Recently a gathering was held in Albuquerque called “Healing the Wounds of History: The Long Walk and the Holocaust.” Which begs the question, what does the Navajo community have in common with the Jewish community? Gordon Bronitsky, the man who has organized a series of Navajo/Jewish dialogues over the past 18 months, explained that he began thinking about this nearly two decades ago.
“I was working with the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center [in the 1980s] to develop a voter registration drive. I had given a [presentation] … and afterward, we were sitting around talking and one after another [Natives] started saying that they didn’t like missionaries, that missionaries didn’t respect them, that missionaries were always coming after them — and it occurred to me that I had heard that conversation before, from Jews,” said Bronitsky, president of Bronitsky and Associates. He belongs to Congregation Albert in Albuquerque.
“At that point I began wondering what do we have in common?” said Bronitsky, whose company works with indigenous people around the world in the performing arts and festival development. “I meant in terms of religious freedom issues, cultural survival issues, ties to sacred land, language and things like that.”
The first dialogue was held in the spring of 2013 in Albuquerque and was titled, “Living in Two Worlds: How Do We Keep Our Balance?” The featured speakers were Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld of Congregation Albert and Navajo medicine man Johnson Dennison. The second was held in the fall of last year and was titled “What Makes Land Sacred?” It also featured Rosenfeld and Dennison. It was held at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz.
“I’m not sure there are similarities in terms of practices and rites,” Rosenfeld said. “But what I have discovered is that both Native Americans and Jews face some of the same issues — being a minority in the larger world while trying to maintain our history, culture, language and family ethic. It’s really hard to do. There are some things we can learn from each other about how to do that.”
The third dialogue took place earlier this month and featured Rosenfeld and a thought-provoking presentation from Frank Morgan, a retired educator from the Navajo Nation who is now involved with cross-cultural concepts/interpretations/translations between the Navajo and Western cultures.
“There are certain areas where there are some commonalities (between Navajos and Jews), and other areas there’s not. Presently, I think both sides are more pragmatic following our teachings from the past,” said Morgan, who grew up in the Four Corners area. There were also stimulating questions from the audience.
Jewish members “mostly wanted to clarify where there might be common ground. For example, how Navajos view concepts of God. I don’t have a problem with it,” said Morgan, whose father was instrumental in bringing the Native American Church to Navajo lands in the 1930s. “Of course there are some things that are very sacred, so I don’t go into any detail. There’s quite a bit of curiosity. There are a lot of universal aspects to the secular life, but culture is a little bit different.”
“The dialogues have grown,” added Bronitsky. “There have been more people at each one. I plan on having another one in the spring somewhere on the Navajo Nation. In Albuquerque it’s the Navajo speakers that get most of the questions, and in Window Rock it’s the rabbi. No one knew if there would be any interest, but I feel having these dialogues is an accomplishment in and of themselves.”
Rosenfeld concluded, “We’ve developed a sense of mutual equality and trust. I think it’s time for us to start talking about how we can not just learn from each other but how we can help each other — how we can support each other in our struggles and becoming stronger cultures.”
Harlan McKosato is director of NDN Productions and Sauk/Ioway.