J.C. Morgan and Failure to Listen to Native Voices

J.C. Morgan and Failure to Listen to Native Voices

Individuals often don’t fit the categories we use to identify groups of people. Jacob Casimera “J.C.” Morgan (1879-1950), a Navajo (Diné) leader, is a good example. Was he “traditional” or “progressive” in response to white efforts to assimilate Native peoples? Neither and both, perhaps.

Morgan championed Navajo voices as a missionary assistant of the Christian Reformed Church and a political leader who opposed the “Indian New Deal.” He blended “traditional Diné values” with adaptation “to white conventions and beliefs.” His life is revealing of Native-white relations and differences among Native peoples in their responses to assimilationist campaigns.

Morgan was born into the Salt Clan near Crownpoint, New Mexico in 1879 and raised by the last Navajo generation that had known life before conquest and captivity. His first sustained contact with white Americans began in 1889 when his family sent him to school at Fort Defiance, Arizona. A year later, at a school in Grand Junction, Colorado, he converted to Christianity. In 1898, Morgan went to the Hampton Institute in Virginia to learn carpentry and business.

These experiences led Morgan to become an advocate for assimilation. As an adult he wore a suit and tie in public and carried a briefcase. In 1910, he married Zahrina Tso, a Navajo woman school educated like him. They had three sons, Irwin, William, and Jacob Casimera, Jr. (Buddy).

J.C. Morgan and his family, ca. 1925-1930.

Morgan’s work put him in the borderland between Navajo and white cultures. Early jobs included being a clerk and interpreter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and operating a trading post. In 1910, he began to assist Reverend L.P. Brink, a missionary from the Christian Reformed Church, helping with Bible translation. In 1914 he became a shop teacher and the band director at a school at Crownpoint. (He had learned to play coronet at Hampton.) He joined the staff at the San Juan Boarding School in Shiprock in the 1920s.

These experiences did not lead Morgan away from his Navajo community, however. In 1923 he won a seat on the Navajo Council. He and other Navajo graduates of boarding schools felt that they were being excluded from BIA jobs by older Navajo leaders such as Chee Dodge. Morgan criticized Dodge for his Roman Catholic faith and alleged immorality.

“Progressive” vs. “traditional” are not entirely helpful labels here. Elements of each could be found in younger men like Morgan and older ones like Dodge. Both generations were finding their way among Navajo traditions of reciprocity between kin and a modern American focus on ideology, religion, culture, and language.

Map of CRC missions to Navajo and Zuni peoples. It is from a glass slide missionaries used when they visited churches to promote their their work. Shiprock and Farmington are in the middle near the top. Crownpoint and Rehoboth are in the middle near the bottom. [“Right click” on the map and click “View Image” for a larger version.]

Morgan also continued his work with the CRC. In 1925 he left the BIA and moved to Farmington to assist Brink. He taught in the CRC school and continued translation work. His name appeared in CRC publications.

Sometimes Morgan criticized traditional Navajo beliefs and practices that conflicted with Christianity—notably medicine men and their ceremonies. Yet, he also explored parallels between Hebrew concepts of story and family and Navajo traditions in his sermons. Brink seems to have trusted Morgan as a translator, not just in the linguistic sense but a broader cultural and theological one.

In the 1930s, Morgan opposed the “Indian New Deal” of John Collier, head of the BIA under President Franklin Roosevelt. Collier ended federal policies that repressed Native traditions and promoted assimilation. Collier believed that Native traditions should be reinvigorated. Indeed, he thought that American society was unhealthy and white Americans could learn from Native peoples. His Indian Reorganization Act pushed new forms of “tribal organization” that Collier claimed would enable Native self-government and lead to more efficient relations with the BIA.

In 1934, Morgan and other Native leaders hostile Collier’s program started the American Indian Federation. Morgan was its first national vice chairman. In an essay in The Banner in December 1934, “A Voice from an Indian,” he explained his views. Where the federal government said that it wanted to encourage “the American Indian” to “live his own life in his own way,” Morgan said reorganization would leave Indians worse off, as it ignored local circumstances and was “supposed to apply to every tribe alike.”

Morgan described the poverty of many Navajo homes and claimed that Collier’s policies would keep them this way. He also criticized “medicine men” and the “paganistic practices” that Collier wanted to preserve, noting his refusal to teach his children some Navajo traditions. He praised efforts to promote civilization and Christianity so that Native people could better support themselves. “To deny education to an Indian,” he insisted, “is to deny him his right to citizenship of his own country.”

In 1935, Morgan helped convince the Navajo to reject the reorganization act’s proposal to replace the traditional council with a more American-style representative structure. Political allies such as Senator Dennis Chavez, Protestant missionaries, former boarding school students, and some traditional tribal leaders supported Morgan. Indeed, some Native critics accused Collier of subverting American values.

