The first thing we did was to get ourselves a hotel room. That way, when we visited each family, we could say "Oh, no, thank you but we already have a place to stay!" The next was to figure out who to visit first. There was no right answer to this. So we just went. The next tricky bit was remember not to compliment them on any of their material possessions-- if we did that, they would insist on giving them to us, and would only be dissuaded after a lot of haggling. Hosts don't get more hospitable than this, and I've met some hospitable hosts.
Weirdly, what it all reminded me of was my experience in Japan. It's a very different culture, but it's similar in that I was expecting a somewhat closed, subtle people with cold undertones. Instead, I met friendly, vibrant, easygoing people who could chat about anything seemingly without end.
There are some rules to observe. Eye contact is not encouraged. If you shake someone's hand, a firm handshake is not appreciated nearly so much as lightly holding their hand for a second. Silence is not the awkward absence of conversation, but the presence of something familiar. If you do say something, there's not much need to be short and to the point, or to connect it to whatever anyone else happens to be talking about. Things like touching and hugging happens between only close friends and family.
Which is why it was a surprise to me for my father, mother and I to get warm, long hugs from almost every person we met. That's what really drove home the love and respect my father commanded in this community. He'd lived in the area for about 17 years, so I shouldn't have been surprised. I don't think I heard a single person call him "Bob." It was always "Dr. Bergman," or "Uncle." Tommy's son, upon meeting us before the service, gave him a very long hug and told him "I guess I'm going to be calling you 'father' now."
While the hugging is unusual, a friendly greeting to everyone present is customary. The morning of the service, we got full demonstrations from each person who drove up to the front of the little church, just over the border into Arizona. Like all the other dry, high plains I'd been too, it was cold at night and hot in the day. We were out early enough to still be comfortable in jackets. We stood in a circle, quietly chatting. Some crying, most smiling. Ron, Tommy's son, was smiling when he excused himself, and as he walked away, called over "Uncle." My father and he stood apart, talking quietly for a moment before coming back to us.
"He want's us to come back to the home after the service" My father said. "Apparently, Tommy left something for me."
I'd known that Ron had moved into Tommy's old house on the part of the reservation called Wide Ruins. We'd heard how he had performed the traditional rite of keeping a fire burning there for the four days after the loved one has died.I had only the vaguest memories of the place, small buildings at the end of a dirt road in the Arizona desert.
The Franciscan monk, charged with leading the service, arrived, and promptly showed his lack of cultural know-how by walking right through the crowd, acknowledging it, barely, without a single handshake volunteered. He was surprised when the one person at the end wanted to shake his hand. A few minutes later, we followed him inside.
The pink-beige stone church was tiny. We had come early, and were asked to sit in the very front with the immediate family. The place filled up slowly, even as the ceremony began. The first and main part of it was awkward. It was Catholic. Very catholic. The monk had the repeated and awkward habit of talking about how devoted Tommy was to Jesus. Some of the principal mourners clearly had no intention of participating in this. After all, this was the funeral for a road man (spiritual leader) of the Native American Church. In the sermon, the monk admitted freely that had actually never known Tommy. But I did like the story he told of talking with the family: "I asked whether I should call Tommy by the name of Thomas, or Tommy. They told me 'if you called him Thomas, he probably wouldn't answer.'"
The service went on, accidentally skipping the eulogy, on out to the procession to the graveyard.
To my mind, this is where the real funeral began. A tall Navajo man with two eagle feathers in his hat stepped forward, and explained he would be singing a few songs and saying a few words to the best of his ability, and that those who could were welcome to join him. He was the head of the local NAC.
He started with a long, thin whistle. An eagle bone. It made a noise that made me think of seagulls. He dipped an eagle feather in water, and flicked it to the four directions: east, south, west, then north, to follow the course of the sun. And then he, and those around him, began to sing. It was a desert kind of song. The melody wasn't so important. It was the rhythm and words, rocks bouncing on the ground in the wind. More whistle, more water. Some from the feather, some tears.
But it wasn't over after that. Next was the military. An honor guard of ten Native American veterans had come to honor their fallen comrade. A speech, a three-round gun salute, and taps on the bugle. The American flag on the coffin was removed, folded, and handed from ranking officer to private, with a salute. Several men in the audience, veterans of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, quietly joined the salute. Then from male soldier to female soldier. Then from female soldier, to Tommy's widow. Another salute. Then a big hug. A man in the crowd gave two sharp hoots and an "oorah" of the marine corps.
The coffin was lowered six feet. Then its plywood cover. Then the first flowers and fistfuls of dirt, one mourner at a time. Then we pulled aside for the earthmover to do the rest of the burial. It was there that the family finally got to read Tommy's eulogy.
This is where we finally got to tell the world about the Tommy Nez, born into the Red House People Clan to the Towering House People Clan, February 6, 1926. Veteran of WWII and the Korean War. Roadman to Navajo, and throughout the western United States and Canada, receiving his fireplace from one of the originals, and heralded by his family as the last of his kind. A father, brother, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather. A charismatic and compassionate leader with a legendary sense of humor and love for seemingly all people. Loved in his life, much missed in his passing. With this, and the flowers on his grave, the service ended.
A few hours later, after we had shared photos, memories, and a lot of food with the "dearly beloved gathered there that day," my parents and I set out in our rental car, and made several false turns trying to find Tommy's old home. Even though the desert is made of rocks and not sand, Wide Ruins' dirt roads have the habit of shifting when your back is turned for a few years.
When we did find the place, we were invited into one of the buildings-- a one-room home, the kind I'd seen in so many developing countries, with simple walls covered in posters and calendars, and in this case, an American flag. Ron sat on the bed, My father on an overstuffed easy chair and a blanket. Ron pulled out a case, opened it, and lifted out two ceremonial rattles. Then he glanced up at us, gave a mischievous grin and said, "No. No." Just the way tell off a dog staring at your dinner.
He dug a little bit further and pulled out what he had been looking for: an elaborate, beautifully decorated ceremonial fan, made with white feathers.
"Before he left, my father said you'd come down here." Ron said, "He said 'when your uncle gets here, you honor him, and you give him this.'"
"You think he knew that he probably wasn't coming back?" My father asked.
Ron nodded. Tommy knew.
Driving away from it all, my father said that part of him still doesn't believe it. I've never known anyone who called me brother to die, but from what I know, it's a long time before any of us will believe he's gone. Maybe we never really will.
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