Ruth and I started singing together—playing the piano, singing harmony. We went to a conference at Estes Park, and that was the first time I saw families traveling across the US as missionaries. I really admired that, and I bought a guitar to be able to sing my own songs.

“Mostly, though, I had defense mechanisms that kept me from allowing myself to be vulnerable. During that time my father was drinking, and he got hit by a car as he was coming out of a bar. I was about 14 then. My brother and I were the ones who got ourselves to the hospital to see my dad. We were put in adult positions before we were ready. In fact, my brother was the responsible figure for me growing up.”

I let silence settle between us, waiting to see if there was more that Darlene wanted to say about that time in her life. After a few moments, I asked, “Did anything change for you as a young adult?”

“I think change happened through the songs. I remember one time it finally hit me about the washing away of sins. I was around seventeen, and I thought, ‘Wow! That soap can’t wash away your sins, no matter how you try.’ I think what church does is that it labels what’s wrong with you. My response to that was more self-righteous than spiritual.” She smiled. “It was kind of like I was grading myself. I never smoked or drank because I hated the smell of alcohol. The church taught us not to play cards or see bad movies, and I stayed away from having friends who were wilder—the ones who didn’t go to church.

“It was all my own doing to keep myself clean and to avoid the things I that I hated in my own home. You know, after my dad’s accident, he lost his job and we had to move to the projects. It’s hard when you’re a kid and you have no control. I hated it.”

Again we paused. I looked over to the window where Darlene’s mother kept a running commentary on the passing pickups and then on the rain that started to fall. Every once in a while she wandered over to where Darlene and I were sitting and said, “Let’s go home. I want to go home.”

“In a little while,” one of us would say. And we would return to the interview. I asked Darlene, “How would you describe your faith now?”

“My faith is so much stronger now. In 2009, I was fired from my job. In 2011, my condo was foreclosed, and in 2012 my car was repossessed.”

“Were you still in Denver?”

“Yes. I had been a 911 operator, and I had terrible burnout. After people got cell phones, we got a lot more calls. In 2008 I asked God to get me out of that job, out of Denver. My folks had left Denver for Crownpoint in 1993 or 1994. It was probably in 2001 that I went to a conference in Winnipeg—to the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS). That was what got us thinking about how we could identify as Native American and use our culture within Christian theology. We started to realize that we no longer had to change from being Native American to being part of the dominant society. We didn’t have to lose our culture; instead, we have the freedom to use it in our faith.

“I have to backtrack: I understood this better in Winnipeg, but my first understanding of that took place 1975. That was when I went to work after high school in Phoenix at American Indian Crusade. That was the organization that started the church in Denver that I had gone to. I stayed with John and Fay Kearns. They were missionaries who worked all over. There was a conference in Prescott, a man named Allen Neskahi, Sr. He started using Native American-themed talk at that conference. It was the first time I heard that. For example, he asked, ‘Which kind of animal do you think you are?’ He used a drum with us. After that the white missionary who put it together got into trouble. But it was really genius, even though people thought he was doing something wrong.”

We got a little away from a strict interview setting here, as we would several times. I had known the name Allen Neskahi, heard my parents talk about him when I was growing up, positively at first, because he was a Christian, then disparagingly because of just what Darlene was talking about—what has more recently been referred to as contextualizing Christianity. Protestant missionaries in Navajo Country, both Native and non-Native, were strongly opposed to any use of Navajo spirituality in Christian life and worship. Catholic missionaries, on the other hand, supported, at least among the Pueblo tribes, Native practices alongside Christianity. To me, the Catholics didn’t appear to have integrated the two practices but, allowed and even in some ways encouraged them to coexist. In Protestant circles, a Christian who attended a Native ceremony for whatever reason was considered a backslider and needed to be disciplined and brought back in line.

Darlene went on to say something that intrigued me—that Navajo people’s favorite Christian hymns are the ones that sound more like Navajo chants. I got excited and recalled that at Tohlakai, one of the congregation’s favorite hymns was “The Great Physician,” which has a kind of rhythm and up and down tonality that is in someway similar to chants. Darlene nodded in agreement. Maybe the words about healing were important too, as the purpose of many Diné songs is healing.

I mentioned that when I’d attended my mother’s CRC church awhile back, a young man had gotten up and taught the congregation a new song—a song with Christian words in Diné chant-style.