In 1937, the relationship between Morgan and the CRC turned sour. L.P. Brink, the missionary with whom Morgan long had worked, died in March 1936. While convalescing in Grand Rapids, in February 1936, he wrote The Banner about the work in New Mexico. “We rejoice,” Brink said, “that J.C. Morgan is steadily carrying on the work in Farmington which includes the school work at Ignacio and at Burnham, putting about 250 people under his care and much evangelistic opportunity.”

L.P. Brink with a Navajo convert, Edward Becenti; early twentieth century.

Morgan expected to become the new missionary, as he had long been the assistant and had taken over much of the work during Brink’s illness. But the CRC sent another Calvin-educated, Dutch American missionary to Farmington in 1937. Morgan was angry at having been passed over, despite his extensive experience, and slighted that the new missionary treated him as a subordinate not a partner.

The conflict between Morgan and the new missionary in Farmington led the CRC’s mission board to decide that he had to resign from his mission work or be transferred to another station. Morgan resigned and left the CRC to form his own congregation in nearby Shiprock. A significant portion of the Navajo population of the Farmington congregation left with him.

What should we make of all this? Difficult personalities doubtless were part of the missionary and “Indian New Deal” conflicts. The bigger issue, however, was the failure of white Americans—government officials and missionaries—to consult with and listen to the Navajo (as with Native people generally).

Collier’s New Deal tried to impose a new system of tribal organization in one-size-fits-all fashion. Worse, for the Navajo, Collier and the BIA forced the Navajo to cull their herds of sheep and goats. They did not consult with Navajo women, who by tradition controlled most of the herds. They did not listen to Navajo who appealed to long experience on the land and explained that overgrazing was not the problem, but drought. And they did not trust that the Navajo had experience in riding out droughts.

John Collier at Crownpoint, NM, ca. 1930s. He stayed with Jacob Bolt, the CRC missionary there.

The CRC, similarly, did not listen to or give agency to the Navajo. It long resisted “indigenization” (encouraging Native leadership of mission churches and schools). This was true not just for the Navajo missions, but in Africa and Asia.

The board of missions did not propose Morgan as a possible successor to Brink, despite warnings from a veteran missionary that not doing so would lead to trouble. The directed stated issue was the necessity of being educated in a Reformed seminary and ordained. But the CRC did ordain Dutch American clergy for its immigrant colonies under special circumstances in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More deeply, the issue was about race, in not trusting Native peoples deemed primitive and uncivilized.

There was not much chance of “an Indian … gaining justice,” Morgan observed. A “white jury will always decide in favor of the white.” When missionaries pressed him to rejoin the CRC in 1937 and 1938, he pushed back, saying that it “sounds very much like no one is saved from wrath to come unless he belongs to your church.” He had experienced his relationship with Brink as one of trusted partners. This was not the case with the board of missions and Brink’s successor.

In short, neither the mission board and the CRC nor Collier and the BIA trusted the Navajo with self-determination, unless it was on their terms.

In 1938 the Navajo people elected Morgan as chairman of the Navajo council. He now spoke for his people. Necessity led him and the BIA to cooperate on a variety of issues, even livestock reductions and BIA-sponsored commercial enterprises. This cooperation undermined Morgan’s standing among many Navajo. He lost his reelection effort in 1942 and Chee Dodge succeeded him.

During World War II, Morgan supported the war effort and encouraged Navajo men to register for the draft. Tragically, his son Buddy was captured in the Philippines and died in a Japanese POW camp.

Morgan in 1939 near Window Rock, AZ. With him are Zahrina Morgan, his wife; Thomas Jones; Vivienne Morgan, his granddaughter; and Irwin Morgan, his eldest son.

Morgan retired from politics and returned to religious work in 1942. Floris Vander Stoep, a new missionary, tried to reconcile Morgan and the CRC. The mission board seemed willing to recognizing Morgan as a “native missionary” with his own congregation, but at the last minute rejected the idea. Morgan continued mission work with his own people and established missions among the Apache and in other Native communities in the region.

The Evangelistic Alliance of Wheaton, Illinois, ordained Morgan in 1943, and friends and the Methodist mission in Farmington celebrated the occasion with him. The community laid Morgan to rest in the Methodist cemetery in Farmington when he died in May 1950.

Rather than try to categorize Morgan as traditional or progressive, perhaps it is better to see him and other Navajo as looking for their voices to be heard and seeking the freedom and agency to determine their futures on their own terms.

William Katerberg is a professor of history and curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.


The cover image is Navajo children at the CRC mission school in Shiprock, NM. (Courtesy of Heritage Hall.)

This blog post draws on a variety of sources in Heritage Hall and the scholarship of Bruce Gjeltema, Jacob Casimera Morgan and the Development of Navajo Nationism (PhD Dissertation:  University of New Mexico, 2004) and Donald Parman, “J. C. Morgan: Navajo Apostle of Assimilation,” Prologue 4 (Summer 1972): 83-9.

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