When the Spanish came to the Southwest, their mission was the three Gs: Gold, Glory and God. They used to teach that in school!
Gold, and riches, were the number one objective for the conquistadors. You could hardly blame them as the Spanish conquerors had done well in enriching themselves with the Incas in South America and the Mayans and Aztecs in Mexico.
They looked at the Southwest part of the United States as a potential treasure trove. Alas, the results of their expeditions were not what they anticipated. The second G; Glory, was also a little difficult to justify back in Spain. They had conquered a poor land, rich in culture and beauty, but it wasn’t going to bring much credit to the conquerors.
But they did succeed, in not very nice ways, in bringing Christianity to the Pueblos, and later to the Navajo, people. In the early days of occupation, Pueblo people were not allowed to have their traditional ceremonies. There was terrible persecution. The people, to get away with continuing their traditional practices, would hold their feast days and many of their ceremonial days, on days when the Spanish celebrated Saints or other religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter.
San Geronimo Days in Taos is an example of a Native celebration held in connection with a Catholic Saint’s day. There are many examples of these celebrations and dances.
It was not an easy time for the Native people. As time went on, it became more common for Christianity and traditional Native religious actives to overlap. All weddings in Santo Domingo Pueblo (now called Kewa Pueblo) are held at 8:30 am on Sunday morning as the traditional service is done in conjunction with the Catholic mass.
It was longer before the Navajo began to accept Christianity. If you think about it, it makes total sense. The traditional Navajo have a fear of the dead and after someone died, the west wall of the hogan was knocked out, the person’s shoes were put on the wrong feet and no one ever used the hogan again. There is more to it, but the idea was to confuse the spirit and prevent them returning.
And yet Christianity was built around a man who came back from the dead. You can see that this was not a comfortable religion for many Diné people.
Many Mormon missionaries settled on the Navajo reservation along with many ministers from other faiths. Many of the first schools on the reservation were founded by missionaries.
Father Baxter Liebler (1889-1992) was an Episcopal priest who came from a wealthy Eastern family that settled in Bluff, Utah and built a church and mission. He later started another mission in Monument Valley.
He was a friend of my parents, and when my first son Ed was born, he was baptized at the Mission. There is a story about it in The Owl in MonumentCanyon, my father’s book.
Father Liebler used to hold “well baby” clinics at his church and my mom, who is a nurse, used to drive down to help Dr. Browning, a Durango pediatrician who volunteered his time to do the exams. One day, a pregnant woman showed up at the clinic. Dr. Browning did not like delivering babies, so he put the woman and my mom in the back seat of his convertible and drove like a mad man to get to a hospital in Cortez.
My mom said it was the most exciting car ride she was ever in, over some terrible roads, but they arrived in time and the baby was healthy.
The Seventh Day Adventists started a hospital in Monument Valley that dramatically improved the lives of people there. With the Navajo people, for the most part, it was acts of kindness rather than the persecution that the Pueblo people had suffered, that brought Christianity to the reservation.
Like the Pueblo people, many Navajos practice a sort of mixture of spiritual beliefs.
One of the early designs that was popular in Navajo jewelry was the cross. It used in many old necklaces. The Pueblo and Navajo people made silver representations of the double cross that was actually a dragonfly. The dragonfly is revered by Pueblo people and was a symbol of water to the Navajo.
Over the years, some beautiful crosses, small and large, have been made by both Navajo and Pueblo people. The design is also woven into Navajo rugs and Southwestern tribal baskets.