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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


My interview with Clarence Clearwater about his spiritual journey was the first interview I posted on my website, back in 2015. I am reposting it because when I removed my blogged book, To Drink from the Silver Cup Clarence's story was inadvertently removed as well.

Wild West Junction in Williams, Arizona looks like a movie set, although it’s a little too upmarket for that. Arranged around a courtyard where Wild West reenactments and musical performances take place, the buildings contain a restaurant, a saloon, a bed and breakfast, a bookstore specializing in local history, and more. My schoolmate from elementary and high school, Clarence Clearwater walked into the cool semi-darkness of the Branding Iron Restaurant on a late afternoon in early August and led me to a back corner where we sat on rustic benches across a pinewood table from each other. He ordered an Arnold Palmer and I got an iced tea.

Clarence and I both attended the Rehoboth Mission School outside Gallup in the 1950s and 60s. I might not have paid much attention to Clarence, who was two years behind me, except that we were in band and choir together—Clarence on the baritone and I on trombone, Clarence a tenor and I an alto. I remember so well the day we were practicing Mozart’s “Gloria,” and the tenors had a soli entrance. Clarence sang it out so loudly that the director stopped us, his shoulders silently shaking in the way only Mr. Hekman could be said to crack up. When he stopped laughing, he told us, “You can all take a lesson from Clarence’s enthusiasm.” After high school Clarence and I resumed our connection, and our friendship deepened beyond what it had ever been in school. And then we lost touch for more than thirty years.

Clarence’s animated performance of the “Gloria” was a sign of things to come as he studied music in college, and under an operatic coach in New York. He performed with several bands in the sixties and seventies, including one that was all black, except for him, touring widely across the US. Today Clarence is the only Native performer on the Grand Canyon Railway. A couple of days before we sat down in the Branding Iron, he had gotten me and a writing colleague tickets on the luxury train for a trip to the Canyon.

In the restaurant, we started our conversation by talking about Clarence’s early experience of spirituality, which he said was very much informed by what had been taught at Rehoboth. His mother had highly encouraged this spiritual path. “She was a Harvey Girl. It’s what Harvey Girls did,” he said.

I said that I hadn’t known that there were any Diné Harvey Girls, and Clarence acknowledged that his mother may have been the only one. “She encouraged us in Christianity and rejected many traditional things,” he said.

He went on to express what he appreciated about Rehoboth. “It was very beneficial to me and my two sisters because we ended up being able to communicate, read, and figure. It gave me a way to develop thought, ideas, especially about what I was going to become. I think it was very good of the school to do that for us. It taught me that I could learn.” Sorrow crept into his voice when he added, “But as for religion, Christianity was the only thing I knew of spirituality because I was denied anything to do with traditional religion.”

Then he brought up two other aspects of boarding school life. He said it taught him to deceive because he broke just about every rule there was, just to see what he could get away with, and he became skillful at it. “Boarding school also made me mean,” he said. “It made me a monster. I had no older brother to protect me.” He named two boys who grew up to be influential in the church and who bullied him from his first day at school. “In my early relationships, people suffered that viciousness from me, and they didn’t deserve it.” I felt deeply moved by Clarence’s candor and humility.

Things didn’t change for Clarence until he left Rehoboth at 17 to finish high school in the public school in Gallup. Before that he went through the motions of everything that was expected of him in the Christian mission culture, but he also began to realize through that process what he did and didn’t believe. “Leaving Rehoboth was having a burden lifted from me,” he said.

Asked what that burden was, he said, “It was repression of my own ethical sense through adherence to the mission’s standards. And,” he added, “I started to see the irony of democracy. That was very important in understanding who I was.” His segue to the sad stories of what happened to his ancestors under colonial occupation and genocide explained what he meant about that irony. “But I was also very proud of them for getting through that. We all gained from our grandparents, not financial gain but understanding of our relationship to each other and to the Earth. For a long time I was resistant to that.” His energies were instead devoted to rebelling against what had formed his youth. “Learning who I was, that was very difficult because I had been told that the things I was taught were things that could not change.

He said that what he had thought was immutable started to shift in his late twenties and early thirties when he began to involve himself with his people. “It was when I started learning the Diné language, the customs and traditions. For me the language was the easiest of those to acquire.”

On the train to the Grand Canyon I overheard Clarence speaking fluent Diné on his cell phone with a well-known visual artist. I haven’t known many Navajos who have learned to speak the language in adulthood after being denied it as children, especially not as fluently as this. One of the questions I asked him later that day when we sat on a rock shelf on the Canyon rim was, “How did you learn Navajo as an adult?”

