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Navajo Man Says Judaism Enhances Indian Beliefs

By Paul Logan
Journal Staff Writer
    Shawn Price plays a trumpet in the Navajo Nation Band and blows a shofar at Congregation B'nai Israel.
    Price is an American Indian on a different spiritual path: He is a Navajo who is Jewish.
    A convert to Judaism in 1998, Price says there are no simple answers as to why he became a Jew. He says his "connection to Judaism is the tribalness to it."
    Price wore a turquoise-colored headband and traditional native attire when he sang and played a flute and drum with his Navajo group, the Dineh Tah Dancers, at a recent performance.
    On Thursday and Friday at the synagogue's Rosh Hashana services, Price will don a prayer shawl and a yarmulke, or skullcap, with a Navajo design. He also wears a Pendleton robe, he says, because "it adds to the flavor of the High Holy Days."
    He will blow his shofar— a 3-foot-long, curvy ram's horn adorned with an eagle feather— to mark the Jewish New Year, a time of celebration and reflection.
    Price says the Torah, Judaism's sacred book, talks about a meal offering, a burnt offering and an offering of oil. Those, he says, are the tribal things that are not part of mainstream Judaism, but his Navajo ways fulfill that.
    Price says the majority of American Indian Christians he has come in contact with have conflicting issues between traditional beliefs and Christian doctrine.
    "As for me, there's no such conflict," he says. "Judaism does not conflict with my traditional ways, it enhances it."
    Price is serious, softspoken and slight of build with a no-nonsense, buzz-cut hairstyle.
    A junior at the University of New Mexico, he is a mass communications major with a political science minor. He also co-chairs Hillel, the center for Jewish campus life.
    Born and reared in Phoenix, Price spent summers on the reservation in New Mexico and Arizona. His parents introduced Price to the Pentecostal Church as well as Navajo traditional ways.
    "Throughout my life," he says, "I've come across certain aspects of Judaism that built up to my official acceptance of Judaism."
    Price says he was attracted to the Jewish faith because of its historical similarities to the Navajo belief system. Both are desert peoples who raised livestock, received the laws to live by from the holy people, and suffered dark moments including the Navajos' "Long Walk" and the Jewish Holocaust.
    The U.S. Army imprisoned about 8,000 Navajos, forced them to make a 300-mile walk across New Mexico and starved them. Many Navajos died, but from that tragedy grew the largest American Indian nation, Price says.
    And, he says, out of the horrors of the Holocaust, the state of Israel was born.
    Price, in his mid-20s, also says he became Jewish because he's an "old-school" person.
    "Being old-school means, for me, being tied to a sense of decency, a sense of morality, a sense of what is right and what is just even though it means one has to make sacrifices," he says.
    Rabbi Arthur Flicker says Price does "wonderful work" with native teenagers, trying "to help them get their lives on a good path."
    Price is the only full-blooded Indian synagogue member, but several members have some Indian ancestry, according to the rabbi.
    This is the fourth year Price will participate in the blowing of shofars. The shofar's sound, which resembles that of a conch shell, is a call to a return to God. Blowing the shofar, Flicker says, is a special honor.
    He says the congregation is proud to have Price as "part of our people and we honor what he does to maintain his tradition of his people as well."
    Price brings a spiritualism that enlightens the congregation, Flicker says. When Price chants services, he says, his spirituality affects the congregation in a positive way.
    "He obviously found a relationship between spiritualism of Judaism and spiritualism of the Navajo faith," Flicker says.
    The audience nibbling warm Indian bread outside the Hyatt Tamaya Resort on a recent Saturday witnessed the power of a Navajo rain dance.
    It poured so hard during the Dineh Tah Dancers' gourd dance, which asks for the gift of moisture, that everyone was forced inside for the rest of the performance.
    "It was a blessing," says Price of the rain. "A good sign."
    Price founded the dance group in 1993. Dances are part of Navajo spiritual tradition.
    Price's Jewish-Navajo faith really doesn't matter to Daisy Yazzie, whose children are dancers. Yazzie says she's known other Navajos who are Jewish, so Price's faith didn't come as a surprise.
    "I'm glad that they're in it," she says of her children. "It keeps them away from other stuff. And they enjoy it."
    Performers with the 21-member group of mostly teenagers say Price has helped them understand native religious beliefs.
    Dancer Carlson Salt, 16, is a Highland High School junior.
    Salt wears turquoise and silver jewelry, leather moccasins, bells and homemade, traditional clothing ... except for his white shirt ("We bought those from Wal-Mart," he says).
    "I like it because I've learned a lot about who I am, where I come from, what my people went through and what happened to us," Salt says.
    Price is a good director, he says, because he disciplines the group.
    "He's right on task," Salt says. "We have to be two hours early for everything."
    When it's showtime, Price is serious. But afterward, he is "a cool guy," Salt says. "He has a sense of humor."
    Teshena Yazzie, 16 and a Del Norte High junior, agrees.
    "I think this is a good opportunity for me to do something like this," says Yazzie, a dancer bedecked with a squash blossom necklace.
    "Some teenagers aren't really into their religion."
    Price takes the dance group to a number of out-of-state performances, but Yazzie is excited about a coming Washington, D.C., trip.
    The dancers will participate in the grand opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian from Sept. 24-27.
    "It's an honor to go and to perform and to share our blessings and our gifts for the opening," Price says. "It's kind of beyond words."