Among the Navajos

A man from a missionary family writes about life on the rez before World War II changed everything

Alwin Girdner grew up among fervent Plymouth Brethren missionaries on the isolated Navajo Reservation of the 1920s and '30s. As subject matter for bedtime stories, this one doesn't exactly leap.

But Girdner made it work, and he entertained his kids for years with his memories of and knowledge about the Navajo people. Sometime in the 1950s, he started writing things down, and by the 1990s, he was building a manuscript. Now in his late '80s, Girdner has finally published his life's work with Tucson's Rio Nuevo Publishers. It's a charming miscellany of memoir, anecdote and amateur ethnography that conjures in clear, unadorned prose a romantic time and place that seems so far away from our own.

The Plymouth Brethren are conservative, Biblical literalists known for their energetic missionary work. Committed to spreading the gospel to the Navajos, a tribe that was at the time in the midst of cultural transition, Girdner's maternal grandfather, H.A. Holcomb, built Immanuel Mission out of an old trading post in 1924. It still stands today near the community of Sweetwater, close to Four Corners.

Girdner's mother, Marie Holcomb, met his father, Glen Girdner, in Oak Creek, where the Girdner family had a ranch, and Marie had taken a job teaching in a one-room school house. The couple soon married and moved to the mission, where they would eventually have three children.

Glen Girdner wrote voluminous notes about his experiences on the reservation and his efforts to learn and study the difficult Navajo language. He left this work behind when he died in 1988, and Girdner mined his father's notes while creating his own book. At first, Glen Girdner comes across as somewhat larger than life. He was a religious, scholarly fellow who could also design and build a house, dig a well and drive a Model T over just about any landscape. But such characters keep popping up throughout the book, and you realize that Glen Girdner, with all his skill and enthusiasm, was really a typical missionary.

Consider, for example, Girdner's aunt, Clara Holcomb, and fellow missionary Florence Barker. These women traveled on horseback, without a guide, all over the vast, largely trackless reservation, camping out on trails and living sometimes for months at a time in hogans, all to bring news of Jesus to a mostly uninterested tribe.

"Most missionaries on the Navajo Reservation had an all-consuming commitment to a way of life that offered few of the earthly rewards most Americans considered basic," Girdner writes. "They did not expect power, fame or even personal recognition in this world and had no regard for financial gain, life or health insurance, or pension or retirement plans."

Of course, Christianity in its many forms has a firm hold on Navajoland these days, but prior to World War II, a majority of Navajos still had a least one foot in the traditional world. Girdner writes of the social pressure and derision that some progressive male Navajos experienced just for cutting their hair short. Those interested in talking deeply about Jesus and the Gospel often did so in private, out of sight of their more-traditional peers.

Girdner started speaking Navajo around the same time he started speaking English, and he spent many hours of his youth hanging around the Sweetwater Trading Post, watching and listening. His detailed descriptions of trading-post life at the time, when the institution was still the only link between the reservation and mainstream American culture, are some of the finest passages in the book.

"It was impolite for a Navajo ever to point with his finger, and the wanted items were indicated by pursing the lips and lifting the chin, something like blowing a kiss," Girdner writes. "I thought this hands-free gesture very convenient until I tried it at home. Mother took immediate corrective action, and I realized she wasn't open to anything new in our social customs."

Girdner has an obvious love and respect for the Navajo people, their language and their land. His book is full of examples of Navajo humor and creativity; for example, they called Adolf Hitler "Smells-His-Mustache." The book also includes many rare black-and-white photographs showing how Navajos looked and dressed in those days.

It was Hitler's madness and the war it caused—which Navajo "code talkers" famously helped to end—that ultimately ended the traditional Navajo life that Girdner was lucky enough to experience. Those of us interested in bygone Arizona and other lost worlds should be glad that he decided to share his memories.