“Oh,” Darlene said, “maybe he was a member of our secret group. We’ve been speaking against those prohibitions, creating new songs, finding our roots again within Christianity.” She used that word, backsliding, to describe how it would be viewed by many in the church, both Native and non-Native.

I was excited to hear about this group. “I wish I could go to it,” I said.

Without hesitation, she said, “You can.”

As we talked more about the group later, I said, “It’s sad that it has to be secret. I guess I shouldn’t include it in the interview if it’s secret.”

Darlene chuckled. “You can. I don’t care for myself. It’s the others who are afraid to be identified, but I’m not identifying them, so go ahead.”

She went on, “Some of us who grew up in more traditional customs in California and Denver, we went to powwows,” she went on. “That’s how we stayed connected and knew who was who in the Native community. These were small family get-togethers, the powwows. Even though I was still going to the IBC, I also went to those.”

Even in the very strict CRC, I’ve observed that the attitudes toward attending Native gatherings seem to have changed somewhat. Gallup, where I spent many of my growing-up years, hosts the annual Intertribal Indian Ceremonial. As children, we were allowed to attend the parade, but never the dances held in the evenings. I attended my first Ceremonial as an adult. In recent years, however, a Diné couple who were staunch, lifelong members of the CRC became administrators of the Ceremonial, and no one seems to have batted a Christian eye about their very active involvement.

Darlene continued, “My parents and brother weren’t Christians for many years. My mom became a Christian when I was in high school. She went to the IBC with me. Those were mostly Oklahoma Indians, but the First Christian Reformed Church had started a Navajo Bible study, and my mom wanted to be with other Navajos, so she and I started going to the CRC. A little later First CRC bought the church building for us at 501 South Pearl. Jackson Yazzie was the pastor.”

“I knew Jackson,” I said. This was one of the many times that I couldn’t help interjecting my own experience. “One of my strongest memories from my teen years is of a Young Peoples gathering in the mountains outside Gallup. Jackson Yazzie was our leader, and we had a huge bonfire, sparks flying into the dark sky, under billions of stars, the smell of pine trees. We sat around the fire and sang ‘How Great Thou Art’ and shared our testimonies.”

Darlene nodded and smiled and went on; she was telling a story, and I needed to listen. “We met in that church basement for about five years, until the church bought the building for us. My brother started coming then and met his wife Susie there. Susie had gone to boarding school and suffered horrendous abuse. She made a movie about it, The Cutting of the Tsii’yeel. [A tsii’yeel is the traditional Navajo chignon.] My brother didn’t become a Christian; he became an alcoholic. He worked for IBM but spiraled downward. He didn’t care about church at all. He had been traumatized by adultification in our childhood and went through a lot of difficulties. At 30 he attempted suicide. His drinking escalated whenever he was with friends. Then in 1985, he began the road to recovery at Harmony in Estes Park. He started his spiritual journey in church and went into family therapy. We did an intervention for our dad in November of ’86. We had his bags packed, and told him, ‘Go to rehab or don’t come home.’ I was so unfeeling during the intervention. The counselor said it would help us get through to my dad if I cried when I read my letter to him. I had such a rush of feelings, like I’d never had before. Our dad went, and he never drank again.

“My sister-in-law was a good Christian, and she thought my brother was a Christian when she married him. They put their kids in Christian School, and one day the 7-year-old asked his class to pray for his dad. My brother became a Christian, and he’s now the pastor at the Christian Indian Center in Denver.

“My dad gave his life to Christ at a Billy Graham Crusade at Mile High Stadium. He still struggles with his faith. He doesn’t like me to spend so much time at church. It’s partly because he’s hard of hearing and because of my mom’s Alzheimers. With those things going on in his life, he sometimes asks, ‘Where’s God?’”

Those words prompted me to take a new tack. “Have you ever thought of leaving or actually left the CRC?”

“Oh, Yah! Especially over being self-theologizing, self-supporting, self-governing. At IBC, people came and took our building back when we started doing those things.”

I asked what she meant by self-theologizing.

“It’s when we read scripture and comment from an Indian perspective. For example, you can see a lot of tribalism in the Old Testament. It means we don’t have to give up our rattles, gourds, drums, even smudging. We can redeem those things. You don’t know what that revelation is going to do, when you first start. We know if it’s syncretism [the merging of different religions] or not, which is why we refer to it as self-theologizing, now that a lot more of us are educated and going to seminary. Maybe missing our perspective is why some have said that Natives don’t feel a true identity with Christianity. I guess it just hit some of us--what’s wrong about using a drum?” She went on to acknowledge, “Well, some people who practice witchcraft do put demons into Native artifacts, so you can’t redeem that (unless you can call out the demon). But it’s kind of unprecedented—what we’re doing. NAIITS used to meet every two years, but now it meets every year, and it runs a Master of Divinity program at George Fox University.

