Native American culture & teachings through a modern lens

Tag: community

Grace, Guts & Power

Growing up as the oldest grandchild and daughter in my family, I was keenly fond of praise. I relished in moments when my parents and grandparents would give me a compliment. I loved their feedback, whether it was about a speech I had written or how I did in the school play, I reveled in the feeling of their outward exclamations.

There were two things my grandparents would say however, that I wanted to hear most. If my late Nalí hastiin (paternal granddad) was ever impressed by something so much so that he said, “you have guts.” That was gold to me. I remember a couple times when I played in basketball games and he said, “That took guts, good job.” In college I ran for a pageant and came in as runner-up, I was crushed. When I told him on the phone I didn’t win, he sighed, clicked his tongue and said, “That took guts Jac, I am proud of you.”

Once my late Nalí Asdzaan (maternal grandmother), after my dad had given a great talk at the orientation for teachers shared, “Your dad really spoke with power.” She shook her fist as she closed her eyes as though it gave her strength just remembering him earlier in the day and the words he shared. I dreamed of her one day talking about me in that way.

The two of them, as I have written here many times, were my guideposts. Their compliments, teachings and stories drove me to strive. I wanted so much not solely to please them but I was so inspired by the way they lived their lives that I believed if I could follow their teachings, there would be hope for me to make similar impressions in the world.

 

I write this post still in disbelief at the remarkable night I had performing in celebration of OXDX Clothing’s Fall Release. I performed two poems, “Dear Girl-Made-of-Honey” and “Seeds of Resilience” which was written as a special collaboration with OXDX Clothing Founder, Jared Yazzie. I have given many public talks, I teach as well so public speaking is something I am comfortable with. However, if you measured my nerves on Saturday morning, I would have been noticeably anxious about the performance.

 

Performing my poetry was never my intention but standing on the stage and getting to share two poems which were foundational in my healing this year was such a privilege. I am honored to write this blog, thankful for the way it is received. I thought about my grandparents as I stood on the stage. I thought about how I never got to hear my Nalí asdzaan tell me I spoke with power. However, there were so many other compliments she shared with me while she was alive and I will carry those forward instead. I look at my life now, I think about how much I shook on the stage and realized, even in light of my fear, I had the guts to perform and I didn’t need any more compliments to reassure me…I could feel the power of the words reverberate in the room. Words given to me by the grace of Diyin Diné’é (Holy People) to share. I am so grateful for what this blog and these teachings…the same ones given to me by my late Nalís, have come to mean to people. It truly is beautiful to see that Grownup Navajo is not solely a blog. It now has a community of people surrounding it who work to “speak sacredness fluently” in their lives. That is power and it takes guts to commit to that value especially in a society that does not like difference. There are always threats to cultural learning, many created by a history of oppression in this country towards our people but also ones that we choose to let block us. It is those hurdles we must dismantle, they are the true challenge to furthering our knowledge base. When we choose to stop keeping ourselves from seeking more knowledge then we can truly harness our full power, utilize all our medicine to heal each other and show ourselves just what our guts are made of.

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This vlog shares the teaching of “ahééh jinízin”. Ahééh jinízin is the instructive ideology of being appreciative, living in thankfulness. Gratitude has been proven to help build resiliency in people. When we are thankful, it allows us to adapt to situations more fluidly, it strengthens our medicine.

In the spirit of this teaching I would like to say ahé’hee (thank you) to my family for their love and support and to my partner Warren, for his help with the GN booth, tech support in recording the performances and for offering a reserve of strength.

Speak Sacredness Fluently

There are days when I hit snooze before the sun changes from the white dawn to blue sky, long before my feet even hit the floor in my home. There are evenings when I am just so grateful the pain, frustration of the day is gone, that I am happy to not look back.

But then there are mornings when I run to the east, pray to the sun before it shines over the summit. There are points on my travels home after having made an offering to our sacred mountain that I feel I am living out the sacredness I was taught. These moments of synchronicity in sacredness are the ones I chase and strive to hold and achieve.

