Odd that after living five years near the largest Native American tribe in the country, it took moving back to California to get me to a powwow. But one is held quite near us here, sponsored by Christian Native Americans, though many vendors and participants are not believers.
The pounding of the drums and jingle of the dancers’ bells and shells, the brightly fringed and feathered regalia, the scent of burning sage and frying bison burgers all have grown somewhat familiar after visiting several times in the last few years. Even the chanting, throbbing rhythm of the music now touches something deeper within me after all the Native American worship music I’ve listened to since beginning my novel.
And yet, I was reminded today of how very much of an outsider I am. Despite all my research and all the books I’ve read, despite all I’ve learned from my Native friends, despite traveling the Diné Tah and all the scenes I’ve written from my Navajo hero’s perspective, I remain, as the Diné would put it, a bilagaana. One whose people have done immeasurable damage to the first peoples of our land.
This drove home to me again, in the gracious but distant smiles of the vendors whose jewelry I stopped to examine, in the T-shirts for sale that reminded me I was “on Indian land,” in the invisible wall dividing me and other white visitors from the Native community who danced in the center green, children, parents, and gray-haired elders, feet stamping in rhythm, bound together by blood, history, tradition, and pain. A wall none of us directly contributed to, perhaps, but our ancestors did. My ancestors did. And past underlies present more than we often realize.
And my heart grew subtly heavy.
But just before my dad and I headed home, we ran into a man who has been one of my mentors on this journey towards learning and reconciliation, a Micronesian elder and pastor through whom God has opened doors in Native communities where white missionaries would never have been welcome. Two years ago, I traveled with a group he led to serve a Navajo family seeking to reach their people for Jesus. This man greeted my dad and me warmly, gripping our hands and looking into our eyes, and told us of his recent months in his native Pacific islands, where he had been able to present people with the Bible in their own language for the first time and seen them weep. He said he had thought of us and wanted to talk further.
And I remembered what has been repeatedly emphasized to me in this journey—that relationships are the key to building bridges of trust between peoples and nations where there has been hurt and wrongdoing and breach of promise. I have a relationship with this man, and that is why there is warmth and connection and trust. I have relationships with Navajo friends in New Mexico—and though only a few, it is a start and great blessing. Relationships take time and persistence and humility and love that only comes from Jesus to build. But so does anything worthwhile.
And someday, all of God’s people will truly be one…because it’s what Jesus prayed for.
“…I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent me…” ~John 17:23
Please make it so, Lord Jesus.