ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The scope of Jim Kristofic’s new book is really of epic proportions, an intriguing, accessible history of the Ganado Mission on the Navajo reservation in northeast Arizona.
Which means the title – “Medicine Women: The Story of the First Native American Nursing School” – is so narrow as to be misleading.
Yes, a portion of the book is about the flowering of the students in the mission’s nursing school, the continuing struggles of the school to find the money to stay open, and the devotion to the school of the instructional and administrative leadership, particularly Dr. Clarence Salsbury.
The nursing school’s first graduating class of two young Navajo women was in 1933. Its final class of nine students graduated in 1951. Over those years, 148 received diplomas from the nursing school. Students came from many Native Americans tribes, including indigenous peoples of Alaska. It also welcomed non-Indians.
The nursing school, Sage Memorial Hospital and related facilities were on the Ganado Mission campus. The mission was under the auspices of the Presbyterian Board of National Missions.
Kristofic discovers many human stories from archives and oral histories he tapped – plus his own interviews – about the Ganado Mission. The stories relate the origins of the mission, the Navajos’ initial strong reluctance to be treated in a white man’s hospital, which they branded a “death house,” and their eventual acceptance of the facilities. That attitude change led to them overcoming their fear of the American Way.
In 1927, the year Salsbury arrived, he looked in on isolated Navajo patients by driving out “with his Navajo interpreter and his pack of medicine. When the locals saw this brawny Anglo man in a noisy car, they mostly kept their distance. His first breakthrough came when they trusted him enough to let him doctor their horses,” Kristofic writes.
The book explains how Salsbury, a physician, missionary and insistent raiser of funds, respected the Navajos’ perspective. He sympathized with their reluctance, but held fast to the belief that the hospital and school could be a bridge between traditional Navajo beliefs, such as medicine sings, and Western medicine.
The Ganado Mission owes its existence in part to the goodwill of Juan (John) Lorenzo Hubbell, the New Mexico-born owner of the Hubbell Trading Post, now a National Historic Site.
At the turn of the century, missionary William Riley Johnston and several clergymen rode out from Flagstaff, Ariz., to scout a location for a Presbyterian mission. They met with Hubbell.
Kristofic writes, “Johnston understood how valuable a trusted trader like Hubbell would be in opening up the territory to the Presbyterians … When a strange Anglo man wanted to come into the Navajo country, the way was straight and narrow. And it often ran through a trading post.”
One could say Kristofic’s research and writing of the book was of epic proportions. The 37-year-old Anglo worked on the book for 12 years. He said he was inspired by Hampton Sides’ “Blood and Thunder, An Epic of the West.”
Kristofic has had a long personal relationship with Ganado. Ariz. He was about 6 when he moved there with his mom, brother and pets from Pittsburgh, Pa. She took a job as a nurse at Sage Memorial Hospital.
Kristofic lives in Taos, where he teaches high school English.
He wrote three previous books: “Black Sheep, White Crow and Other Windmill Tales: Stories from Navajo Country,” winner of the 2018 Southwest Book Award from the Border Regional Library Association; “The Hero Twins: A Navajo-English Story of the Monster Slayers,” winner of the 2016 Skipping Stones Honor Award for Multicultural and International Books; and “Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life,” a 2012 Spur Award finalist.