The Cutting of the Tsiiyéél

Yesterday afternoon at the Refuge, we welcomed Susie Silversmith, a Navajo elder from the Denver Christian Indian Center, who shared about her experience as a young girl in an U.S./Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. She and her husband, Richard, enlisted the help of their family members to make a film called “The Cutting of the Tsiiyéél: Triumph Over Trauma” based on Susie’s story. A short version of the film is on Vimeo, but it’s password protected due to the film’s sensitive nature.

It was a privilege to hear Susie share, at times through tears, about the terrible abuse and trauma she endured for nine years after being forced to leave her family. I was amazed at Susie’s courage — it took 41 years for her to begin sharing her story publically — but I was even more amazed and moved that despite her ordeal and her boarding school’s complicity with Christian proselytizers of many different denominations, Susie is still a follower of Jesus, who she calls Creator-Son or “The Man in Charge of Me” in Navajo. I wondered (and wonder) how in this crazy, hurting, mixed up world such a faith could last.

Perhaps one clue as to an answer: Susie shared that she distinctly remembers a time when the real Jesus, in the form of a Navajo medicine man, appeared to her, enveloped her in a hug and told her she would be okay. For some reason that story echoes for me Mary’s encounter with the Resurrected Christ in the garden. (See the Gospel according to John, chapter 20.) Or maybe Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus, although Paul was oppressing Christ’s followers (see Acts chapter 9), and Susie was being oppressed at the time of her mystical experience. Hmm, food for thought, anyway.

Susie was 15 when she and nine of her siblings were rescued from their different boarding schools by their older sister, who took all 10 of them to live with her in her one-bedroom apartment in Denver. Now, she and her husband, Richard, accept invitations from local churches to share Susie’s story. Besides helping to provide leadership at the Denver Christian Indian Center, a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church of North America, Susie has supported water protectors at Standing Rock and served as an advisor during the “truth and reconciliation” process in Canada.

What to say in closing? I hate triteness, but at the risk of sounding trite, in light of Susie’s story, maybe “…all things intermingle for good…” in real life, really and truly, as one of my favorite authors, Susan Howatch (via one of her mercurial characters), riffs on Romans 8:28. (See Howatch’s novel Absolute Truths page 536 for the reference.)

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