Next I asked the question I’ve wondered so often about my Native Christian friends but never could get myself to ask because I didn’t want to introduce doubt where there appeared to be contentment: “What holds you within Christianity and specifically in the CRC?”

“I like the strong doctrinal teachings of the CRC,” she said. “Here in the Rez the CRC is very respected because we deeply ascribe everything to the Word. The Pentecostals tend to say things that…I have no idea where they got them. Pentecostal preachers yell at people. It’s not necessary.” Darlene was thoughtful for a moment. “But my brother says that as an alcoholic he needs to be yelled at sometimes.”

I asked, “Have you ever thought of leaving, or have you left Christianity?”

Darlene was emphatic. “No! I grew up with that. It’s kind of like a lifestyle that became a true belief. To become more Christ-like is my goal. After losing everything and having to be out here in the wilderness, I’ve worked through a lot of things. I’m still learning a lot of things I wish I’d learned earlier about the power of God. Like the story of Joseph—why him? It was because he had the faith to continue. He was chosen because he had a mission. There’s a meme I really like: ‘A key to success is playing the hand you were dealt like it was the hand you wanted.’ At first I was ashamed of losing my job, but in ’08, when I wanted to leave it, I said to God, ‘I really want to know you,’ and he made that happen.

“I have a mission. When I moved back in in 2011, I didn’t want anything to do with CRC leadership. I attended Bethlehem CRC at Tohlakai, but then my dad had a mini-stroke, and within six months I was on the Crownpoint CRC council. I was a deacon. I was on the Worship Ministry Advisory Board and led women’s Bible Study.”

I still wanted to know more about what holds her in the CRC.

“God is using me. Yesterday I got nominated to be on the CRC Race Relations Board, and if they find a use for me here, I want to be used, even though I’m kind of reluctant, and I used to be scared of leadership. The church didn’t let women lead, either, but now they do. God is opening doors I can’t open. I’m seeking a license to exhort. I actually wanted to be a minister for quite a while. I’m still questioning whether to go to CRC seminary or to the one NAIITS has. I can’t be ordained in the CRC without going to a CRC seminary, though.”

I asked, “How is your faith informed by your Native identity?”

“I would like to see more integration of Native practices in the church. When I first heard about self-theologizing, self-governing, self-supporting—about contextualizing—I was against it. Then God gave me a dream. There was a chant in the dream. I saw that as God’s approval and accepted it from then on. People I’d known with American Indian Crusade—influential Christians—turned me away. That made it a hard decision, but I think it’s the right one, because I can’t be someone else and be a Christian. It’s not just me; it’s all indigenous people around the world. There’s a World Christian Gathering of Indigenous People. I went to one in Hawaii, in 2003 or 2004. It was very eye opening—attended by indigenous people from all over the world—Lapps, Native Americans, Haitians.

“How has the CRC Leadership Development Program affected your faith walk?”

“Oh! Ooh! Looking at the history of the Christian faith through all the years, I’ve seen how people in earlier times had to stand up against heresy. It’s made me ask myself, ‘What do we believe and what don’t we believe? What is that person preaching that is wrong?’ That it’s important to understand scripture the real way—that we don’t say these things to control you but to bring you closer to God.”

Just then, Darlene’s mother said something to her in Navajo. When we first met that morning, I greeted her mother in the Diné language, and Darlene had said, “You probably know more Navajo than I do. Now she said, “I’m learning Diné pretty good because my mom goes back and forth between Navajo and English with me.”

I nodded and smiled.

To understand my next question, it’s important to know that this past summer [2016] the CRC governing body, Synod, met in Grand Rapids, MI. One of the issues up for action was a response to a report on the Doctrine of Discovery and how it had impacted the CRC missions in the Navajo and Zuni Nations. Synod had agreed that the Doctrine was wrong, but fell short of condemning the damage done to Native people by the CRC missions—Rehoboth Mission in particular. Darlene had been present there to facilitate the Blanket Exercise, an empathy-building activity for the delegates to Synod prior to their decision-making. Many people, Native and non-Native, were disappointed by Synod’s inaction regarding the Doctrine of Discovery and the refusal to condemn the damage done by CRC missionaries as colonizers.

