by Zinta Aistars
Calvin Hill’s Journey from a Navajo Reservation in Arizona to the ministry of the Stockbridge Avenue United Methodist Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Published as a cover story in the November 2004 issue of Encore magazine.
All Calvin Hill ever wanted as a boy was to grow up to be a good shepherd of sheep.
But then one day a huge iron dog leapt over the rocky rim of the Canyon de Chelly mesa in Arizona, speeding towards the horrified Navajo children on the other side. At least, to the little Navajo boy, that is what it seemed to be—an iron dog of monstrous proportions. Across the side of this silvery beast, after all, was the silhouette of a black dog. But the speed of its approach, its thunderous noise, the shadows of human beings inside, all were something Calvin Hill had never seen before in his eight or so years on this earth. He had never seen a bus. He did not understand the hieroglyphics on its side that spelled “Greyhound.” He was Navajo, and he spoke Navajo along with Hopi and Zuni, but the language spoken by the men with white faces emerging from the iron dog was strange to his ears. He cried out to them in his Navajo tongue, but they answered in their own, pushing and shoving the children towards the bus, hitting them with wooden paddles when they froze in terror, or hung on to their elders for protection.
“But my grandmother only said to me,” Calvin Hill recalls, “‘now it is your turn.’”
Well over three decades have passed since that day, but Calvin, today the reverend of Stockbridge Avenue United Methodist Church in Kalamazoo, touches his forehead as if the scar there still pulsed with pain. When the wooden paddle in the white missionary’s hand struck the forehead of the terrified boy, the skin had split and bled. He had pleaded with the white man not to hit him, had pleaded with him to speak to him so that he could understand, but it seemed to the boy that the man’s tongue was defective.
“I had never seen a white man before,” he says. “I had never seen a tie around a man’s neck, and I thought it must be his tongue, hanging long and black down his chest, and that that was why he could not speak Navajo so that I could understand.”
The missionary, however, was speaking English, and the Navajo boy was herded onto the bus with the other children, who threw themselves against the windows with their cries so that Calvin believed the great iron dog must have been digesting them. Helpless, the Navajo mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, watched as their children were taken away, not to return home again for years. They were to be taught English and the Christian faith in special Indian boarding schools run by the missionaries. Calvin watched from the window of the bus as his grandmother, wiping her tears with the hem of her skirt, grew to a tiny dot in the distance. The United States government had passed a bill requiring the education and assimilation of the Navajo children into the white man’s ways.
Calvin explains, “From that time on, we were not allowed to speak our own language. We were told that Navajo was a satanic language, and we were punished if we were ever caught speaking it. The ways of our culture were strictly forbidden.”
That meant that the Navajo children, as soon as they got off the bus, were stripped of everything that signified their culture. Boys who had not had their hair cut since birth had their long gleaming black braids cut short against their skulls. The children had to exchange the clothes to which they were accustomed—woven blankets worn as ponchos, pants made of natural fibers—for the synthetic materials of the white man. Instead of bare feet, or the gunny cloth they were accustomed to wearing on their feet, the children had to wear shoes for the first time in their lives. Uncomfortable and itching in his unaccustomed apparel, little Calvin soon developed a rash that spread across his skin.
“The rash was so bad, that the missionaries brought me to a clinic, and I was given an ointment to apply to my legs.” That, he says, is when the sexual abuse began. Along with the emotional abuse, the constant shaming of his ethnic roots and the forced separation from his family and home, this was how Calvin Hill and other Navajo children were introduced to the Western Christian culture. He was no longer addressed by name, but called, simply, number 66.
“For the next two and a half years, I answered to a number. I was forced to wear clothes like white people wore—a white shirt, a tie, wing-tipped shoes, and a beanie cap. I was told I could not see my family until I introduced myself by saying ‘hello, I am Calvin Hill, I’m a Christian Navajo.’”