In a recent conversation with a close friend preparing for ceremony, I was inspired, challenged, to think about my life as a language – a conversation of sacredness. Watching my friend prepare for ceremony reminded me of ways I was taught to prepare for practices of sacredness. Preparation begins with a choice. A choice to speak sacredness fluently. Sacredness is finding gratitude in every moment, greeting our brothers and sister with terms of kinship, sacredness is putting others – our community before ourselves. Sacredness is choosing to heal, choosing the light when it seems easier to cower in the darkness.

I have been meditating on this challenge of speaking sacredness fluently. Wondering how can I lead in sacredness? How can I love in sacredness? How can I live a life full of sacredness like my ancestors and elders have? Some of this will mean me practicing more of my language, striving to seek more knowledge of plant medicines. But what this means most is to live in gentle humility. Understanding I am connected. Connected to other bilá ashląądii (five-fingered people). Living in sacredness is not living in perfection, it is actually the opposite of perfection. Speaking sacredness fluently in life means I am always becoming. I am always able to do more for my family and community. Speaking sacredness fluently will be a new model I begin to use to challenge myself to rise with active hope aimed at serving those around me.

As I write this, I am grateful for all the moments leading me to this understanding of self and grateful I get to share it with beautiful brilliant souls all seeking the same truth – to speak sacredness into existence by living it out day after day on the corn pollen path.

 

The Languages of Hummingbirds & Land

This morning, I woke in the desert with the goal of hiking and basking in the new light of the day at mountain’s top. Breathless after my ascent, I relaxed with a beautiful view of the mountains of the desert around me. While I sat still enjoying the view, I noticed there were several hummingbirds dancing on this mountain top. Called a “charm of hummingbirds” – I actually had to google the word for a gathering of hummingbirds – these beautiful beings sang and danced, a show that moved my heart.

In the past year, I have reflected and meditated a lot on the various conversations we can have with the world around us. The different languages we speak. It is the ones that are not centered on the use of the English language that make my heart the happiest, that fill my soul with the medicine it needs to continue to heal, grow and thrive. From the hug from a close friend, the movement of light draw on the wall inside your home as it sets, all have a tremendous power to share a message. This morning, on top a mountain, my soul and I danced with a charm of hummingbirds, listened to the wind, had a beautiful bee and beautiful beetle land on top of me. It ALL was a reminder of the many languages that provide us guidance in life and how being open and loving can allow the goodness, love and light of the world into us. In this Glittering World, there is so much opportunity for us to challenge ourselves to be loving to each other. This is the wisdom of my conversation with the hummingbird – no matter how swift we are caused to move in this world, there is always enough time to use loving language as we communicate with each other…and to ourselves.
Keep Shining!

 

The Power of Presence – A Lesson Discovered as I Made My Bed

During a late night drive across my homeland, I jokingly told a close friend how I often feel the “most Navajo” in the mornings when I am making my bed. Instead of laughing as I expected he would, he shared how it made sense. Noting how even this modern act of starting the day could be beautifully traditional. I had never articulated this thought until this moment. But the more I shared the more I understood how much this one teaching infused not just my day, but my life.

Growing up shímasaní (my maternal grandmother) would always instruct me how it was very important that I made my bed. She would indicate how it was a way to show respect for my belongings but also a way for me to show I wasn’t lazy. As I made my bed in the morning when I was little she’d share with me that fixing my bed allowed me to start my day with positive thoughts and intentions.

Shímasaní stayed with us a lot when we were little. She would always be caring for us as my parents traveled and worked. It was her care that showed me how cooking can be a rich love language as she always asked my brothers what they wanted for dinner. They’d respond with either potato soup or her dumpling stew. It’s her recipes for these dishes that are my measure for all others. It is her tortillas that I miss now as her hands are too old flap bread and she is not able to stand very long to cook. But it is also her I think of every morning.

I read a poem recently called “Chorus of Cells” about making a bed. Written by a 100-plus year old poet, the poem illustrated the lyrical simplicity of life found only in seemingly mundane acts. It was this poem and the conversation with my friend that reminded me of the power of being present and how my morning ritual was a conduit to this sense of being.

