From Calvin College to Navajo Chairman – Part I

From Calvin College to Navajo Chairman – Part I

This blogpost is part one of two on Paul Jones, a Calvin College preparatory school student from 1917-1918 who became chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council in 1955. But first a few observations about the photo that inspired the two blogposts.


The “cover” image of this blogpost is five Calvin students from 1917. I found it in a “Student Life” folder of images from the 1910s and was intrigued. The names listed in an attached note are (from left to right in the photo) Lum K. Chu, Oets Bouwsma, Jacob Bruinooge, Eisse Woldring, and Paul Jones.

The students have spoons and small dishes in their hands and look to be eating a dessert. I’m not sure what the dessert is. It is in a large glass jar with the spoon on the table. I wonder if it’s the Dutch treat for special occasions, brandied raisons, boerenjongens (literally, “farmer boys”). Could this be the only extant photo in Heritage Hall of Calvin students consuming alcohol?

Three of the men in the photo are familiar kinds of Calvin College and Christian Reformed names. Bouwsma finished his baccalaureate at the University of Michigan, earned a PhD there, and went on to a storied career as a philosopher at the University of Nebraska and University of Texas. Bruinooge became a CRC minister, and Woldring returned to the Netherlands, where he had been born, and served Reformed congregations there.

But what about Chu and Jones? The story of the CRC and at Calvin College and Seminary usually is told as a Dutch one, until the last third of the twentieth century, when ethnic and racial diversity becomes part of the history. This photo is a reminder that diversity has been part of the CRC’s history for a long time.

I tried to find traces of Lum’s background and post-Calvin history. He was Chinese and the first student from Asia to graduate from the college. Calvin was a junior college then, and in 1918 Lum graduated with a two-year degree focused on education. But that is all I uncovered.

Now to Paul Jones. His story is the kind that is often missed in Christian Reformed and Calvin College histories. I found fair bit about him, but not as much as I’d hoped. Traces; not the full story.


A Google search for Paul Jones the student lead me to Paul Jones the chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council (1955-1963). I soon confirmed that the Navajo chairman and Calvin student were indeed the same person, and eventually I found traces of Jones’s life and story from a variety of sources, going back to his first encounters with the Christian Reformed Church in Tohatchi, New Mexico.

What do these traces tell us about Jones and how his connections to Calvin College and the Christian Reformed Church may have shaped his life?

Jones was born in 1895 in Naschitti, New Mexico. He was the last chairman of the Navajo Tribal born in the nineteenth century. His name was Tl’aashchi’i Biyé’ (or Klass Chee Begay, meaning the son of Klass Chee). He was raised in a traditional setting, and as a boy he herded sheep. Sheep and goats had been central to Navajo subsistence and trade for centuries, the herds traditionally controlled by Navajo women.

Lee Huizenga, early 1910s.

When Jones was seven or eight, the principal of the government-run boarding school in Tohatchi had police bring him to the school. The principal renamed him Paul Jones. These were common practices in an era when assimilation was forced on Native Americans, particularly on children in residential schools.

Tohatchi also included a Christian Reformed mission. In 1913, a decade after Jones started at the Tohatchi school, Rev. Lee Huizenga, M.D., arrived. He was a CRC medical missionary. He took an interest in Jones, whose English had become quite good. Huizenga began taking Jones with him to translate when he visited sick Navajo people in their homes.

Huizenga returned East for a year, in 1916-1917, to do post-graduate work in eye, ears, nose, and throat medicine. Jones went with the family, attending a Christian school in New Jersey. When Huizenga went back to Tohatchi in 1917, Jones moved on to Calvin College, studying in the preparatory (high school) program for a year. Huizenga went to China in 1920, the mission work for which he is most well-known.

The United States entered World War I in late 1917 and drafted Jones into the army in June 1918. He was working at the Pere Marquette Railways freight house in Grand Rapids at the time. Jones served in Europe in late in the war and was wounded in a German gas attack. He was recovering in a hospital when the war ended in November 1918.

Jones returned to Tohatchi in 1919, working at the school there. He saved money and a year later moved back to Grand Rapids, where he studied at McLaughlin’s Business College.

At some point after finishing at McLaughlin’s, Jones moved to Chicago. He worked a variety of jobs, eventually becoming a shipping clerk for the National Tea Company, a grocery chain. He also married twice during this period in the Midwest. 

Jones married Clarissa Pierson in Drenthe, Michigan, in 1921, according to the Ancestry Institution. Pierson was not from Michigan. She, like Jones, was Navajo and from New Mexico. The Acts of Synod of the CRC record in 1914 record: “’Missionary J. W. Brink addresses Synod, as does also Miss Clarissa Pierson, one of our converts at Rehoboth, N.M. Rev. J. Keizer responds, assuring both of them the prayers of the Church.” Brink was a missionary in Rehoboth, NM, and Pierson was an assistant housekeeper at the CRC-run school there.

CRC Mission at Rehoboth, NM, late 1910s, including a school, church, and hospital.

Did Pierson and Jones meet in Tohatchi or Rehoboth during his year in New Mexico after World War I? We know only what the Ancestry Institution reports—that that they married in May 1921 and that she died a month later.

Jones married twice more. He married again in 1924, in Grand Rapids, to a woman named Nona Gordy. She was also from Rehoboth, New Mexico, and they had four children, according to an Indian Census Roll from 1936. Nona died of tuberculosis in 1938. Jones soon married a third time, to a younger Navajo woman, Helen Etta Mike. She was born in 1917 in Kearns Canyon, Arizona, and died in 2011 in Fort Apache, Arizona.

We don’t know much about Jones’s spouses or marriages. However, the connections of Clarissa Pierson and Nona Gordy to Rehoboth, NM, and the Christian Reformed mission there, suggest that Jones continued to have some ties to Christian Reformed Church.

Part II of this account of Jones focuses on his return to the Navajo Nation in 1933, during the Great Depression, and his rise to leadership as chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council in the 1950s and 1969s.


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

In addition to the Acts of Synod and news stories, this blogpost draws from a chapter on Jones in Virginia Hoffman and Broderick H. Johnson, Navajo Biographies (Rough Rock, Ariz.: Rough Rock Demonstration School, 1970), to which Jones himself contributed; Andrew Needham, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014); and Peter Iverson, Diné: A History of the Navajos (Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, 2002).

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