For Navajo medicine man, ceremony and tribal custom is at the center

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — "Over a peace pipe, it shall be done."

That's one way Francis Mitchell summons people he meets to keep in touch with Navajo culture.

At 67, Mitchell is a Navajo medicine man, a Vietnam veteran, father of nine and mentor and spritual advisor to many.

In the yard of the Farmington home he shares with his wife, Pauline, Mitchell has what looks from the outside like a large potting shed or small garage.

But inside -- instead of cars or potting soil -- is a sweat lodge, an axis of spiritual refuge and purification, central to Native American religion. Supported by 24 flexible, interlocking branches layered over by tarps and blankets, the domed hut is roughly ten feet in diameter and comfortably holds twelve.

A single, east-facing entry way with a drop flap reveals no more inside but laid carpet scraps framing a recessed pit in the center.

A few steps from the lodge is a circle framed by stones, in which embers from the nearby fire are placed and ceremonial sage is sprinkled to bless the participants and carry their prayers or questions to the the Great Spirit.

Before entering the lodge, participants sing songs and one participant taps a kettle drum stretched over with animal skin and filled with water. Prayers are chanted, spoken and sung. Corn husks are passed around the circle, each hand-rolled with tobacco, and smoked.

"A key word for the Navajo ceremony is improvisation," Mitchell said. "The importance is to honor the ceremony -- whether doing healing songs or happy songs or creation songs -- in the best way possible."

Mitchell and friends first constructed the sweat lodge 25 years ago after a trip to Calgary, Canada, to give a healing ceremony for a friend. There he met a northern tribal chief whose lodge's construction influenced his own.

"This is a place of traditional ceremony, our practice and connection to our way of life," Mitchell said. "In a sweat-lodge ceremony, Navajo people are cleansed. We make contact with our ancestors and the Great Spirit through heat, song and prayers."

A person tending the fire outside the lodge shovels fire-heated rocks into the pit. Participants enter on hands and knees and crawl clockwise into seated positions in the dark around the glowing rocks that radiate steam heat when water is splashed into the pit.

"There are four rounds. The first round has six splashes onto the rocks, for the cardinal positions of east, west, north and south, also downward toward the earth and upward to the spirit," he said. "By the fourth round, there are 24 splashes for each of the wood sticks that all have meaning, sacred meaning."

Mitchell is the spiritual elder at his home's sweat lodge. He regularly gathers with friends he considers "cousin brothers," men he has mentored through the years who join him to reconnect with their Diné spiritual practices and each other.

"I tell them, 'use (the lodge) whenever you need to,' but they only will come when I can join them," he said. "The lodge is not mine. I am only the caretaker."


Born in Fort Wingate, near Gallup, in 1945. Mitchell's mother died soon after and at age three, he was given up for adoption by his father to a white Christian couple, the DeVaneys, who took him to Marion, Ohio, where he grew up.

"They were my family until I left to join the military at 17. At age 12, they told me that I was adopted, which wasn't exactly a surprise because my skin was darker than theirs," Mitchell said. "I loved them but leaving my birth home, I lost my language and my culture."

In 1969, after three hitches in eight years as a Marine master sergeant, Mitchell landed in "summer of love"-era San Francisco, before deciding to drive through the Southwest to go home.

"I originally intended to be heading back to Marion," Mitchell said. "But I kept seeing signs for Gallup along the way, and I wondered to myself, 'Where have I heard that name, Gallup, before?'"

He stopped and met a Navajo officer who said he knew a woman who shared his last name. She turned out to be his oldest sister, Bernice.

"At that time, there was no such thing as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but I was 'polutionating' -- drank all the time, hated loud noises, helicopters. I woke up a lot in a cold sweat," he said. "I also couldn't speak Navajo. It was gone with the breeze."

After a year of heavy drinking and homelessness, Mitchell was rescued by his brother-in-law and biological and adopted fathers who made a sweat lodge in his honor.

"They sang and prayed and when I emerged, all my symptoms from Vietnam were gone," Mitchell said. "From that day on, I use the sweat lodge."

Soon, he connected with his maternal grandfather, a Window Rock medicine man with whom Mitchell spent a lot of time, learning the Navajo language and customs under his elder's tutelage in less than two years.

For every ceremonial practice or Navajo word Mitchell was taught, he gave back English.

"I learned so much from him, a happy man who never went to school," he said. "My grandfather loved ice cream, what he would always call 'Abe' Yistíní.' So I traded him the English for his favorite treat."

The symmetry of the Navajo ceremonial sweat lodge is mirrored throughout Mitchell's life. It creates a special resonance that sparks a happy grin across his ruddy, youthful face.

"My wife and I have three children of our own, but six are ones we adopted, one a white man who now has a Ph.D in early childhood education," he said with a mixture of pride and amusement.

Mitchell and his wife are offically retired, but he is often busy officiating at a Pow Wow, congressional session or ceremony, locally or out of state. This weekend he will officiate at the Totah Festival.

"And I tell you, I met my wife of forty years when I was called to perform a ceremony for her sister, who was sick. I did the ceremony for her family and did some medicine on her, too."

Mitchell's life experience reminds him often of the value of his cultural inheritance, a value he hopes is not lost to future generations.

"We natives have our own language, tradtional setting. Some tribes have lost their culture, their language, to the outside," he said. "Songs and language make the difference -- the technique stays the same."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.