I always make my bed in the morning. Each day I rise, I hear her teachings urging me to carry openness to the possibilities the day may present. As I smooth the sheets, fluff the pillows and lay the duvet over my bed, I am thinking of my day ahead. Preparing my spirit as I think of the work the Holy People will have me do. It is often the first point in my day, even before I run or pray, when I articulate my gratitude for simply being awake and able to show my dedication to this practice.

I was able to visit shímasaní on my last trip home. I sat with her on her favorite corner of the couch and held her hand. She shared how she was proud of the work I am doing which always means the most to me coming from her because she is one of the strongest people I know. When I look at her life and all that she created, I am left speechless. Her ability to hold onto her traditional knowledge evening after attending boarding school, raising a family of six on her own after shícheíí (my paternal grandfather) died. I don’t always feel worthy of her praise especially when I battle the guilt of being away from her now as she’s older. But when I think about my life and how I live it. I am most proud of having realized how much her many teachings have become my center for the mindful way I aim to live my life. I am grateful now for a beautiful late night conversation which helped me to see the power of my presence – rather, the power of shímasaní’s presence and how it continues to shape me.

In the Desert a Mountain Rises

When I am looking for strength, I picture my strongholds, the places where I have found respite, calm and clarity. Each place I visualize, often in the middle of an anxious bout, are places grounded by mountains. From Black Mesa, the Lukachukai Mountains to the San Francisco Peaks, the Sandias in New Mexico and Piestewa Peak here in Phoenix. All are places where I have seen the sun rise and set on their crests. It is that dependable cyclical force – knowing the sun will rise and fall over their majestic forms, that soothes me.

I find refuge in land, both in mine homeland and those of others. The power of place is a guiding principle of my faith and one I was reminded of this week. I attended an event where an elder Akimel O’otham man shared a traditional song. The beautiful melody was sung to the rhythm of a hand rattle made from a gourd. It was called “in the desert a mountain rises” and as I do not speak O’otham, I can only expand on the meaning of the song to me as a Navajo woman with a fondness for mountains. Every feeling I had while listening to the song was a feeling of reconnection. The peace that comes from returning to yourself and harnessing the power of your being. It is in the mountains where I have discovered, found and regained peace in my heart countless times. Each time I feel this homecoming I understand I am the mountain and the mountain is me.

Listening to the song reminded of my late Nalí hastiin (paternal grandfather) and one of his favorite psalms that I carry with me. “I life up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence cometh my help?” (Psalm 121:1).  I don’t remember where he shared this with me first. Today I visualize our conversation taking place in his “Oasis” in Round Rock as we looked east toward the Lukachukai Mountains, in a moment, I am sure, where my heart was filled with uncertainty.

I love that together the psalm and this beautiful song create a dichotomy. On the one hand, to be filled with doubt and wondering in the middle of a trial where and when help will come and on the other having the delivery of faith so forceful that it rises with audacity in the desert. My people believe in the power of mountains. We find protection in them spiritually and so I love the translation of the O’odham song – “in the desert a mountain rises”. I think about this phrase as a great reminder to not only respect the land but to recognize we are the land. We are the mountains.

I am far away from my beautiful mountains tonight but I can feel their pull. I can close my eyes and see multiple sunrises illuminate the sky with glorious light and their warmth filling my soul. I am thankful for a new connection to the desert through this O’otham song. In a city that identifies with a bird who rises from the ashes, I love that I can now visualize myself rising up in the desert not as a bird but a mountain. It is this image that I will carry with me while I am away from my mountains. This realization brings me peace. As I lift up my eyes unto the mountains, I understand that by the grace of the Holy People, I am my own help and no matter my placement, I can harness mountains of strength from wherever I stand and choose to rise.

Shíkeyáh as Medicine

Sunday morning I said goodbye to my family after a delicious breakfast prepared by my mom. We ate and laughed as a late winter snow fell outside. My heart swells at all the scenes we took in together and remember the prayers we said for each other and ourselves before I left.

I know I carry these scenes and prayers with me until the next visit. Returning to Diné Bikeyáh (Navajoland) each time as though on a pilgrimage. Each trip is filled with such anticipation of being able to unload the angst and chaos of the city. Born in the vastness of a place which makes you feel like it belongs all to you while simultaneously allowing you to feel small enough to question your being, I recognize how much I am a part of the land and it is a part of me.