So I asked Darlene, “How did the most recent Synod decision impact your faith?”

She said, “I guess I knew it was going to come out that way. I’ve always believed if you really go radical, you’re going to get about 50% of what you want. It always works that way. There were no Native American participants at the CRC Engage 2016: A Multiethnic Gathering, and no activities were Native American. Except they wanted facilitators to do the Blanket Exercise. We’ve got a long ways to go.”

“You have a mission,” I said. It wasn’t a question.

“I don’t see the end of it. We Natives say what’s right for us, but people say one thing when they’re by themselves and another when they’re with Bilagaanas [whites]. The sad thing to me is that even Natives have no idea what the document [the CRC report on the Doctrine of Discovery] was trying to do. We’re just laypeople. People aren’t going to say in front of Bilagaanas what they really feel.”

I told Darlene then about attending a funeral a few years ago for someone who’d been an upperclassman to me at the Rehoboth Mission School. “I mostly went because the woman who died was the sister-in-law of one of my classmates. I hadn’t seen her since graduation, and I really wanted to see her. She and I were standing outside the church afterwards, catching up, and I overheard a classmate of the dead woman say to a bunch of friends regarding the mission and reports of abuse there, ‘Well, they must have abused us pretty good because we’re all still here, part of the church!’ Everyone in the group laughed.”

“That laughter is a defense against the feelings,” Darlene said.

“Well, and it seems like there might be quite a bit of denial going on.”

“Yes. But I don’t leave because I found an option with NAIITS, with the World Conference, with the Diné singing group. But we are still excluded from many of the conversations about the Body of Christ.”

I found Darlene’s assessment of the hand the CRC has dealt to Navajo Christians to be both realistic and hopeful—perhaps pragmatic is the word I’m seeking. Our interview took place in August of 2016. My process with all the interviews I’ve published on my blog is to have the interviewee go over my text before publishing to make corrections, deletions or additions. In Darlene’s and my case, our process has taken more than a year. In the meantime something exciting happened, and I was fortunate to participate.

On May 27, 2017, Darlene and other organizers brought together the first Native Christian Music Gathering, held in the Rehoboth CRC. This was a daylong conference attended by Protestants of various denominations and Catholics; Diné, Choctaw and Bilagaana. We learned new songs with Christian words sung in Native style, we worshipped, and we saw a video of a Native version of the Christmas story, complete with Ye’ii. So many times during the day, I was moved to tears, and I am even now, as I recall that day. One of the speakers said that even Diné who have been vocally opposed to contextualizing Christianity, when they experience it, tears flow liberally down their cheeks. Another speaker said, “I wonder what Christianity would look like in Native communities today if the missionaries had brought the Good News and then left.” There was joy—composed of both happiness and lamentation—in the voice of one speaker as he told of the intricacies of Navajo traditional spirituality and how it can be expressed in Christianity.

At noon we ate a traditional Navajo meal of mutton stew and fry bread—tastes of home for me. I happened to sit at a table that held a blend of Choctaw and Diné and got to listen to them ask each other about their traditions. I also had a burning question, and Rev. Daniel Smiley, a Diné Mennonite pastor, had said some things that made me think he might have an answer, so I walked over to his table after I’d polished off my meal.

I introduced myself with a tiny bit of my history in the Navajo Nation. Then I said, “When I was growing up, I was told that it was the Diné missionaries, not the Bilagaanas, that insisted that we couldn’t sing Christian songs in the Native music style. That they were the ones who guided the process of translating English hymns into Navajo.” [Interestingly, because the Diné language is tonal, the translated hymns don’t make sense when sung because the music can’t take tonality into account.] I told Rev. Smiley, “My mother said the reason for this was so people wouldn’t be tempted to go back to the old religion. Do you think that’s true?”

He said, “That might have been part of it, but I think it’s more because of all the rules that exist in the Navajo spiritual tradition about how songs are to be sung and used.” He had talked some about these rules earlier in the day and how he had consulted with Navajo hataałii [chanters or singers] about these rules when composing new songs. Now he said, “I think those early Navajo missionaries were probably afraid of breaking some of those rules if they created new Christian songs to Navajo music.”

I thanked him for opening my eyes about this. I was so grateful to be part of everything that day and for the bonus of seeing some old friends and catching up with them. I am grateful to Darlene for doing this interview with me and for the work she is doing with others to decolonize Christianity.

© Anna Redsand All Rights Reserved
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