John C. Smith, Dine Elder/Medicine Man: R.I.P.

Yesterday at around 10 am, I lost one of my teacher/elders among the Dine people (the Navajo). John C. Smith passed on at the San Juan Regional Hospital in Farmington, New Mexico. He was 85.

Mr. Smith was a Hataalii (Medicine Man) as well as a Native American Church/ABNDN Roadman, Historian, Educator, Philosopher, Herbalist, and Elder Statesman. He was of the Ma’iideeshgiizhnii (Coyote Pass Clan) and born for the Dziltl’ahnii (Mountain Cove). Mr. Smith was also a spokesperson and advocate for the Dine Hataalii Association, Inc.

For almost twenty years, I’ve been doing ceremonies, including peyote prayer meetings and sweat baths, with the Dine near the Chuska Mountains on the Arizona side of Dine Bikeyah (Navajo Nation). Medicine man Anthony Lee and his wife Delores of Lukachukai have taken in my whole family – and even adopted my wife Trini in an adult adoption ceremony, which many traditional Navajo do (and they treat these adopted children as their own).

These ceremonies have been one of the most vital aspects of my sobriety that I’ve now carried for twenty years after 27 years of drugs and alcohol (in the Rez, peyote medicine, which is not a drug, although this is the impression usually given by non-natives, is the number one way to deal with the high rates of alcoholism).

Anthony introduced us to John C. Smith, who was almost always at our ceremonies – with songs, with chants, with powerful prayers. Even though I only know a couple of Navajo words, I always felt his spirit, his intense devotion to medicine and ceremony, and was moved when tears would fall. He was a man unafraid to express the range of human emotions, generous and inviting. He was also extremely funny. His jokes, his laughter, were contagious. He knew English and Spanish, with some problems, but he mostly communicated in Dine.

John liked the Chicano Natives that would come to connect to Dine traditions (Trini and I, as well as our two young sons, my daughter, two brother-in-laws, nephews, and many friends, including Louie Ruan who was the first one to bring me to Lukachukai). It has taken a long time, but many traditional peoples have accepted Chicanos as fellow natives, even though most Chicanos, Mexicans and Central Americans have lost direct tribal ties.

It is also true that Chicanos/Mexicans have been responsible for much suffering of the Dine. When this land was part of Spain more than 200 years ago, and part of Mexico more than 100 years ago, ruling governments (during the Mexican period, the country was run by light-skinned mostly Spanish criollos) used other Mexican native peoples (like Yaquis, Chichimecas, Huicholes, and more) to hunt down and kill Navajos, Apaches and others. The old divide-and-conquer has brought much animosity between the large number of Chicanos/Mexicans and other native peoples.

At the same time, our common heritages are now being explored and many inroads have been made to bring Chicanos and Native Americans together. I have done talks to many Dine, Apache, Pueblo and Tohono O’odham youth in reservations and schools. With large numbers of tribal peoples from Mexico and Central America coming to the United States, the issue of us coming together is imperative. There are now three million Mayan people from Mexico and Guatemala in the U.S. (more than the total Native American population) – and millions more such as Mexicas (Nahuatl-speaking people), Mixtecos, Zapotecos, Purepechas, Pibils, and others.

As well Chicanos have been now trained and fully sanctioned as Mexica Danzantes (so-called Aztec ceremonial dancers) and are now a major number in most Sun Dances in Lakota reservations and others across the United States.

John C. Smith will be remembered as one who worked hard to bring our peoples together, although he did this as a Dine, using the complex Dine cosmologies to teach, the wondrous Dine tongue to sing and pray. Anthony and John also taught us how Mexicans – like the Hopi – have been incorporated into the tribe with their own clans. The Navajo know how to adapt and incorporate the world and peoples around them.

I hope what John C. Smith has done resonates throughout all the Native world, regardless of borders that have blinded us to our common heritages, histories and values. We can no longer afford to be divided.




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