Edited with new material added on 2 February
This is the history of the Order of the Friends of the Fissure as I know it. Some of what I write I learned from my long association with Margaret Donnelly (better known as KoHama niD’ni), but the rest is from my own experience. I will start with the history that precedes my arrival in the area.
The story of the FoF Order begins with Richard Donnelly, born 1907 in Philadelphia, PA. At the age of 20 he started his higher education at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque where he got a PhD in Archaeology and Anthropology. He married in 1938 to a young woman named Sarah Wilson who came from San Francisco, CA. She also attended UNM where she got a B.A. in English Literature and French Romantic Poetry. Dr. Donnelly started teaching at UNM and during the summers he conducted digs around the area. Rejected for medical reasons by the military during World War Two, he and Sarah purchased a small piece of land on which stood an early 19th century Spanish mission which was simply called La Casa. A year later Sarah bore their only child, a daughter named Margaret Linnea Donnelly.
The Donnellys were not a conventional family for the time. With the great distance to any school they considered worthy of Margaret’s talents, they decided to educate her themselves. At the time it was not considered of any great importance for young women to excel in mathematics or the sciences, and most of Margaret’s studies were in history, literature, and tribal archeology. Margaret was hungry for knowledge. In time she started visiting a neighboring family, a Navajo couple named Joseph and Marie Calling Bird, who treated her as their own. She called them “Uncle Joe” and “Aunt Marie.” From them she learned about the Navajo culture, their rituals and beliefs, and their use of herbal medicines.
Margaret got admitted to UNM and was a student there when her mother suffered a fatal aneurysm at the age of 43. She returned to La Casa to take care of her grieving father. Richard never recovered from his wife’s early death. He left teaching and withdrew into his work. He had started to dig in the area around La Casa. It was not what he found, but what he did not find that intrigued him. With the exception of human habitation evident in the nearby Cleft the area was devoid of “occupation layers.” For miles around the split in the desert there was no sign of tribal life. With the arrival of European settlers in the mid-19th century there were a few artifacts, but the desolation of the area did not invite settlement of any extent.
Further, a study of documents left by the monks that had built La Casa revealed that the local Navajo would not come to the mission. At first the monks thought it was resistance to their efforts to convert the natives to Catholicism, but in time they discovered that the locals were willing to accept assistance from the monks – just not at La Casa. Dr. Donnelly poured himself into his work and Margaret kept the house while attempting to take part in her father’s research. From the Calling Birds, she learned that the Navajo believed the cleft to be a taboo place, although no one seemed to know why – only that it was inhabited by the chindi, the Navajo word for “ghosts.”
Over time Dr. Donnelly wore himself down, and his habit of chain smoking habit proved to be the fatal. He died in a hospital in Albuquerque of lung cancer in 1967. He was 60. Margaret might have fallen apart, but for her friendship with the Calling Birds. They adopted her and she took the name KoHama Dineh – “Fire Mother” and the Navajo name for their tribe. She was only 24 when she inherited La Casa along with a trust fund from her maternal grandfather. She decided not to return to college and instead started a garden in which she grew vegetables and herbs. Some of the herbs she grew were for ritual use. Several local medicine men, introduced to her by the Calling Birds, became close friends because they trusted that her herbs were seeded, grown and harvested with all the proper prayers. Within a year – and it being the 60s – young people wandering the country arrived at the mission, which gradually evolved into a commune. The herb garden evolved as well. Some very fine “product” was grown in the garden, used by the residents and sold to locals as well as travelers.
It is about this time that I arrived at the mission. I was born in 1950 in Little Rock. In May 1970 I was attending Kent State when the National Guard opened fire. The campus closed and I left, heading west for Haight-Ashbury. Somehow I got off the road and ended up at La Casa. The grass was good and I settled in. Over time things changed in the world. The rocking 60s and the violent 70s dissolved into the disco 80s and the Reagan Revolution. Most of the hippies left the commune – to marry, to return to school. Some even ended up as corporate lawyers. In the end it was just me and KoHama, and my love child. In time my son went off to live with his father.
Money was never much of an issue; KoHama had her trust fund. The area was rife with poverty and we did what we could to help. KoHama’s only stipulation is that she would not support any effort that was funded by an evangelical group. To her the imposition of Christianity had done more to hurt the tribal culture than any other force. We joined a local craft co-op where we added our needlework, weaving, and jewelry to the beautiful things that all the local artisans created for sale. It was a quiet simple life, but it was also beautiful.
Then in 1987 a man named Loftin arrived in the area. He stopped at the house to ask for directions and some water – his car was overheating. We saw him around the cleft area for several weeks. A few months later Loftin came back with Elias Zandi, a wealthy archaeologist. They went straight to the cleft, but Marie Calling Bird saw them and stopped by to tell us that there were new folks in the area. KoHama and I packed up a basket of vegetables and a sampling of local crafts. Loftin recognized her and introduced us to his friend. Elias was very polite and generous, insisting on purchasing the food and several of the blankets we had brought with us. A week later he came by the house to ask for directions to the closest gas station. KoHama jumped in the truck and gave him a guided tour of the area. He asked a lot of questions about the local history and KoHama told him what she knew, but did not mention her father’s research.