It was 2 ½ years before Calvin could return to the Navajo reservation where he was born. He was allowed short visits during that time, but always accompanied by one of the watchful missionaries. The beanie cap had to remain on his shorn head, but the tie and the shoes came off as soon as he was back on the reservation. He was not allowed to go home for the holidays, but that, he says, was of little meaning to a Navajo boy who felt no attachment to Christian holidays, only longed for the celebrations of his own culture.
“I was not given a choice to become assimilated into the culture of the missionaries,” he says. “I was institutionalized. I learned to speak English, and I learned about Christian theology because it meant survival. But I was a little boy full of hatred and anger. In my heart, I was Navajo.”
Along with beatings, young Calvin received instruction on how to read and write in English. The Navajo language, he explains, is not a written language, but one that is passed on in the oral tradition of storytelling. Wisdom of the elders, history, and lessons are all told by one generation to the next. Calvin struggled to learn to speak, read, and write this new language, not realizing that he was handicapped by dyslexia. He was put into special education classes when he couldn’t keep up with other children, and he was told that he was “retarded” in his ability to learn.
While being told in one of the worlds that he straddled that he was slow to learn, in his other world, his native one, Calvin was part of a proud tradition of medicine men. His grandfather was chosen by the elders, his father was chosen, as was he. “A vision is given to the elders,” he explains, “no one knows who will be chosen until given this vision. My father became a Presbyterian minister, but he always kept his two lives blended.” Calvin points to a photograph on the wall of his living room that shows his father—a minister wearing a turquoise colored bandana around his head, his long hair pulled into a ponytail beneath it. It is a tradition that the son, too, holds close to his heart, blending his two cultures.
“It was a long time before I could let go of the anger in me,” he says. But there was something in the Christian tradition that he could accept. While resisting the doctrines of Christian theology, he embraced the idea of the Christian faith. The boy in the Indian boarding school was given a picture of what he was told was the Christ figure he must accept as his own. In the picture he saw a white man with blue eyes and blonde hair, so unlike his own dark skin and darker hair. He longed for his glossy black braids, for his grandmother had taught him they were a blessing from his creator, a symbol of what came from the heavens and ran like rain towards the earth below. The three plaits of hair symbolized the intertwined mind, body, and spirit of a man. When they were braided together, it was a symbol of balance and harmony.
“I could not believe that the Christ the missionaries taught me about was a God who had died for only one elite group of people. I did not accept their doctrine. I was not a Christian by their terms—but I did become a follower of Christ.”
The boy returned to the Navajo reservation, grown older, taller, and wiser. In his heart, he kept what was good, and struggled to leave behind the rest. Like his father, he found ways to combine the world of the Navajo with the world of the white man. Now in his teens and back among his family, he let his hair grow long again. He was no longer “66,” but Calvin again, and he found that an education had meaning for him.
“I resisted the teachings of the missionaries,” he says, “and I challenged them. But I found a faith that connected me to God. I had to let go of the anger, because it was hindering my relationship with God and with other people.”
When Calvin was 14 years old, he faced yet another test of his strength and faith. He watched helplessly as his father, riding a tractor with a backhoe attached for digging a grave—as a minister he was also in charge of his church’s burial grounds—fell beneath the machinery when a part of the backhoe accidentally detached. His father’s back was broken in three places. Calvin was helpless to save him, but his hero status in his son’s eyes would remain lifelong. His father had been one of over 400 Navajos who had served in the United States military as a “code talker,” speaking a coded Navajo to transmit secret messages in combat. He had served in every branch of the military before Native Americans were yet given the right of United States citizenship. (See sidebar below.)
It was around this time in his life that Calvin took up bull riding. Part of a rodeo that took him on nationwide travels, he won many trophies, earning money for college. He was the first of his family to earn degrees from higher education institutions. Bull riding in the Midwest and later attending school here, he met Sheri-Ann, an Ojibwa woman whose family was from the Upper Peninsula but had grown up in the Detroit area. Calvin earned degrees from Calvin Bible College, the Reformed Bible College, and the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He is currently studying simultaneously for his master’s and doctorate degrees in a dual program of theology and cross cultural studies at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.
