Call Back Your Spirit Or Die

David Chethlahe Paladin was a Navaho Indian living on a reservation in Arizona. David would laughingly say that his mother was a nun and his father was a priest. It turns out his mother became pregnant by a visiting priest and she, in turn, decided to become a nursing nun and leave her son in the care of the extended family of their tribe.

David and his cousin used to spend a great deal of time leaving the reservation and going into town. They would drink a lot, and they always felt that life was better in the white man’s world. The local constabulary at that time was forever returning the boys to the reservation and by the time David was 13 years old, he was already an alcoholic.

David and his cousin were determined to make it off the reservation once and for all — and so they did. They found their way to California, where they lied about their ages and signed up for work with the Merchant Marines. There, David befriended another young man from Germany. David also began drawing (some of his sketches included the eventual bunkers that the Japanese were building on the atolls in the Pacific Ocean).

After World War II was declared, the US Army informed David that because he lied about his age with the Merchant Marines, he now had two choices: He could go to jail for a year or enlist in the army. Although he was only a teenager at that time, David decided to enlist.

The army further informed David that since he is a Navaho, they were going to drop him behind enemy lines and use him as an information gatherer in their special services. David, using his native language, was to relay his findings to another Navaho in the army. Their language was a code that the Germans were unable to crack and decipher.

David was eventually captured and interrogated for information. Because the German officers found him useless, they then directed him to be sent to a death camp and executed as a spy.

Imagine, if you will, the scenes we all have invariably seen of the railroad station and the platform filled with lines of prisoners being pushed into box cars for transport to the camps: There was David being pushed and shoved into a boxcar. There was also a German soldier behind him saying “Schnell, schnell” (quick, quick). David then stops, turns around and looks at the German soldier, who turned out to his friend from the merchant ship. Luckily for David, his friend recognized him and quickly ushered him to a different box car that will send David to Dachau instead.

David related the torture he went through in the barracks at Dachau. He said that he saw an older man, a fellow prisoner, drop something, and because he bent down to retrieve it, the guard, who witnessed this moment, had snarled: “Are you the Christ?”

The guard then orders for David’s feet to be nailed to the floor and that David was to stand there with his arms outstretched for three days like Christ on the cross. Every time David faltered and crumbled, the guards would hoist him up again. In the middle of the night, someone would sneak in and cram raw, maggot-covered chicken innards into David’s mouth.

When the Allies opened up this camp, they found David a mere shell of a man, weighing maybe 70 pounds, and speaking Russian*. They turned David over to the Russians. David would later speaks English and give his name, rank and serial number to the Russians, who then had him transferred back to the US military.

David was then sent to a VA hospital in Battle Creek Michigan where he spent the next 2 years in a coma. At the end of two years, his legs were encased in metal braces, similar to what polio patients used. David, a young man of not even 21 years of age, was to be sent to a VA home for the rest of his life.

Before he resigned himself to his impending gloom, David asked if he could visit his family on the reservation for one last time. The answer was ,“Of course.”

Thus, David dragged himself onto the reservation where he met with the elders of tribe who asked to hear his whole story. David began telling them of every horrible thing he had endured. He was full of anger, rage and hate.

The elders conferred before telling David to meet them the next day at a designated point on the Little Colorado River. David agreed and arrived at the appointed hour the very next day. One of the elders proceeded to tether a rope around David’s waist, while the others removed the braces from his legs. They hoisted David up into the air and as they threw him into the raging current of the Little Colorado River, they said:

“Chethlahe, call back your spirit or die. Call back your spirit or die.”

David would later say that those moments in the Little Colorado River were the very hardest of his life. He had to fight himself for himself. It was then that he was able to see the big picture. He began to understand why things unfolded as they did. For example, he realized that the raw chicken parts that were stuffed into his mouth at the Dachau camp were meant as a source of protein to sustain him so that he might live.

David Paladin was thrown into the river as a very broken — and broken on every level — man. And David emerged out of the Little Colorado River like the phoenix out of the ashes. He had metaphorically walked through the fire, or in this case, swum through the currents, and had come out alive. He was born again.

And, that is what I think healing is all about for each of us. It is calling home our energy; it is calling home our disenfranchised pieces and parts. It is letting go of the toxic and the outdated. It is reclaiming ourselves.

David no longer needed his braces from that day onwards. He became a shaman, teacher and artist, and went on to work with priests and addicts. He died in his middle years in the mid 1980s.

P.S. Remember David sketching during his tour of the Pacific and speaking Russian when the Allies first found him half-dead at the camp? It turns out that David was channeling, i.e., energetically merging, with the Russian artist Kandinsky. In fact, Kandinsky’s best friend came to the U.S. from Russia. The friend, the story goes, told the press that he felt as he had spent the day with Kandinsky.

Source: Unknown

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