Book review: 'Navajo Traditions' puts spotlight on overlapping belief systems

By Alexandria Evensen

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, April 28 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

"NAVAJO TRADITION, MORMON LIFE: The Autobiography and Teachings of Jim Dandy," by Robert S. McPherson, Jim Dandy, Sarah E. Burak, the University of Utah Press, $27.95, 248 pages (nf)

Jim Dandy spent most of his childhood years in the northern Arizona desert learning traditional Navajo ways from his father and grandfather, who were both medicine men. As a young man, he set his own sights on being a healer, following in the footsteps of his elders. However, his father encouraged him to get a formal education, something desperately needed to succeed as his native culture was disappearing.

"Navajo Tradition, Mormon Life: The Autobiography and Teachings of Jim Dandy" tells the story of man raised in a tradition-seeped culture who learns to connect with a world far from what his predecessors understood. It follows Dandy through boarding schools, the LDS Indian Placement Program and eventually, a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where he proselyted among his own people.

Beyond Dandy's story, "Navajo Tradition, Mormon Life" provides a detailed background on the Navajo belief system. Though it's impossible to fully explain such a rich culture in a few hundred pages, the authors do a fair job making complex concepts understandable.

Surprisingly, only a small part of the book is dedicated to drawing parallels between Mormon and Navajo beliefs. The book places a general focus on LDS Navajos reconciling the differing belief systems, but doesn't spend much time on doctrinal similarities. This isn't a bad thing, but many readers will likely finish the book with more questions than answers.

Co-written by three authors — Utah State University Eastern professor Robert McPherson, Sarah Burbank and Dandy himself — the book is an interesting collaboration of viewpoints and voices. Organizationally, this makes for some confusion as the chapters have a tendency to jump from a third-person view to first-person view. Although this doesn't take away from the rich history the book provides, it is distracting and something that could easily be fixed with more editing.

Though the book is essentially the story one man, it's also an excellent dialogue about the transition of a deeply spiritual people into an oft-times unsettling world. It's written simply enough for those with a mild interest in Indian affairs to read, but it's depth will attract scholars and history buffs as well. It's not perfectly written, but the research and heartfelt stories reach far beyond it's pages.

Allee Evensen Wilkinson is an almost-college graduate, a writer, entrepreneur, journalist, lover of the printed word and just about anything you can think of. She's a part-time copy editor at the Logan Herald Journal.

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