Once again, in the classroom Calvin was challenged on his learning abilities and would encounter prejudices against his Navajo roots. “I was told I was too ignorant. I questioned the doctrines I was taught, and I was forced to repeat classes I didn’t need. When I wrote papers stating that the Christian faith was for all people of all races and ethnicity, I was given bad grades. But when I transferred to another school, my grades immediately went up.”
Calvin laughs amiably now at the questionable practices of his educational advisors. But he wasn’t laughing then. He admits: becoming the leader of churches in Michigan has worked as a kind of therapy for him, making peace with his God and with his enemy—the white man. The irony of being a spiritual leader to congregations of almost entirely white people has not escaped him.
“Again and again,” he says, “God led me to these churches. No matter how much I wanted to return to the Navajo reservation in Arizona, life led me here to Michigan. Three times I returned to the reservation, but each time I would receive a call to return here.”
Calvin has started and led over 40 churches in the Midwest. Starting new churches and planting the seeds for new congregations, he says, is easier than to nurture them to growth, but in each one he has left such seeds of compassion for one’s fellow man, care for the abused and neglected, and a deep appreciation for beauty in life.
“I don’t want anyone to feel alone when suffering from abuse,” he says. “No one needs to live alone with injustice.”
If the churches where Calvin ministered were initially reluctant to accept him, his congregations warmed to the peace and compassion emanating from him towards the common man. His Navajo roots seem to bring something to the white man’s world that has too often been missing in the rushed, modern life of so many.
“Western life has led to great frustration,” he says. “People have pursued physical beauty while ignoring the richer beauty of an inner kind, the wholeness of body and mind and soul as one. We have pursued material things and live in big houses with televisions in every room, but in truth, we are more alone than ever, caught in our own misery. We are out of balance and feel a loss of harmony as we drift away from our creator and the abundance of the earth around us.”
Abundance comes, Calvin repeats in a soothing voice, abundance comes. Walking in beauty is a concept rooted deeply in the Navajo culture, and it means to walk with your Creator, partnering with God as co-creators, and embracing the wholeness, even the ambivalence of all things that are life.
“The Navajos recognize that life has in it all things and so we must accept all things. That in beauty, there is also that which is evil; and with happiness comes sadness, as with life there comes death. To live an abundant life, we must feel and accept it all. We cannot escape the sadness. A full life means to accept all that is offered in balance.”
To achieve that balance in his life, Calvin Hill returns annually to the Navajo reservation of his youth. With him go his wife and three of his seven children. Two are grown, two live on the reservation permanently. Calvin’s grandmother awaits their arrival.
“My grandmother has seen six generations of our family,” he says with pride. “She is over one hundred years old now, although we don’t know exactly by how many years. She talks to us about her memories of Geranimo. She tells us about the days of the cavalry. She reminds our children about the history of our people, the Long Walk, a journey of 300 miles in the 1800’s when the Navajo were forced to march by soldiers, when the aged, the weak, and even pregnant women who could not keep up were shot by the soldiers. She remembers and she helps us remember.”
All of Calvin Hill’s children speak the Navajo language. They all enjoy the stories their elders tell them, and the tradition of storytelling continues. An unlikely venue for storytelling sometimes appears in the letters Calvin writes to their schools to explain the occasional absence.
“Their mother may write the reason for an absence,” Calvin chuckles. “But I may write a story or a poem about the day. The teachers keep my letters.”
Playing the flute, an instrument he made himself, Calvin also entertains crowds at the occasional Art Hop in Kalamazoo, or in a classroom at a local school, or at a community gathering, recounting ancient Navajo legends between the sweet sounds of his music. If he is the spiritual leader of the Stockbridge Avenue United Methodist Church, he is equally a medicine man, counseling those who come to him for guidance. He takes part in area pow-wows, putting on the colorful clothing of his native people. His long braids have not been cut since his high school years, but the hair at his temples has been trimmed so that, he says, he can wear the feathered headdress with ease. The turquoise earrings he wears have been passed down to him over the centuries, generation to generation.
