Navajos have blended three separate religious traditions into one stream of prayer that backers hope will help reduce violence and other social problems on their sprawling reservation.
"We need to return to the basics, and prayer is one of them," said Kelsey Begaye, who organized Thursday's Unity Day of Prayer that drew about 500 participants.Ben Silversmith, a traditional singer from Oak Springs who took part in the ceremonies, said he and others have been looking for such a unification for a long time.
"We've been apart too long. It's about time that we reunite, because it seems like nothing's really working for us," he said.
The afternoon ceremony that brought two traditional religious approaches, the Corn Pollen Way and the Peyote Way, together with Christian teachings was broadcast live on tribal radio and television throughout the reservation that includes portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
"We're all Navajos, gathering here today for a common purpose, and that's to unite in prayer," said Begaye, speaker of the Navajo Nation Council. "Not to mix our prayers, but to be supportive of each others' prayers."
Begaye, who attends Beclabito Full Gospel Church, brought up his idea in late May and was astounded by the supportive response.
Getting holy men of three faiths to work together was a delicate matter "but I took the risk," he said.
That it worked out is a result of treating each other with respect, he said.
"You'll be surprised what respect can do for you, if you have respect for somebody else's religion and way of prayer," he said.
It really needed to be done, he added.
"I got real uneasy just standing by with the issue of the drought, hearing many cases of livestock dying of thirst and lack of vegetation, lack of rain," Begaye said.
And that wasn't all, he said: "Hearing all the killings going on on a weekly basis among our youth, beatings on the rise, one case a week on the reservation . . . the government, how it's going, our leaders are persistently concerned.
"Nobody was addressing the issues as a unit," he said, leading him to believe it was time for Navajos to seek the help of a higher power, no matter by what name they called it.
Ceremonies included a traditional prayer in Navajo, blessing the gathering with cedar smoke and with water sprinkled from a fan of eagle feathers, and a closing Christian prayer.
There are splits of belief among the Navajos, "but overall, from the top level, we all support each other, and our prayer is weaved together, supporting each other," said Robert Billy Whitehorse, president of the Native American Church of Navajoland.
"Each one of us have the same thought, the same line of prayer, but only from a different perspective," Whitehorse said.
"A lot of people are saying that our spirituality approach is no longer working," he said. "People are saying that the spirits no longer listen to us. So it's very important that let's do it this way, let's unite our spirituality and be that much stronger."
In early May, Irene Yazzie, 96, who hadn't spoken in months because of a stroke, told her daughter she had been visited by two tribal deities in the form of old Navajo men.
Why were the deities no longer receiving prayers from the people, they reportedly asked. And they reportedly warned that Navajos face grave danger if they continue to forsake traditions, and Navajo deities wouldn't be able to help. Then they disappeared.
Since then hundreds of Navajos have visited the site.