A year later the two men were back and found the great city beneath the desert floor. KoHama started to spend more time with them, talking late into the night. It was on this third expedition that she revealed what her father had found about the habitation levels around the cleft. Elias was fascinated, especially when she explained how the tribal people viewed the cleft. It seems that he had been wondering why the city had not been discovered by any of the earlier humans who lived in the area.
In 1990 the duo became a trio with the addition of Dr. Richard Watson. KoHama now spent most of her time in the cleft helping the explorers, and when they were gone she would return to the house. I became increasingly concerned about taking care of the property, and so she and I came to a new arrangement. She set up a bank account for me with funds to care for the property as well as the necessary legal documents that named me as her executor and gave me power of attorney. The only prohibition was that the property could never be sold or sub-divided. This became something of an issue when it became apparent that Elias was buying up all the land around the cleft. Only the small plot of La Casa remained out of reach. It might have created a problem for the developing relationship between KoHama and Elias, except that his concern was that the land should never be given over to development and she assured him that no such development would ever be allowed on her side of the fence.
Then there was an accident. It was too long after the arrival of Watson – a few months, maybe a year. Loftin went into the cavern and did not came out. I never heard the details. KoHama was deeply shaken and would not speak of it. I think she began to think back to the old Navajo fears of the chindi. Elias was undaunted, however, and kept pressing on with the idea for a complete restoration of the D’ni civilization. It was around this time that he made a small change to KoHama’s name, changing “Dineh” to “niD’ni” – the old Celtic way of saying “daughter of D’ni.” It was sort of a joke with them, because of her Irish ancestry, but there was no doubt that it was Elias’ desire to rebuild the great city and have a new population of “D’ni” living there.
Elias just pushed himself so hard it was no wonder that his health started to suffer. In 1993 he had heart surgery and KoHama found herself reliving those days as she watched her beloved father grind himself into the grave. She went to see Marie Calling Bird (Joseph had died in 1985) and they called upon a local medicine man to sing the blessing way and create a sand painting to speed Elias’ healing. While Elias was recovering Watson brought two new men to see the cavern. They were brothers named Miller. I never met them, staying at the house. KoHama later told me that there was something being created – a D’ni Restoration Foundation – to fulfill Elias’ vision.
Another year or so went by and then we met another member of this increasing DRF group. I had known all along that Elias was married with a grown son. Jeff Zandi arrived at the cleft for the first time and explored with his father. It did not go well. Despite Elias’ enthusiasm, Jeff was skeptical about the wisdom to put back a society that had been long dead. I have to say I agreed with Jeff. We have not tried to restore the Egypt of the Pharaohs and as Marie Calling Bird pointed out the U.S. government had been hell-bent on the extermination of all tribal cultures. Why should we put back the D’ni? KoHama attempted to mediate the argument between father and son, but in the end she retired to the house, sensing that Jeff would rather not have her around. It was understandable.
I do not know if it was the non-stop work, the fight with his son, or just the way of fate, but Elias died of a heart attack in 1996. KoHama was devastated. She went into her room and closed the door. I could hear her crying and then chanting for hours. Marie Calling Bird finally got her to come out and the two sat on the porch and talked. I stayed out of their way, but I could feel the chindi rising from the depths.
According to Elias’ will he left his money to the DRF (later to become the D’ni Restoration Council or DRC), but he left the land in New Mexico to his son Jeff. We had seen a steady stream of people from all over the world and of all ages coming into the area. Jeff Zandi parked his motor home next to the cleft and invited them to explore anywhere they wanted. Some of the visitors decided to stay in the area and took up residence with us at La Casa. It was just like the old days – only without the weed. We charged a modest fee to cover food. Folks came and went, and overall it was too much for my dearest friend KoHama. She put all her affairs in order, and handed me the keys to our ancient pickup. Then she disappeared.
At first I could not imagine where she had gone or how she had left, but in time I started going through all the journals in the library at the house. In one old lined notebook, KoHama had written a passage about a beautiful age that Elias had shown her, and that he had given her the linking book. I could only conclude that she had gone there, but that meant there was a linking book somewhere on the property. I looked for it over the next few weeks, but she had left it in a secure hiding place. Over time I got busy with the visitors, and finding the book slipped from my mind.
Some of the people who came to the cleft – which I learned was called Tomanha in D’ni – became enamored by Yeesha. I too found great wisdom in her words and over time we put together a philosophy dedicated to achieving her vision. This is the order known as Friends of the Fissure. I am now a protector of the order and have taken the name Okasan to symbolize my position. Our home is open to you.