Someday Calvin Hill plans to return to the Navajo reservation in Arizona and stay. It is home, he says. It is where he belongs, where he is not required to prove himself and where his values are not questioned. He can be what he is and what he was meant to be: the boy who was meant to grow up to be a shepherd of sheep, but who grew up to be a man who leads people of two very different worlds towards a better understanding of one another—and to walk together in beauty.
SIDEBAR - Navajo Culture and History
The Navajo people, or Dine (pronounced Di-neh), believe that the Creator made the world, the humans and the beasts that inhabit it, to live in harmony, balance, and peace. Every part of the natural world is interconnected with every other part, and when all work together, harmony is achieved. When this interconnectedness is broken, harmony is lost.
The Navajo are the largest tribe of North American Indians, having traveled from Northwestern Canada and Alaska to the southwestern part of the United States during the 15th century, where they settled near the Pueblo Indians. Today, the Navajo reservation, called Navajoland, covers about 14 million acres of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, including the Canyon de Chelly National Park, Monument Valley, Little Colorado River, the Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the Navajo National Monument, Bistri Badlands, the Petrified Forest National Park, and many other areas of value both historically and in terms of natural beauty.
More than 200,000 people live in the reservation today, although the Navajo population had been decimated to a mere 8,000 during the 1860’s, when the United States government destroyed much of their settlements and drove many of the Navajo people on what is now known as the Long Walk. The United States army, led by Kit Carson, drove the Navajo from their land, surrounded by their four sacred mountains, to Fort Sumner. Hundreds of Navajo died during the Long Walk The weak, the very young, and the elderly were shot on the trail if they were unable to keep up.
Calvin Hill, a Navajo from Arizona, who today is the Reverend at Stockbridge Avenue United Methodist Church, recalls the stories his grandmother passed down to younger generations about the Long Walk. “She told us about babies who cried in their mother’s arms because they were hungry. The soldiers dug up anthills along the path and threw the babies into them, leaving the babies to die. Those too sick or too hungry to keep up were shot and left on the trail. And yet in history books and in movies, it is the Navajo who are called savages…”
The Navajo were allowed to return to their land by the Treaty of 1868 after four years of torment. Today, the reservation is governed by the Navajo Nation Council, the largest Native American government in the United States. It embodies an elected tribal president, a vice president, and 88 council delegates who represent 110 local chapters of government. The Council meets regularly at Window Rock, Arizona, capital of the Navajo nation. One of their goals is to achieve economic self-sufficiency, while preserving their own traditional value and culture.
The Navajo are a deeply spiritual people whose traditions and language are passed down generation to generation through the art of storytelling, dance, and art. At the end of every summer, the Navajo Nation Fair, the world’s largest American Indian fair, is held in Window Rock, Arizona. More than 100,000 people attend the five-day festival that includes an intertribal pow wow, rodeos, horse races, arts and crafts exhibits, livestock exhibits, parades, a carnival, and various contests and competitions.
With the tourist trade being of such importance to economic self-sufficiency, the Navajo exhibit and sell their jewelry and artwork throughout the reservation. The Navajo are known for their unique silversmithing, woven blankets and rugs, and baskets that are not only beautiful but have stories woven into their designs.
Placed prominently in front of the hearth in the Hill home is a basket given to Calvin and his bride Sheri-Ann on their wedding day. It is a reminder of where they have been and what will sustain their marriage lifelong. Parts of the design signify the four sacred mountains surrounding the Navajo reservation, Calvin explains, while its center signifies the place from which all human beings emerged, surrounded by symbols of earth and sky. While some of the design shows areas of troubles that the married couple must overcome in their life together, other parts of the design signify harmony and the love of family.
