Tribal understandings: Jewish and Navajo spiritual leaders speak of sacred lands

A Reform rabbi, a Navajo medicine man and a professor walk into a museum.

It sounds like the opening of a joke, but on a recent May Shabbat at Window Rock, Ariz., capital of the Navajo Nation, it’s the beginning of a cross-cultural discussion that pondered the question “What makes land sacred?”

The dialogue featuring the spiritual leaders of two tribes, Navajo medicine man Johnson Dennison and Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld of the Reform Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, N.M., was held at the Navajo Nation Museum.

Anthropologist Gordon Bronitsky moderated the event with an audience of more than 40 Jews and Navajos.

It was the second in a series of Navajo-Jewish exchanges.

The first program was held in November at Congregation Albert, where the duo wrestled with how each group managed living in “Two Worlds”—one of tradition, the other of contemporary life.

Bronitsky, the program organizer and a longtime resident of the Southwest, took a Navajo language course in college and knew some Hebrew. The former university professor suspected that when it came to land and sacredness, the two unlikely desert neighbors had some views to share.

Before the second event, Bronitsky observed that the Navajo have a phrase, “dineh bikeyah” (the people’s land), that expresses a feeling of rightful ownership.

It is similar, he said, to when Jews say “Artzeinu” (our land)—as in the “Hatikvah” verse, “Lihyot ’am chofshi be’artzeinu,” “To be a free people in our land.”

Opening the discussion with “Shabbat shalom,” the kippah-wearing, white-bearded Rosenfeld explained that the Hebrew word for “holy” was “kadosh,” and that the word for profane, “chol,” was the same as the word for “sand”—something, an audience member later pointed out, that both groups had seen much of.

“The biblical land of Israel is sacred land for the Jews,” Rosenfeld said, sidestepping the charged issue of boundaries.

“It is sacred because God promised it,” added the rabbi, who in his previous pulpit in Anchorage, Alaska, had worked with native peoples.

Dennison, wearing a turquoise necklace typical of the Navajo, greeted the audience in both English and his native language. “You are all welcome to the Navajo land, it is a sacred place,” he said.

For Dennison, a medicine man with a master’s degree in educational administration, Navajo land is both a homeland where he found “harmony and beauty” as well a place where, he related later, his family could raise a flock of sheep and a herd of goats.

“There is a spiritual and emotional connection to the land,” he said. 

Dennison defined Navajo land as lying between “four sacred peaks” that “were established by the holy people as the cornerstones of Navajo country”: Blanca Peak to the east, Mount Taylor to the south, San Francisco Peak to the west and Mount Hesperus to the north. 

The Window Rock for which the area is named—a windswept, red rock opening that stands about a half-mile from the museum—illustrated the connection.

Taken at its physical geographic description, Window Rock is simply a 200-foot-high natural arch of Middle Jurassic Bluff Sandstone. But as a sacred place, according to, “portal to the Navajo Internet,” “It was one of the four places where Navajo medicine men go with their woven water bottles to get water for the ceremony that is held for abundant rain.”

Adding emotional attachment to Window Rock is the Navajo Code Talkers Memorial at the base of the arch. The Code Talkers, made famous in the film “Windtalkers,” were a group of Navajo-speaking U.S. Marines who during World War II devised a Navajo-based code that the Japanese were unable to break.

As for the Jews’ attachment to their holy land, Rosenfeld pointed out that “you don’t have to live on it.”

At the same time, he stressed—quoting Psalm 137, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither”—Jews are not allowed to forget their attachment.

Both speakers saw rays of sacredness emanating from the east.

Dennison remarked that the traditional Navajo home, the hogan, was to this day oriented with its entrance to the east.

“The tip of light of where the rising sun first strikes is considered sacred,” he said. “First light enters our whole being.”

Rosenfeld saw “spirituality coming from the east,” east being the symbol of Jerusalem. “Jews face east when they pray,” he said.

Several audience members, speaking in Navajo or in English with a bit of Hebrew, also spotted similarities in experience and ritual.

