Sonny Jim James (Modoc 1940-2009)
On Thursday, October 29th we gathered at the Convention Center among the gorgeous red sandstone cliffs and outcrops of Red Rock State Park outside Gallup, New Mexico for the memorial gathering to honor Sonny Jim, my pledged brother of twenty-two years. The shock of his murder, along with that of the friend he was trying to help in a boundary dispute the previous Friday, was strongly reflected in the six or seven hundred people who braved the snow and ice to be there. Many (especially the large number of rodeo cowboys) had traveled from several states away.
Heather had battled her way through the Denver “Monster Snow Storm”, dealt with airline delays and foolishness and met us for the drive over to Gallup. We had spent two hours creeping over black ice and sitting in a twenty-mile long double line of idling semi-trucks and a few cars. To have over half a thousand Navajos show up on time was a unique experience in any weather.
We were given places of honor among Sunshine’s family and honored as elders and family members. I am now her only “Dad” and the four girls’ only granddad. By extension, I am also that to Sunshine’s four sisters whom I have known since they were little girls. All now have their own families. All have lost their father. So many beautiful, loving, sad people.
The convention center is huge, but was inadequate to hold all of the love shared that day. The tears were copious and the tributes all from the heart. The feast was served and the songs sung and the Medicine Man, Chester, offered a long prayer of perspective and solace.
I won’t attempt to recreate the unique experience, but I do want to share one thought. A member of the Navajo Nation Tribal Council spoke. As elders always do, he spoke in a fatherly tone and reminded the assembled Diné (people) of their heritage and pride and talked about the conditions we had braved to assemble in Sonny’s honor.
“Water,” he said, “is the source of all life and means life to us. When the clouds are low, there is mist and fog and we have rain, snow and even annoying and perhaps dangerous ice, we are being blessed with water and the gods have come down among us. Obviously, they have come to help us honor Sonny and they are among us, today.”
The lessons of the day were that there is strength in numbers, love should be expressed and when we are blessed with precipitation, even if it is annoying, the gods are walking among us.