Navajos are also known for their jewelry, intricate silver designs, often combined with turquoise and black onyx. Turquoise holds ceremonial significance to the Navajo because of their belief that it was brought up to the earth from the underworld with the first man. It is used not only for decoration but also in various ceremonial rituals. While it is believed that the Navajo began working with turquoise sometime after their return from Fort Sumner, where they were forced to live after the Long Walk, their silversmithing began around the middle of the 19th century, melting down American silver dollars and Mexican pesos for their metal.
“Sand painting has become almost a lost art,” Calvin says of another Navajo art form that he still practices. “My father and grandfather taught me how to create sand paintings, but today almost no one does it correctly,” he says. Once made for ceremonial purposes only, today they are often made with the tourist trade in mind. Where they once represented only sacred ceremonies and symbols, depicting the Holy People, now parts of the original designs are used in decorating figures, nameplates, and vases.
Most everything in the Navajo culture has spiritual roots. Different religions, including Christianity, are now incorporated into ancient traditions, but the Navajo people still strive to remain true to their traditions of a life balanced in harmony with others and with the earth.
SIDEBAR - The Navajo Code Talkers
By 1942, as World War II raged in Europe, Philip Johnston was too old to serve in the military—but he had an idea about helping in the war effort. The attack on Pearl Harbor had decimated the Pacific fleet. American allies Britain and France were suffering under heavy German bombing. Secret American battle plans were being deciphered by enemy forces prior to being carried out, resulting in the loss of many lives. With Japanese cryptographers expert at deciphering secret military codes, communications had to be more secure, and Johnston had an idea about using a language as code that he was sure could not be deciphered by enemy forces.
Johnston was a civil engineer and the son of a Protestant missionary. He had grown up on the Navajo reservation and had learned to speak the native language of the Navajo children, even though speaking it had been forbidden. He knew it was a complex language with words that would change meaning with the smallest variation in inflection. He knew it was a language without an alphabet, not written down on paper, but only passed on from person to person. Almost no one outside of the Navajo reservation could speak it.
Johnston returned to the reservation to find Navajos who could speak English with as much ease as their own language. He brought them along to Camp Elliott, a Marine base near San Diego, California, to demonstrate to the military staff how the Navajo language could easily be manipulated to translate into a kind of code a typical military field order. Sending these experimental messages from one Navajo to another, placed in separate rooms, quickly proved to the Marine officers that the Navajo language was perfect for creating an unbreakable yet accurate code.
Marine recruiting personnel came to the Navajo reservation looking for more recruits that could speak both English and Navajo. They also had to be in excellent physical shape so that they could serve as messengers in combat. Two hundred Navajo were enlisted and sent to Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. They were to serve in the United States and overseas.
At Camp Pendleton, the new Navajo recruits devised a military code from the Navajo language. A group of 29 Navajo worked to create this code that to this day has not been fully understood by any save these native Navajo speakers. Code words were short and easy to learn, although indecipherable to Japanese cryptographers. A 26-letter phonetic alphabet was created using Navajo names for various animals and birds along with whole word substitutions for some sounds. A small English vocabulary was used in combination with Navajo equivalents for the English words. The result was so simple yet effective that no one but the Navajo could break the code.
As for the Navajo recruits, they proved themselves highly capable and dependable in combat. They gained respect for their strength and endurance, their scouting and tracking ability, and their ability to live in the sparsest conditions.
Over the duration of World War II, 421 Navajo code talkers served in every branch of the military. They participated in major Marine assaults, including Iwo Jima, the Solomons, and Peleliu. More than 800 messages were sent and received at Iwo Jima by the code talkers without a single error, ensuring victory and saving lives.
Using a language that had been forbidden but a short time before on the Navajo reservation, these men served a country that at that time had not yet given them the rights and privileges of citizenship. It was not until December 1971, that President Richard M. Nixon presented the Navajo code talkers with a certificate of appreciation, thanking them for their service to the United States.