“It was always there,” he said. A lump rose to my throat when he said it. He added, “Also, being in places that were holy influenced the whole idea that I could speak. But I learned in places where I got together with other Navajos, too. At the time that was in bars, at drinking parties, and also in jail.

“After the language, customs and traditions came the understanding of oneself in the Universe. After that understanding of a spiritual attitude and receiving guidance. My uncles, my father’s brothers were influential. They were very powerful roadmen in the Native American Church. They took me with them to meetings in my late twenties and early thirties.” They would leave Torreon [within the Navajo Nation], have an all-night meeting in Anadarko, Oklahoma, go to one the next day in Horton, Kansas, then on to South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, and back to Torreon.

“What amazed me about it was that my uncle would drink peyote tea, drive, sing, then drive to the next place. I asked him, ‘Do you know where you’re going?’ He said, ‘I’m being directed,’ and we always got to the right place. He was much like my father who never got lost. I went hunting once with my dad in snowstorm, and I thought we were going in a straight line, but we had circled back to the truck. Now I don’t get lost. That’s one of the teachings—to understand where you’re at physically.”

The day I rode the train to the Canyon, our first stop on the South Rim was the Arizona Room at the Bright Angel Lodge, where I had black bean soup and Clarence ate a club sandwich and where we talked nonstop. Afterwards we walked along the rim, threading our way through crowds of tourists. Then Clarence touched my elbow to lead me off the paved path. Just like that we were in a quiet space as if no one else were there at all. We walked to some large flat rocks near the rim and stood beneath a piñon tree. “This is my prayer place,” he told me. We stood, and Clarence prayed in the Diné language, and I listened and prayed silently, picking out words, getting the gist, knowing that at one point he prayed for me and for my daughter. I was so blessed, so privileged to be part of that.

I was thinking of those moments and our conversation afterwards as we sat in the Branding Iron, when I asked, “What about now? How would you describe your spirituality today?”

“First of all,” he said, “when I talk about spirituality I don’t talk about religion. I think religion is a deficit, not an enhancement to spirituality. Spirituality is about my relationship to the Earth first of all and to all beings on it, and third to my fellow humans. In my prayers I’m very different from how conventional Navajo prayers are made. I open with saying thank you for the day, for the Earth Mother from which life comes. I thank Father Sky, the stars from which we come. The sky leads into infinity and gives us life through the stars. I give thanks for the sun, which helps plants grow, gives sustenance to us and to other creatures. And the wind, which enhances life. Niłch’i. Then to the waters; we call them the lifeblood of Mother Earth. They give us life. Everything from it is life and from it will always come life. After I thank Creator, I talk with my mother, father, relatives and friends who have passed. Then I do the Beautyway prayer. That’s what you experienced the other day.”

I asked about spiritual influences, and Clarence talked again about his uncles who were peyote roadmen. He witnessed one of them heal another uncle, a welder, whose facial skin had been burned—blackened and scarred. “He did a ceremony over him, and all the scarring disappeared. One time he did something over me. He picked up a live coal, put in his mouth, and blew over me. His features turned black, and all I could see was the red of the coal. It made me want to do something more than I was doing. I had been trying to put my music together. He gave me the energy and desire I needed. What I had, I thought was nothing and couldn’t be used in any way. I thought no one would listen to it. I then started putting together ideas of how I wanted to present my music. The refinement wasn’t there. It was the beginning, not what you saw the other day on the train. What he did made me realize I could do what I was going to do.”

Today Clarence may be the most successful performer on the railway, at least if the tips he gets are any measure. He sings and jokes with the passengers, telling them the provenance of his songs, and he uses entertainment as a platform to challenge stereotypes of Navajo people, casually dropping the fact that his two sisters have PhDs and that he studied with an opera coach in New York. Perhaps Clarence’s artist’s statement on his website articulates best how his spirituality permeates his music:

“My music is a development of traditional themes within a contemporary format. I do not write songs. They are given to me as a gift from the Great Spirit, a Higher Power, The Universe. Music is a means for me to convey ideas of my spirituality, which has its basis in both traditional and Christian ideologies.

“My songs have been created in so many different ways. At times it just takes a moment. At other times it has taken years to develop a theme. My songs are usually written around certain aspects of Navajo spirituality such as the Four Sacred Mountains, The Wind Spirit and the elements that create our environment. Some of my songs also address the repression and oppression of Native Peoples.

“…There are healing aspects in my music. The universe, as I understand it, is balanced and this balance strives to exist in each one of us. Often times the upsetting of this balance creates conflict internally and is reflected externally through our actions. It is my hope that my music will soothe the confused soul and create new enlightenment for those who seek it.”

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