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Lowell Brueckner

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A Navajo Story


Recently a fascinating documentary has been filmed about high school basketball in Chinli, Arizona, a village on the Navajo Reservation. Chinli was Herman Williams’ hometown, which he left to explore the “Land of the Cowhide”. An educated Navajo youth explained the geography of the US to Herman, as a cowhide thrown over a fence, when he was lost in an Arizona city, . The neck was New England, the front foot, Florida, the belly, Texas, the backside, California, and the backbone, the border with Canada. Unable to read or write, he couldn’t find his way home for years.  

 This article was first published on February 29, 2012. It was an attempt to write in a few pages a story which could easily fill a large volume. The life of Herman Williams has been a great inspiration to me personally. I don’t know of any other person, to whose story and testimony I have referred more often, when I am speaking publicly. I hope you will be able to grasp a little of the wonder of a most fascinating world… the world where God is at work in the lives of human beings.


Christian biographies, I think, are the most intriguing of all literature. They contain an element that is not found in accounts merely human and natural. One can detect an authorship superseding the ability and intelligence of earthly writers. This issue attempts to outline a story which has its origin in the heavenlies and will only be related in its entirety in the annals of eternity. Please read it with this in mind…

I met Herman first, when I was only 10 years old and my dad was director of Mokahum Native American Bible School. Decades later, I invited him to Europe to minister and everywhere we went, he became an immediate celebrity! God’s choices of men, raised up to fulfill eternal purposes, are intriguing evidences of His excellent wisdom. Jesus rejoiced to ecstasy because the Father “had hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them unto babes.” The twelve apostles were all unlikely material to become jeweled foundation stones in the New Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, God called Abram out of idolatry from the heathen capital of Ur and made him a nomadic prince, destined to become a spiritual father of nations. David was taken from the sheepfolds, groomed in caves and foreign citadels, to become king over God’s chosen people. Amos, a herdsman and gatherer of sycamore fruit, wondered why he, of all people, should receive a prophetic calling. The Great Architect still has His blueprint in hand and His designs continue to amaze.

A very sick baby

Herman's hometown, Chinli, today

In 1928, in Chinli, a village on an Indian reservation in Arizona, USA, a little Navajo baby was born with a serious heart ailment. The doctor in the government hospital told his parents to take him home and keep him as comfortable as possible, because he could not live long. The infant’s name was Herman Williams. His family name was given to his grandfather by a government registration official, who could not pronounce, much less write, his ancestral title.

Somehow, the sickly child survived. His father, however, died when Herman was very young. His mother needed to find employment, so Herman was raised by his grandparents. He was too sick to attend school, where his peers learned to speak the English language. His school was only a sheep camp and he herded the flock, while his grandfather and uncle taught him the traditional Navajo ways. His grandfather was a medicine man.

In all likelihood, Herman would have become a medicine man himself, if the farmers around Phoenix had not been short of manpower near the end of World War II. In 1945, they decided to tap the human resources on the Navajo Indian Reservation. They transported young people in trucks and employed them for three-month shifts on large cotton and vegetable farms. Herman, quite well recovered from his childhood illness and a teenager now, jumped at the opportunity to discover the outside world.

A long excursion

A Navajo shepherd

It was the beginning of a five-year adventure, which took Herman all over the western part of the United States and finally brought him to a wheat farm in Montana. He certainly had not intended such an excursion when he left his home. With no knowledge of the white man’s world or even his language, he wandered from his first work place and became hopelessly lost. Many miles away, he found a job on another farm and, during his leisure hours, two little boys taught him to speak English. He learned just enough to circulate in the bars and pool halls of the alluring towns and cities nearby. There he experienced deep sin. He became a drunkard and blasphemer.

Herman met another Navajo, an educated youth, in a pool hall. He told him he could not find his way home in Chinli and asked for help. The young man took him to his apartment and gave him a very short course in American geography. He described the United States as a cowhide thrown over a fence. The neck represented the northeastern states, the front leg was Florida, the belly was Texas, the backside California, and along the backbone ran the Canadian border. He brought out a map to show Herman towns connected by highways and explained that he could follow the roads to find his way back to his people.

The young instructor’s description of the “cowhide land” fascinated Herman. Before returning to the reservation - What if he would first explore this land? What a story he could tell his grandparents when he returned! He wondered how long it would take. Three weeks, perhaps?

Years later in 1950, the adventurer found himself in Montana. He was miserable, fearful, and laden with sin. There were memories of voices he heard as a child, when all alone herding sheep. Nightmares haunted his sleep. Fearful of the dark, he kept a light lit through the night.

