Some historians have told me how they fear that their sources will “talk back.” As an oral historian, I rely on my sources to “talk back.” On one level, oral history is a conversation between an inquirer and a source. In my perspective as a Navajo scholar, the relationship between a teaching elder and learning listener interweaves storytelling and oral history. Storytelling represents a form of dialogue, which depends on the rapport between speaker and audience. Among the Dine, our elders serve as storytellers, and simultaneously, public intellectuals, historians, and teachers. Dine scholar Jennifer Nez Denetdale asserts, “As manifestations of cultural sovereignty, oral histories have proven crucial in projects to decolonize the Navajo Nation and our communities, for the teachings of our ancestors are reaffirmed in the retelling of stories” . When our elders speak, we are obligated to listen and learn.
Considering how one generation passes to the next one, Dine elders are not the same today as the elders of the last generation. Elders continue, however, to fulfill their roles as teachers through storytelling and sharing their past experiences. Unlike past generations, most of our Navajo elders went to some kind of educational institution where they studied English. Many of them learned about Christian religions, and a number of them converted to different Christian faiths. Of that group, some elders joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in their youth. A new generation of Dine elders, who have been involved in the LDS Church since childhood, is arising among the Mormon community in Dine Bikeyah (Navajoland). One of these elders, Jesse Holiday, spoke to me in June of 2013, and I listened to learn.
My father introduced me to Jesse. I first met him, after he suffered a serious stroke that debilitated his lower body and required him to use a wheelchair. My father accompanied him from Monument Valley to attend the LDS General Conference in Salt Lake City and a Southwest Indian Mission (SWIM) reunion. He and my father both served in SWIM when Paul Felt was the mission president during the early 1970s.
Jesse’s personal story reflects many common experiences of LDS Navajo elders today that participated in the Indian Student Placement Program (ISPP), the Indian Program at Brigham Young University, and SWIM. The intricacies of his life journey reveal various areas to explore to understand not only LDS but also non-LDS Dine elders’ past learning experiences. In a single conversation, Jesse refers to his transient and eclectic schooling background, opportunities for family to support each other and Dine bizaad (Navajo language) survivance at boarding school, differences between joining and converting to the LDS faith as a former ISPP student, and the struggles over sacred space and place of worship among local Dine? communities .
As I was working on a book manuscript with Jessie Embry about Navajo Mormons in the twentieth century, I visited the LDS Monument Valley congregation and discussed parts of my research with them. Jesse, a member of the congregation, started sharing some of his experiences with me at that time.
He lives in sight of the new Monument Valley chapel building that opened to the congregation in 2012. For decades before, the branch met in Mexican Hat, Utah, about twenty miles away from Monument Valley off of the Navajo reservation.
As I spoke with Jesse Holiday at his home about his memories of joining the LDS Church and going to the Intermountain Indian Boarding School, he looked towards the chapel. With watering eyes, he said, “It is just there.” He added sheepishly, “I have no more excuses not to go.” Jesse was baptized and confirmed a member of the LDS Church as a child, participated in ISPP, went to BYU, and served a Mormon mission, but he became less active in the church until the opening of the Monument Valley chapel. He reflected on his childhood and the role of the church in his youth.
The following includes selections from our dialogue concerning his early experiences with the LDS Church:
“Farina King [FK]: How did you first become involved in the LDS Church?
Jesse Holiday [JH]: I think they [Mormons] never taught me. I just kind of went in [the church] without [teachings]…. By accident.
FK: How did you start going to the Intermountain Boarding School in Brigham City, Utah?
JH: They didn’t have any high school [in Monument Valley], so we had to go there [to Intermountain Boarding School]. [I went] about 1958 to 1959. I went for one year. My older sister went too. She had one more year left [of school]. I think she went two to three years [there]. People here [in Monument Valley] went to Intermountain or Shiprock or way out there… Chemawa, Oregon… my older sister went there. They went to eighth grade. There was no high school. They [the students] got jobs and started working wherever. My sister was a Navajo teacher. She taught at Rough Rock, the first Navajo learning school.
FK: What memories of Intermountain do you have?
JH: They had a nice swimming pool [at Intermountain]. It was open weekends. I hit my head on the diving board. They had to get me out, but they didn’t take me to the hospital. My family was in Shiprock. I was eleven years old then [when I was at Intermountain]….
FK: Did you go to the LDS Church while you were at Intermountain?
JH: I just went to sacrament [in Intermountain] for water and bread, for food. I was hungry around noon. I had one hundred percent attendance. The LDS social workers would take us to square dances, lasting all night, and then they would ask [about church]….
My sister was a translator. My parents only spoke Navajo. [She translated for my parents].
FK: Did you go to other LDS activities?
Just church and boy scouts about every week. In boy scouts, we had camp outs by the mountains. One time it rained and the tent fell. I was too young for seminary. When I was in Salt Lake City, I went to early morning seminary…. I was baptized in Tuba City, but I didn’t know about Church. [I did] not [know] much about Mormons. Placement dawned more….
At home, [there was] no church to go to. My dad was a medicine man. He passed on in 1972. We relied on him. My mom passed on when I was one year old. My dad had no wife for six years. My step-mom didn’t like me. My dad gave me to my sister….
[During my mission in SWIM,] we were the first or second ones here [in Monument Valley] in the LDS Church. We were pretty successful [as missionaries], because we spoke Navajo [on the Southwest Indian Mission]. Paul Felt was my SWIM President. He passed on….
I learned most English at Tuba City and Kayenta, but I never forgot my language.
In Art classes, I would get an ‘A.’ Art pulled me out…. In local schools, [the children] can come home and speak [Navajo] but learn English at school. When we were in the forms, we spoke our language. We never forgot our language. We spoke only English in class. In Kayenta, they would hit our heads with brooms [if we spoke Navajo]….
My sister would take care of me at Intermountain. She was allowed when she was free. She would bring me food, treats. She worked for a local lady and got paid. She was a couple years older (three years or so). She was fourteen. It helped with my sister [being there in Intermountain]. That’s how I never forgot Navajo. We spoke together….
I didn’t think of myself as Mormon. I didn’t know about the sacrament. They never taught me. I was just there. In Placement, I learned more [about the LDS Church]. My foster dad moved me from deacon to elder. [During Placement] there were only five Navajos in a mostly Anglo ward. When there was a party, maybe twenty-five were Navajo. I was in Tuba City in 1958. I went to Placement in 1960. I went to the Intermountain Boarding School in 1959….”
After interviewing Jesse Holiday, his niece joined our discussion. She described a landmark just beside her uncle’s home as a “prayer rock.” She explained, “On top of that rock, they say our ancestors prayed, especially during the Long Walk era. I want to pray up there someday.” To Jesse Holiday, two places of worship surround him, the prayer rock and the Monument Valley LDS chapel. Since his childhood and youth, he has gained a devout faith in the LDS gospel but stresses that he does not forget his language and “where [he] has come from” .
 Jennifer Nez Denetdale, “The Value of Oral History on the Path to Dine/Navajo Sovereignty,” in Dine? Perspectives: Revitalizing and Reclaiming Navajo Thought, ed. Lloyd L. Lee (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014), 80.
 To understand the concept of “survivance,” see Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999) and Gerald Vizenor, Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).
 Jesse Holliday, Interview by Farina King, Monument Valley, Utah, June 25, 2013. His niece came to visit Holliday, as we concluded our interview.