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A Navajo Catholic explains how the two traditions go together

NCR Staff

When we do the blessing ceremony here it’s a very sacred ceremony -- just like when you go to church,” said Augusta Sandoval. “You’re real quiet. You pray. We don’t let the kids make any noise. We take the pollen from the corn out of the pouch that’s in the bundle. We bless ourselves with the pollen, like the Sign of the Cross, but we take some and put it here and here,” she talks, she demonstrates, “some in our mouths, on our tongue…” an hour and more passes by.

As she talks, tradition, too, is passing by.

Sandoval’s father, the late Frank Mitchell, was a renowned Navajo medicine man. His accounts of the blessing ways and ceremonies have been recorded and saved. As the two of us sat in her modest home, Sandoval, a Catholic, was comparing some of the Navajo ways to Catholic ways. But her talk was of the Navajo culture in a broader sense, too.

The continuity -- all her children speak fluent Navajo, her grandchildren a little -- and the loss that her father did not pass on a medicine bundle did not bring up the next generation of healers.

There wasn’t the interest then that there is now.

She told of how he’d learned from his father, and had had to go to the four sacred mountains to collect what would go into his own bundle for the ceremony.

Sandoval told of her father’s account of how he created his bundle from the sacred mountains. He’d climb, his shoes off, stripped naked, searching for the right plants. “When he’s telling me, my mind would go back to the Old Testament,” she said. “People went to the mountains and prayed. My dad would say -- he had learned a little of the Old Testament -- ‘Just like Moses.’

“My sister, Isabelle, lives right next door, in that blue house.” She pointed to the window. “She stayed home and went with my dad a lot when he went to do a ceremony. She’s the only one who picked up everything from going with him,” said Sandoval.

“But the thing is,” she said, “you can’t just go in and start doing it. You’ve got to go through a ceremony. Then you’re initiated, then they give you the medicine bundle. From then on it’s yours to do what you want. But he has to hand it over to you in a ceremony.” And Mitchell did not do that for Isabelle.

Sandoval is unhurried, she tells of her own awareness of Christianity. How, during summers, she worked at a Christian youth camp in Prescott. “All different denominations coming in, inviting everyone every Sunday to their church. I went to a lot of different denominations. I went to the Catholic church there, too. A beautiful church.

“I always told the priest,” she said, ‘The Catholic church never told any of the Navajo people they should throw away their Navajo tradition.’ All these other churches I went,” she said, “they tell people, ‘You’re not going to be saved, you’re going to hell if you believe in that traditional doing.’ I don’t think that’s right.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000