Navajo Lydell James saw a connection between his tribe’s Long Walk and the Holocaust. The Long Walk, known as “Bosque Redondo,” was an 1864-66 forced relocation of the Navajo from their historic tribal lands to an area around Fort Sumner, N.M.

“The hurt doesn’t end,” he said.

Laura Jijon, who is Jewish and works with the Navajo as an adult education administrator at the University of New Mexico Extension in nearby Gallup, N.M., cited a similarity to the spiritual significance that Dennison placed on the four directions and the six directions that Jews wave the lulav on Sukkot.

She also pointed out that “the hogan and the sukkah are both sacred dwellings.”

As to the generational challenges facing each group, the rabbi and medicine man acknowledged that their respective people’s commitment and sense of holiness about their lands could be at risk.

“We don’t own the land,” Dennis said. “It’s a Western concept of marking the land and water. It becomes a property. In the future we could lose sight of the sacredness of the land.

“How do we keep the fire burning?” he asked.

“Is something inherently holy? Only if a community takes it as such,” said Rosenfeld. “Fifty-nine percent of American Jews have not been to Israel.”

Historically, Navajos and Jews have long had some ties.

In the 19th century, Solomon Bibo, a Jewish immigrant from Poland and New Mexico trader, “was the only white man ever to be the chief of a Navajo pueblo,” Bronitsky said.

And before the event Bronitsky, standing before a photo display of Miss Navajo contest winners, pointed to the photo of the second winner, in 1954-55, Ida Gail Organick.

“She was married to a Jewish doctor,” he said.

Bronitsky believes it was unlikely that the Navajo had their own term for Jew.

Now they do.

Touring Eastern Europe with a Navajo choral group, Bronitsky had worn his kippah during side trips to Holocaust memorials.

At the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, awaiting the flight home, he wondered if the singers could come up with a word for a Jew.

“Bich’ah yazhi dineh’eh” was the phrase one of them coined, “people who wear little hats,” he recalled following the Shabbat discussion. 

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at

The Lost Bird

Yvette Melanson is a woman who might say the Sh’ma before going to sleep, and in the morning light whisper the Navajo prayer, “May I walk happily and lightly on the earth.” Both are deeply felt, authentic expressions of her soul. As she explains, “I know that I’m Jewish. I feel Jewish. I’ve been raised Jewish. I’m also Navajo.”

Her book, “Looking for Lost Bird: A Jewish Woman Discovers Her Navajo Roots,” written with Claire Safran (Avon), chronicles her extraordinary life journey. At 43, after facing many sad upheavals but persisting in embracing life, Melanson, who had been adopted by a Jewish family as a young child, learns shocking details about her identity: She was born in a lean-to on a Navajo reservation, stolen from her parents at birth along with her twin brother and passed through a net of underground doctors, nurses and orphanage officials, moved frequently, until she reached her adoptive family in Queens. “Lost bird” is the name that Native Americans give to their lost children, and Melanson asserts that hundreds of thousands of Navajo children were stolen, from the 1920s to the 1970s. Her family never stopped looking for her.

At a time when many memoirs are being published, this one stands out for the astonishing true story it unfolds, written with an open heart. The narrative moves forward and back in time, describing Melanson’s early life with Bea and Larry Silverman, the years after she left their Neponsit home, her experiences among her newly found relatives on the Arizona reservation. Interwoven with her well-told anecdotes are Navajo teachings. One proverb that particularly speaks to Melanson: “Walk in harmony with the universe by being aware of who you are.”

Praised and pampered by the Silvermans, the fair-skinned, green-eyed Melanson grew up in an upper middle-class world of piano lessons and art classes, repeatedly reminded that her parents chose her because she was so special. In her early teens, the protective cocoon was burst when Bea died; Larry remarried a woman who cast her new stepdaughter out of their home. Melanson lived with neighborhood friends until Larry and his wife offered to send her to Israel. There, she lived on Kibbutz Sa’ar in the northern Galilee and flourished, learning Hebrew, falling in love and marrying a fellow kibbutznik. During the Yom Kippur War, she was wounded and her new bridegroom was killed. Larry convinced her to return to America. Although she thought she would return to Israel, she never did.

