By Ervin Stutzman
One of the reasons that the convention planners chose to have the biennial Mennonite Church USA convention in Arizona this summer is because of the Native Americans who live in the Southwest. Because most of them feel like they are on the margin of the church, our coming to their part of the country feels like an affirmation.
In January, my spouse Bonnie and I visited the Hopi Indian reservation in Northeast Arizona, where we gained deep insights into Native American concerns. The Hopi community is thick with history and tradition, since they have lived in that area for 2000 years. On the way to the reservation, we drove through a painted desert with landforms unlike anything that we’d seen before. The land is filled with mesas and various colored rocks. The most unusual forms were mounds that looked like they had heavy slabs dumped on top of them.
We were particularly drawn to the Hopi Indian School, a Mennonite outreach shared with the Baptist church. The school originally began as a residential school, which is a history Mennonites in the United States need to wrestle with and acknowledge. As part of this effort my colleague Iris de Leon-Hartshorn is currently participating in residential school reconciliation processes with Canadian Mennonites and others, who also founded such schools.
Thane Epefanio, the administrator, introduced us to the school and to some of the teachers. He told us that the Baptists are the primary donors and the Mennonites are the primary teachers. We were thrilled to meet a number of young teachers who recently graduated from Mennonite schools. He says he has the best staff he’s ever had, even in much larger schools. He is pleased that this school can help all students to excel.
It was particularly heartening to talk to Kristen Shrag, who is from Eden Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kansas. She has developed many friendships among the Hopi and often engages in activities with them, including running games. Long distance running is a favorite sport among the Hopi.
On our visit, we learned how the U.S. Army had sent Kit Carson to the southwest to subdue the Native Americans. He used the “scorched earth” policy, burning the fields and houses, and interning many in a fort. A tenth of the original inhabitants—Hopi and Navajo—died during that time. No wonder the Hopi find it difficult to trust white people, whom they call “pahanas.” Both Hopi tradition and prophecy point to a true Pahana, a long-lost white brother who will return to punish evil and usher in world peace. Unfortunately, much of their interaction with whites has proved bitterly disappointing. I have much to learn from those who have been oppressed by white power and privilege.
The highlight of our time was a tour of Hopi Land led by Merle Calnimptewa and Vonette Monongya (husband and wife). As natives of that area, they took us to several Hopi villages. Both Merle and Vonette are graduates of the Hopi school. They told us that they were taught good discipline and learned reading, writing and math so well that Merle was valedictorian in the local high school, setting a school record.
He is a Christian who is also a devoted Hopi. He clearly identifies with the myths of the Hopi people, and explained many of them to us. The most interesting belief is that when a person dies, their spirit goes to a particular rock formation (which he showed to us) and then it is decided where it goes from there: the good spirits go to the Grand Canyon to live and the evil spirits end up as insects in the valley, running around in misery. They can, however, be reincarnated.
The most interesting part of our tour was to see the petroglyphics at the prophecy rock, a central feature of Hopi Land. After a lunch of chile and blue tortillas and fry bread at the cultural center, we visited the Hopi Museum and then the craft store. If you’re going to Arizona, and you want to get to know native culture, I highly recommend a visit to Hopi Land. It will give you a treasure trove of insight in the Native American experience of the Southwest.