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My Christian life: Navajo shepherdess finds joy in Jesus

The Good Shepherd guides and blesses a Navajo shepherdess in New Mexico.

Yá’át’ééh. I am called Marian Newman. I am Bitterwater clan, born for Sleeping Rock. My maternal grandfather is Salt. My paternal grandfather’s clan is Towering House.”

I am Jesus’ little lamb

For the Navajo people, introducing yourself means more than just sharing your name. It’s about sharing where and how you belong—your kinship or K’é. In this matrilineal society, you do so by sharing your four clans, beginning with your mother’s.

Perhaps this traditional greeting was among the first words Marian heard. She was born in 1933, in Naschitti, N.M., at the base of the Chuska Mountains. It was lambing season, and her pregnant mother had taken the lambs out before it got hot. “Pain came, and I came,” says Marian. “Mother caught me with her skirt. Aunt came and cut the cord.” Marian’s given name is Has-tsa’-hazbaa’, which translates to “sudden birth of a lady warrior.” The government assigned her the name Marian Henry—and a birthday of May 14, based on the season she was born.

Marian has known her whole life how she fits in, but for her, belonging isn’t only about her clans. It’s about her kinship with Jesus.

Ever glad at heart I am

Marian’s mother raised sheep, weaving rugs to sell to the trading post. The herd provided their family with meat, milk, and wool, and Marian grew up hearing her mother say, “As long as you have sheep, you’ll never go hungry.”

Marian was the fifth child. “My four older brothers used to tease me, ‘Hurry up! Spin some wool for your mother. Don’t just sit there—spin and card the wool!’ ” Marian laughs as she concludes, “But I had no patience for that.” So her brothers weaved while Marian herded the family sheep on the mountain, keeping an eye out for timber rattlers and bears. “Mama told me, ‘You’d better not lay on the ground and sleep. A lizard might go in your mouth.’ So I would put my two feet in one stirrup and fall asleep draped across my horse.”

One of Marian’s earliest memories is the seasonal migration up the Chuska Mountains. Winter camp was at 5,000 feet, where it was dry and rocky with few trees. As the weather warmed and the grass dried, Naschittians would drive their flocks to the meadows of the second level. Spring and fall were spent a little higher, under piñons and juniper. In the height of summer, Marian remembers heading to the top camp, over 8,000 feet, under a forest of ponderosa, fir, and spruce. Such migrations were a huge undertaking: They had to move sheep, lambs, chickens, bedding, and food. Even their cats were brought along in sacks.

Marian’s mom taught her the value and satisfaction of hard work—but she also taught Marian to find joy in her Savior, Jesus.

My Christian Life bible study, confirmation, marriage
Left to right: 1) Marian (front, center) holding her Bible and ready for evangelizing, date unknown. 2) Marian in her choir robe, date unknown. 3) Marian and Arthur’s wedding day, March 7, 1957, in Rehoboth, N.M.

For my shepherd gently guides me

Marian’s mother didn’t read or write, but education and church were important to her. “Ever since we were small, we went to church with my mom,” says Marian. “We would walk I don’t know how many miles.”

Marian followed her four older brothers to a Christian Reformed grade school. Her middle school years were spent at a boarding school in Rehoboth, near Gallup, N.M. Marian and her brothers got in trouble if they spoke Navajo, and they couldn’t wear their hair the way they used to, but they were spared the deep trauma of some other residential schools.

Marian helped with VBS outreach in the summertime. One summer she told her teacher, “I’m not coming back to school [in the fall], because I want my brothers to go.” The school charged tuition, and Marian was determined to raise money so her two younger brothers, Eddie and Chester, could finish high school.

Knows my needs and well provides me

Marian was baptized in 1951 at age 17. Around this time, she was hired by a woman with the Christian Reformed church in Two Grey Hills. “I helped this lady every morning—interpreting for her and going home to home to tell people about Jesus,” she says. After that, Marian was hired by a hospital in Rehoboth. “I interpreted for a doctor to help explain to people when and how to take their medicine.”

Sometime later, a young man she knew from the Christian school began to court her. Arthur Newman had volunteered for the service, and when he was home on furlough, he asked Marian to marry him. She said, “No, I don’t want to marry you. Not now. I want my two little brothers to finish school, and I have to pay for them.”

