Column: Five-fingered forgiveness in the Arizona desert

Courtesy photoThe First Church team in Arizona.

I recently returned from a week working on a Navajo Reservation in Arizona. It was actually the week before Easter and a rather unusual way to spend Holy Week, or Passover for that matter. Although, as a way of focusing on our tradition of resurrection and restoration, it was the closest I’ve ever come to really feeling the experience. We reluctantly chose Holy Week for our mission trip because this year it happened to coincide with school vacation. We were committed to having our high school students participate, and that also turned out to be an integral part of the experience.

Our church has had a relationship the Navajo people of Kayenta since we first visited them in 2006. At the conclusion of that first trip we promised that we would return and continue to support them. They politely nodded -- I’m sure that was not the first time they had heard promises like that. As with all Native Americans, the Navajo have suffered much more than broken promises. One night our hosts taught us to make Navajo fry bread. It was fun and delicious. It is similar to fried dough, and we all enjoyed it. Then, after we had eaten and gathered together in the hogan, our hosts explained how Navajo fry bread was “invented.” In the cold spring of 1864, more than 8,000 Navajo were driven off of their land and forced to walk to Fort Sumner in the Bosque Redondo area of New Mexico. Many Navajo died in the forced march, while others were executed by the U.S. Army when they fell behind on what became known as the Long Walk. It was long, roughly 400 miles. They never were told where they were going or why. When they finally arrived in Bosque Redondo, the Army was not prepared to care for such a large group of prisoners. The Navajo had no food and all of their livestock and belongings had been confiscated or left behind. The Army had only flour, lard, baking powder and salt, typical Army rations but unfamiliar ingredients for the Navajo. Yet out of necessity, they created fry bread. In the sacred space of the hogan we learned that like Passover for Jews or the Last Supper for Christians, this meal had a deeper meaning for our Navajo sisters and brothers.

During the day we worked in a dead, dried-out lake bed that was fittingly called Dry Lake. The land that had been taken from the Navajo, or at least a portion of it, was returned in the Navajo Treaty of 1868. They were expected to remain on the land and become farmers. They adapted but recently farming has become nearly impossible as the land has become more arid and water is scarce. This has been exacerbated by strip mining and the unrestricted use of existing water from the aquifer to slurry coal from the mines to power plants in far-off cities. The federal government owns the reservation land and in many ways the Long Walk continues even now. Some of our friends who live further out on the reservation just got electricity in their homes last year. The unemployment rate on the reservation is 47 percent. It is a third-world nation right smack in the middle of the wealthiest country in the world.

And that is really where the restoration happened. We were there to restore a dry lake so that it might again someday hold water, but the real restoration happened inside the hogan, as we gathered around the fire and our Navajo friends reached out to us. Our host told us about the Navajo understanding of Five Fingers. He explained that we are all five-fingered people, and when we offer our hand to another, it is one five-fingered person reaching out to another five-fingered person.

When we returned home in time for Easter Sunday, one of the high school students, a young man who had been the first to make Navajo fry bread, said that he could barely take in their grace and unconditional acceptance: after all that had been done to the Navajo people in the past, and even now, he found it miraculous that they would still extend their five fingers to us. Our Mission Team came home with a message of five-fingered forgiveness and a reminder of the restoration that can connect all of us regardless of our differences – for ultimately, we are all five-fingered people.

​The Rev. Michael J. Duda is a resident of Rockport and pastor of First Church in Wenham.