“Indian Sisters Blossom as a Rose in the Desert,” Ensign, Aug. 1989, 77–78
“We have to teach our children so that we know that they know. We have to be sure that our children understand what we say, and that we say it clearly. You have a great future because of your children.” This was the counsel Joy F. Evans, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, gave Native American sisters in Utah and Arizona recently.
At the request of the Area Presidency, Sister Evans and Relief Society General Board member Carol Cooper spent two weeks in June visiting with Indian sisters in the North America Southwest Area to assess their needs and provide leadership training.
As a result of the meetings, the Relief Society leaders learned that although sisters in the area face unique challenges in spanning cultures and languages, they are also a devoted people who have great faith in the Lord.
Navajo Mary Tunney is representative of those who face these challenges. A convert who speaks only Navajo, she comes every Sunday to the Cameron (Arizona) Branch and listens to Church services in a language she does not understand. She does so because “It feels good to me.”
Sister Tunney doesn’t know exactly how old she is because records were not kept when she was born, but her brother estimates that she is in her seventies. Dressed in traditional clothing, with her long hair in a single braid, Sister Tunney herds about fifty sheep and goats daily.
Nadine Campbell, Page Arizona Stake Relief Society president, notes, “Sister Tunney may not be able to explain the doctrine or organization of the Church, but she is very devoted.” About two years ago, Sister Tunney received her temple recommend and decided to go to the Arizona Temple. She asked someone to tend her flocks, walked to the trading post, and caught a ride with a person who took her as far as a ward in Flagstaff. She stayed there all day until a Church member came along and helped her continue her journey.
When Sister Tunney arrived at the temple, a Navajo guide was found for her. She stayed and did ordinance work for two days and then caught a ride back to the reservation.
“I want to go back this winter,” Sister Tunney explains, “but I will have to find someone to take care of my herd before I can go.”
“The traditional Navajos have a testimony and feel the Spirit,” says Sister Campbell, but the second generation are adding leadership abilities to testimony.
Many of the leaders among them learned the gospel and observed leadership skills in Anglo homes while they were students in the Church’s Indian Student Placement program. Now they see the fruits of their commitment to the Church in the lives of their children.
“My experience on placement helped me learn to be more caring and loving to others, and it helped me appreciate who I am,” says Marilyn Bryant, now second counselor in the Relief Society presidency of the Page Fourth Ward, Page Arizona Stake. “Everyone is a child of God. Just by learning that, I knew that I was capable of doing a lot of things I hadn’t done before.”
Martha Lane joined the Church while attending school in Richfield, Utah. As a parent of teenagers, she observes, “Most of our Navajo LDS kids are leaders in our high school. They get leadership experience in the Church; that helps them gain confidence and get recognition in school.” She attributes some of their success to seeing the example of their parents.
Bessie Marks lived with her grandparents at Dinnebito Dam, Arizona, until she was about ten. Her medicine-man grandfather, Cowboy T. Begay, was impressed with the LDS elders, and when Bessie went to boarding school in Tuba City, he told officials she would attend LDS services. Bessie’s cousins were all involved in the placement program, and she wanted to go, too. Her grandfather gave her permission, but cautioned her, “Learn all the good things, but don’t forget your heritage or forsake the good things you’ve been taught.”
Her grandfather’s teachings prepared Bessie to accept the gospel. He told her of a great flood that covered the earth and of the people building a tower to reach the Holy One and having their languages confused as punishment. “He told me about the day when the Holy Person was born, when the sun didn’t go down, and about another time when there were thunder and lightning and it got dark for two or three days. Later, when I read the scriptures, I came across many of the same stories my grandfather told me. It all seemed to mesh, and accepting the gospel was a natural thing.”
Now Bessie and her husband, Harry, active in the Page (Arizona) Second Ward, keep a foot in both the old and new worlds. The couple’s parents are traditional Navajos and speak no English. When the Markses visit, they sleep in a hogan without electricity or running water, and their children take a turn at herding the family flock. “My children see what the old ways are,” Sister Marks explains, “but their lives are very different. Because of the gospel, my children have knowledge to overcome superstitions. They have a different outlook because they are learning the truth.”
For many faithful Native Americans, spiritual experiences are common. “As problems come up, you pray about them; situations change, and life moves on,” explains one sister.
Elva Marks, Bessie Marks’s mother-in-law, died in April 1989. She was a medicine woman. Such women conduct some of the shorter ceremonies and are called “hand tremblers.” “One time my mother-in-law’s arm was hurting her, and she could not perform ceremonies,” Sister Marks relates. “She asked the Spirit why that was happening, because she used her arms and hands to make her living. She said the Spirit told her to put her medicine bag away and pick up the scriptures. They would be of more help to her than her arms. When the missionaries came and brought the scriptures, she recognized them right away and accepted the gospel.”
Another sister relates a time when her marriage and family were “falling apart. My life was in pretty bad shape,” she says. “But I wanted to save my marriage, and I prayed about it and asked God for a miracle. I was impressed to return to the LDS church, but it took a year of working in Primary for the Spirit to really change my heart and for me to know that I was where the Lord wanted me. I learned how to rely on the Lord, to have faith. He was all I had; everything else was falling apart. Then I had a desire to help others who were having trouble finding their way.”
A member of the Tuba City Ward, Mae Wilson recounts a time when coyotes were raiding her mother’s sheep. They became so bold that they would go into the corral and drag a sheep out. “My mother asked my husband—who was a branch president at that time—to use his priesthood to dedicate the place,” says Sister Wilson. “In the blessing he said that he knew that the Lord made the coyotes, and he asked the Lord to send them somewhere else to get their food. My mother had no more trouble with coyotes bothering her sheep.”
This faith in God, so much a part of life for these LDS sisters in the North America Southwest Area, might best be summed up in Sister Wilson’s words: “I know that the Lord is real because he has helped us so many times.”