A true shepherd

Steven Plummer, first Navajo bishop, dies in New Mexico
April 30, 2005

The Church’s first Navajo bishop, Steven Tsosie Plummer, 60, died April 2 in a Shiprock, N.M., hospital after a battle with cancer. He was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2000.

The son of a medicine man, Plummer lived all of his ordained life in Navajoland. He was the first elected bishop of the Navajoland Area Mission, created by General Convention in 1977, comprising portions of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Soft-spoken and with an easy smile, Plummer was well known around the church as an advocate for Native American ministries. He was a shepherd in both a literal and figurative sense. He and his wife maintained a small herd of sheep at their home in Bluff, Utah, on the grounds of historic St. Christopher’s Church. He led the area mission on a path toward greater incorporation of Navajo traditions into Episcopal Church worship.

He strived constantly to encourage development of indigenous leadership among the Navajo and of a more self-reliant Navajo Episcopal church. Those efforts included developing the “hogan seminary,” now known as Hogan Learning Circle, in Navajoland. “Hogan” is the word for the traditional Navajo house.

In his convocation address last year, he told the largely Navajo audience, “We are serious about our Christian faith and serious about our Navajo tradition. “Let us challenge one another. We are the missionaries here on the reservation, and we must go out and proclaim the gospel to our people,” he said.

He also was known as a leader of workshops in several dioceses to introduce Navajo spirituality. There are “many similarities between Anglican and Navajo spirituality,” he once noted. “There are some conflicts in the ceremonies.”

Born in Coal Mine, Ariz., on Aug. 14, 1944, Plummer said that his first Christian influences came from his mother and from Anglo missionaries. Also key in his formation was Harold Jones, once vicar at Good Shepherd Mission in Fort Defiance and later the first Native American bishop in the Episcopal Church. Jones encouraged Plummer to prepare for training for ordination.

Plummer attended schools in the Navajo reservation and at 21 entered Cook Christian Training School, Tempe, Ariz. He completed a certificate program at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. He was ordained deacon in 1975 and was ordained priest in outdoor ceremonies in the Canyon de Chelley at a holy site in the Navajo tradition. He spent his entire ordained ministry among the Navajo, serving in the Utah and New Mexico regions.

He was encouraged to be a candidate for bishop of Navajoland by the late Bishop Wesley Frensdorff, who served as interim bishop of Navajoland. “Bishop Wes taught us we had to take risks for the church and for our lives. You have to stand up for yourself and speak for yourself,” Plummer said in 1990 when he was consecrated bishop.

The election of a Navajo bishop fulfills “a long-time dream held in a lot of people’s minds,” then-Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning said at the time. “The Navajoland Area Mission was created in part to help give Native Americans a chance to develop their own direction and fulfillment.”

The only area mission in the Episcopal Church, Navajoland functions much the same as a diocese but with more oversight from the office of the presiding bishop and House of Bishops.

Plummer is survived by his wife, Catherine, whom he married in 1977. They had four children: Byron Tso, who was killed in an auto accident in June 1999; Brian Tso; Steven Jr.; and Cathlena.

At a workshop in 1990, Plummer was asked to draw something outlining his life. The drawing showed his life starting at a hogan, tending sheep. The drawing showed him going back on a path guided by a cross to a hogan and to his sheep.