Jesus, God of the Navajo

A Swedish wheat farmer hired him and treated him as a son. Twice a day, with the whole family around the table, he read from a big book. Here, Herman was exposed to the Bible. His employer spoke to Jesus in prayer. Jesus must be the white man’s God, the Navajo youth concluded.

The preacher in the local church, which the farmer attended, sometimes startled the young man. Though he had never told anyone about his secret sins, this man looked right at him during the sermon and mentioned the bad things Herman had done. He seemed to know all about them. When the minister bowed his head and closed his eyes, his convicted listener re-treated out the back door.

One night, the farmer took him to a missionary convention. The large building was filled with people and the only unoccupied seat was in the front row. Sitting on the platform, directly before Herman, was a white man in an Indian costume. Soon, this man arose and informed the congregation that God had called him to tell the Native Americans that Jesus loved them and died for them. The gospel was preached that night and poor, lost Herman, bowed under the weight of his sin and filled with fear and unrest, found peace at the feet of Jesus. Now Herman knew by personal experience that Jesus Christ was also the God of the Indian.

Tears on a Bible

Discovering Jeremiah 33:3

After the meeting, the director of an Indian Bible school invited the new convert, just as he was, to enroll for the term which was soon to begin. The farmer and his wife presented him with a new leather-covered Bible. None of them knew that he could not read or write. That night, Herman knelt by his bed, the Bible lying open on the bedspread. Certainly, he had been introduced to this wonderful Jesus, but he could not read His word. Navajo braves were taught never to cry, but nonetheless, tears fell on the page beneath him. They left a permanent wrinkle and from that time, whenever he opened his Bible, it would fall to the same page in the book of Jeremiah.

 The faculty of the Bible school was not a little confounded, when they discovered that they had a scholar, who had never learned the alphabet. Herman, for his part, contended that the director had invited him to come, “just as he was.” It was decided, he could stay and his fellow-students would help him learn the material. This one, however, was uniquely called of God and God, from the beginning of his life, had His unique way of dealing with Herman.

One day, a young lady took Herman’s own Bible and it opened, as usual, to the tear-damaged page. “Look, Herman!” she exclaimed, “Here, where the page is wrinkled, is a great verse for you to memorize! It says, ‘Call upon me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not!’” On the very night he was converted, unbeknown to the illiterate Indian lad, God had introduced him to the high and awesome tutelage of the Holy Spirit. A stump in the forest became his private “classroom”. Through the years at Bible school, Herman habitually knelt by it to pray and sat upon it, reviewing scripture verses he had memorized.

A Great Teacher

Herman and oldest son, Zane

Herman Williams was no honor student by any human standards, but he did learn to read and write. He became an intent disciple of his heavenly Teacher. During those years in Bible school, he married Fern and eventually they had four children. From that school, he was led to reach his own Indian people; a world of lost, confused, fearful men, women, and children. He brought them to the same place, where he found peace for his own soul—to the feet of Jesus.

He knew he would face opposition. He had been aware, since the childhood spent with his grandfather, of the powers that now came against him. He confronted them again and again as he ministered, and even was attacked in physical ways. He was often the target of Indian medicine men, who live in direct contact with a dangerous world; to whom audible and visible manifestations of demon powers are not uncommon. Animals and birds speak and carry out hellish assignments under the medicine man’s direction - unbelievable as it may seem to a mind unfamiliar with such spiritual realities.

Overcoming many obstacles, Herman has worked in conjunction with his Lord to establish assemblies of Indian believers, teaching many of them to become strong Christian leaders. He has traveled throughout the US and Canada, evangelizing and instructing Native Americans. He is often in demand at large conferences in the white man’s world. Recently, he made his first flight across the Atlantic to minister in Europe.

Zane, Fern and guest, John Bobolink

This is the little baby, whom the doctors said could not live; the uneducated youth, who could not learn from books. His Great Teacher has manifested his sovereign wisdom and power, in and through a simple Navajo Indian, as He has done with countless other people throughout history. Now 69-years-old, after 47 years of Christian experience, Herman often relates that, while kneeling and weeping by his bed in Montana, the Lord made Jeremiah 33:3 his life-long, personal maxim: “Call upon me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not”. He adds this conclusive affirmation, “God has done it!”

 Herman has since gone to his eternal reservation on high and has met his Savior Jesus Christ, God of the Navajo, Asian, South American and all mankind! 



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