Still unwelcome in the Silverman home, she joined the U.S. Navy, distinguishing herself for her work. She married a Naval officer who proved to be violent, and she then divorced. When she gave birth, the Silvermans insisted that she give the boy up for adoption, but she resisted, raising Brad with the help of a friend’s family. She later married Dickie Melanson, who had six children, and together they had two daughters, carving out a life in Maine.

Like many adoptees, she never ceased to wonder about her birth family, and began to use the Internet to investigate her background. After her initial correspondence with a woman representing the Navajo family (they had no computer on the reservation), she was skeptical that she, with her fair complexion, could be a Native American. The possibility seemed too unbelievable. But the details of their stories seemed to match, and in a close perusal of the Silvermans’ papers (Larry had died), she found the names Betty Jackson and Yazzie Monroe — the Navajo parents she would come to claim as her own. When Yazzie, a Navajo medicine man, saw her photograph, he knew it was his daughter. Betty had died eight years earlier of esophageal cancer —

the same disease Melanson had suffered from. At the invitation of the Navajo nation and trailed by a pack of reporters, Melanson visited the family in Tolani Lake and received a warm welcome as though she were coming home. Although among Navajos, it is considered impolite to stare, she couldn’t help looking long into the eyes of her brothers and sisters, “drinking in the look of my family, looking for little resemblances between them and me.” She found many similarities. In an interview, she notes, “It was very uncanny the way I slid into this family. I usually hold back. But they thought just the way I did, acted the way I did. It shouldn’t have been — we were raised totally different. But it was just like putting on a kid glove.”

Melanson, her husband and two young daughters then moved to the reservation, eager to get to know their family and to learn the Navajo ways. She also sought to know her mother, and found the woman in the stories people told, by walking in her steps and by learning to weave rugs, as she had done. The Melansons participate in their clan’s rituals and learn about Navajo spirituality and healing, the necessary harmony between body and spirit.

One aunt shows Melanson the exact place where her umbilical chord had been buried. “For Navajos,” she writes, “it’s very important to know where that place is. They believe that if you don’t know where your umbilical cord is buried, then you may be fated to spend all of your life searching for it.” Although life on the reservation is difficult, the experience is a rich one. Ultimately, she finds her twin brother, who had been adopted by a Catholic family, and they are reunited on the reservation.

Melanson, 46, now splits her time between Tolani Lake and her home in Newport, Maine, where her husband is able to get better medical care than in Arizona. In Maine, they support themselves by selling produce along the side of a major road, and she also weaves rugs according to traditional patterns and sells Navajo crafts through a Web site. In a telephone conversation from Maine, the Queens layer of her story is still very evident in her voice.

Comfortable as both a Navajo and a Jew, Melanson continues to celebrate Passover in her home, and her daughters also are confident with their dual Jewish and Navajo identities. She points out several connections between Jewish and Navajo cultures, from dietary restrictions and laws about slaughtering animals to respect for elders and for the land. Reflecting on the circle as a sacred shape for the Navajos, she recalls a conversation with her grandmother about the symbolism of the circle at Jewish weddings, representing the eternal cycle of life. For Melanson, living on a reservation is similar to her experience of living on a kibbutz, with its communal sense of purpose and caring for one another.

Her daughters, now 13 and 14, adore their new grandfather, and they all speak the Navajo language with him. Melanson now understands that her firstborn son’s hyperactivity is common in their family. And, she has learned that she also had some white ancestors, which explains her complexion. When asked about the Silvermans and how much they might have know about her background, she is convinced that Bea didn’t know she was a lost bird.

In the last pages of the book, she writes: “I had gone searching for my family, but I had found myself. I was discovering a new harmony. As a white woman, I had beaten my head against stone walls and broken my heart trying to change what couldn’t be changed. Now I was learning the great Navajo secret — how to live in the world as it is, how to adapt, how to bend in the wind so as not to break.

“I was learning what to leave behind, and what to keep with me forever. I was following a new road of life, but in the Navajo way, it ran parallel to my old Moses road. I was still a woman who looked in the rearview mirror, but I had found the switch that clicked the view from day to night, from now to then, from the glare of pursuing headlights, always there, always following, to a clearer vision.”