Thursday, June 26, 2014

Memorial #2: Chester Nez, Code Talker

Chester Nez was the last living Code Talker. He died early this month.

I never met Chester Nez but in April 2001 I did meet two other Code Talkers: John Brown, Jr. and Dr. Sam Billison. I was part of a group, Prairyerth UU Fellowship, which was holding an event to honor the Navajo people. It would not have been possible to acknowledge the Navajo’s contributions to humanity without honoring the Code Talkers.

In 1942, Chester Nez and 28 other Navajos were recruited to develop a code. Based on the Navajo language, the code was unbreakable and thus instrumental in the Allied victory in the Pacific during World War II.

To prepare for the 2001 event, I did a lot of reading, visited the Navajo reservation and  and listened to a lot of stories. Here’s what I learned.

The Navajo came from the center of the universe to take care of the land. Some say they arrived between 1300 and 1500. Some say they emerged into this time somewhere near what is now called Bloomfield, New Mexico.

They have lived in the Four Corners region --- the intersection of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado -- for at least 500 years. In some ways they are the newcomers. But they have grown out of this land, saturated it with their prayers and ceremonies. It is the land of their ancestors and it is sacred.

The Navajo reservation is a vast rainbow land lying within the auras of four sacred mountains -- Mount Blanca to the east, Mount Taylor to the south, Humphrey's Peak or Abalone Mountain to the west, and Mount Hesperus to the north. They learned from the people who were already there and began to plant some of their food -- corn, beans, and squash. They learned from the invading Spaniards and began to ride horses and herd sheep. They were warriors. They never settled into villages like their neighbors. They lived instead in family clusters connected by a clan system that gave every child a host of guardians and disciplinarians. And they were connected by stories and ceremony.

Like modern physicists, traditional Navajo believe that the nature of reality is ambiguous. It shifts depending on where we stand, like smoke from a sacred fire. It is difficult to maintain a balance in this kind of world. Yet balance and harmony is the goal towards which Navajo strive, in everything they do, every day, weaving their lives onto a fine-spun warp of tradition.

Theirs is an organic response to Life that enables them to function at multidimensional levels. They have a different kind of consciousness. They understand Earth language and breathe in sync with their four sacred mountains. For them, people are neither more nor less important than an antelope, sunbeam or rock. Mountains and mesas are living things, creations that nurture creation, that hold wisdom and rain and life itself.

When the Navajo become off balance, knocked off the path by the dominant culture or their own human nature, complex and powerful ceremonies draw them back. In the sacred hogan, sand paintings, prayer sticks, and song pull in the power of ancient beings. Words found only in the Navajo language are strung into chants that can last for days. Surrounded by people who care and forces we cannot imagine, their balance is restored.

Many other forces -- Spaniards, white settlers, missionaries, government and corporations -- have battered the Navajo heritage. In 1863, they were forced off their land and marched to a prison camp, returning five years later to a ruined land. In some ways, their Long Walk has never ended. Although now the Navajo language is again taught to children, whole generations were forbidden its use. Even today, families are split, the old ways threatened. And the land itself is cracked open and sucked dry.

It is probably not possible for us to learn and understand the history, cosmology and current reality of the Navajo -- the Dineh -- the People. But we can try. Theirs is a heritage from which we can learn. Our own future lies in that learning.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Memorial #1: Dr. Ciro de Quadros

With apologies for the gap in posts, I now resume with memorials to four people who died this Spring, each of whom touched my life in some way.

I’ll begin with Dr. Ciro de Quadros. Why more people do not know of him is baffling. This handsome, dynamic man was head of the Pan American Health Organization when the organization I worked for, Rotary International (RI), decided to help the world eradicate polio. In the 70s and 80s polio was crippling some 1,000 children every day.

Dr. de Quadros was a member of the Order of the Bifurcated Needle, awarded by the World Health Organization’s Dr. D.A. Henderson to the international team instrumental in eradicating smallpox in 1977. [A two-pronged or bifurcated needle was what was used to administer smallpox vaccine.] Dr. de Quadros had led the fight against smallpox in Ethiopia, delivering protection in the midst of chaos and conflict.

When I joined the RI staff (in 1979) the organization had just decided to support a global effort to help eradicate polio. The organization was going to raise the money and enlist its vast network of volunteers to wipe out a major crippler and sometimes killer of children. Dr. de Quadros was head of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) – an obvious partner for RI’s efforts. He led one of history’s boldest public health efforts in which teams of health workers, often with the assistance of local Rotary volunteers, worked to immunize the children of the Western Hemisphere.

In 1994, I was in PAHO’s Washington, D.C. headquarters when its local and regional staff waited in the auditorium for the report from the commission accessing the effort. All through the introductions it seemed as though no one in the audience was breathing.

Then it came. The official declaration. Polio had been eradicated in the Western Hemisphere. And those who had worked, almost literally, in the trenches of the effort, and those who supported them from the offices at home exploded in shared jubilation.

In his ceaseless efforts to enlist support for immunization, Dr. de Quadros often came to RI’s headquarters and invited staff to PAHO’s offices. Collaboration was a keynote of his style. He invited me to a PAHO meeting in Mexico City to help PAHO staff publicize immunization efforts and, later, I lobbied for his participation in the 1991 RI convention in Mexico City. However small my efforts, I believe they helped.

And one of my great rewards was the privilege of working (however tangentially) with one of the world’s heroes, Dr. Ciro de Quadros.

He is missed but now immortal.