He persisted, promising that if she followed him back to Baltimore, Ma., they could both help her brothers through school. Marian agreed, and they spent almost two years in Baltimore. Her first child, Maudry, was born there. Soon afterward, her husband refused a transfer to Iceland because he wanted to be with his one-month-old daughter. “So we just came home,” says Marian.

Marian, who was born among the lambs, who herded sheep across the mountains, who knows the value of a good shepherd, also knows well her Good Shepherd.

Arthur planned to get a postsecondary education, but one day he returned from Fort Defiance, Ariz., with a Navajo police uniform. Marian was dismayed. “What’s this? I thought you were going to school! Oh, I was so mad at him.” Arthur served on the police force for 27 years. They raised four children: Maudry, Art Jr., Muriel, and Myra. Arthur told Marian, “You’re the mother—you stay home, and I’ll bring in the bread and butter.” Marian helped supplement the family income by cleaning and ironing for others, but “when my youngest started school, I was hired as a cook at an elementary school in Chinle, Arizona,” she says. She worked there for 19 years.

When her stepfather died, Marian took early retirement and moved back to Naschitti to help her aging mother look after the sheep. “I loved my mama. She was a strong lady. She was over 100 and still chopping wood. She got after my kids when they came home: ‘You always chopping the pine; go chop the oak, it lasts longer!’ And she’d be out there, chopping the wood.”

In Navajo culture, there’s no word for good-bye—it’s too final. Marian grew up using the phrase “Yá’át’ééh” in both greeting and parting. It means “It is good”—as in, “Everything is good in my life.” As her mother aged, Marian was comforted knowing that there is no final good-bye between believers.

My Christian Life women with sheep and grandchild
Left to right: 1) Marian and her mother tending to their herd at Black Springs in the Chuska Mountains, N.M., in the summer of 1984. 2) Marian and her granddaughter (also Marian) tending to a spring lamb in Naschitti, N.M., in April 2001. Featured image at top: Marian at her Naschitti homestead in 2022, a quarter mile west from where she was born.

Loves me every day the same

During a difficult period, Marian’s mom and husband both got sick. She refused to put them in a nursing home because she wanted to take care of them. Her mom died in 2006 at the age of 110. Marian, then in her 70s, continued caring for her husband and tending to the sheep until her youngest daughter, Myra, convinced her parents to move in with her. Marian’s husband died in 2007, after 50 years of marriage. Marian continues to live with her daughter in Farmington, N.M.

Marian had shared her love for Jesus with her children, but it was her daughter Myra who shared the Lutheran church with her mom. Myra had married her husband, Robert, in Flagstaff, Ariz. One day, WELS pastor Michael Schultz knocked on her door. Myra says, “The reservation is filled with all different churches, some official, and some just made-up ‘home churches.’ Being approached by a pastor who had come to talk about Jesus straight from the Bible—well, I thought to myself, I want to be part of this.” Eventually Myra and her family became members of Mt. Calvary in Flagstaff, sending their daughter to the church’s preschool.

When Myra and Robert moved back to Farmington and took Marian into their home, Marian noted how often they received the Lord’s Supper. She wanted to take Communion too. Marian began studying with Pastor Tom Glende, and in 2009 she was received into membership at Christ the Rock. She has been a faithful presence since, even as her vision and hearing decline. “Every night before bed, I pray for all my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren,” she says, laughing as she admits, “Sometimes I fall asleep.”

Her daughter Myra reflects, “Mom taught us the importance of having a strong work ethic and communicating well with others. Life hasn’t always been easy. We grew up relying on prayer and our faith. Mom was always singing gospel songs. To this day if she hears a Navajo gospel song on the local radio, she sings along.”

Marian Newman cuddling a lamb
Marian today

Even calls me by my name

Marian, who was born among the lambs, who herded sheep across the mountains, who knows the value of a good shepherd, also knows well her Good Shepherd. She knows she belongs to him. She knows he cares for her. And when her Shepherd calls Marian to her heavenly home, it won’t be good-bye. It will be a resounding, “Yá’át’ééh. It is good.”

Subheads taken from “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb” (Christian Worship 804:1).

Author: Sarah Habben
Volume 110, Number 10
Issue: October 2023

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