Though it means so much for me to be home, I forget how fast times passes when I am away. A recovering perfectionist, I want to not miss anything. I want to always be home and am often heartbroken at missing the simple things – the first snowfall, ceremonies of family friends or even the stories my Grandma tells in between her cup of coffee and dinner. While I can beat myself up for the moments missed I have to remember the faith and practices instilled in me.

Diné Bikeyáh is my medicine. Not just the place, my parents’ home, but the land. I crave the calm of the land as soon as I depart. While away in the desert I find echoes of home on my hikes, while on runs at dawn, each outing sustaining my spirit. It is the land which soothes me, makes me stronger, knows my weaknesses and strengths.

While driving with my Mom as the rain, snow and rain fell, we were graced by a family of gorgeous glowing blue birds. They fluttered by us sharing the same vistas of the Lukachukai Mountains as we made our trek. A moment of fleeting perfection that didn’t have to last long as it provided more than enough serenity. This recent trip was so much about self-care and focusing on restoring my balance. Traveling from the stillness to clamor I humbly look forward to my return to Shíkeyáh (my land).

I Come from Strong Women: A Tribute

DSC_0482“It is through my mother I entered this world.” Everything I have come to understand and even question about my role as a young asdzaan Diné was first nurtured by my mother. She and the women in my life have continuously taught me the lessons I need to know and most important have shown me how to carry myself as an asdzaan Diné. It was my mom who prepared me and my sister prior to us having our Kinaalda (puberty ceremony). She instilled in us such excitement for this change in our bodies, I could not wait to “grow up” and join the club. I think my mom thinks I don’t need her so much today but I feel what she created in me is such an innate sense of self as a woman that I feel assured, most of the time, of what I am suppose to be doing. I am everything because of her and she is my everything.

“I come from strong women.” This is one of my mantras I repeat daily as it encourages me to continue to push forward and live with integrity. I grew up hearing the story of my great-great-great Nalí Asdzaan who was captured and taken to Ft. Sumner during the period of the Long Walk when my people were imprisoned hundreds of miles away from our homeland. My Nalí Asdzaan escaped. Her faith in our traditional values was what ensured her safety and because of her risk I am here. Her story is a constant reminder of the price of the privilege I have become accustomed to today as a modern Navajo woman. It is my obligation to always maintain allegiance to my family above all else and continue to carry on my traditional values she fought hard to keep.

“I am who surrounds me.” I am blessed to reach a point in my life where I am surrounded by so many women who challenge and love me selflessly. My “lady loves” are a tapestry of people whose encouragement, support and guidance pushes me daily to be better. My prayer for every young lady is to be able to have at least one friend who is always able to share in your journey and remind you are not alone.

Recently, I partnered with my soul sister Jovanna Perez on a new venture – creating a podcast which would share the stories of women primarily in Arizona. Schmooze is a show dedicated to raising every woman’s story as remarkable and celebrating the diversity of experience in modern women. I encourage you to listen to our first episode and follow along on our Facebook page. I am blessed to have Jovanna as a partner in this as her guidance has made the experience all the richer as we blend both of our experiences together to create a project which we hope will inspire others to create change in how we see women in our world.

Today is International Women’s Day, established in the 1900s the day was created shed light on both the achievements of women and the action needed to move women and society forward. Our society doesn’t frequently lift women up. Though women have had significant achievements, for every story about a woman’s success there are still misogynistic comments and policies which threaten the personhood of women. There is still much progress to be made in the area of equal pay and violence against women. So as we celebrate women, let’s challenge ourselves to act moving forward and participate in the fight to assert a more equal view of women in our world.

A significant part of my Kinaalda ceremony was the point at which my Nalí Asdzaan molded me. She pressed weaving tools and other items against my body as a way to ensure my excellence within each area. I was molded in her image and I am grateful everyday to have this connection to her as it reminds me of the interconnectedness between us all – to all the women in my life. We are the bloodline. It is our role as life givers to nurture and challenge those around us. So today, I say ahé’hee’ to my mom, my elders, my sisters, my niece, my lady loves and those who have gone before me as I would be nothing without them. To all the fly, fearless, brave women fighting a battle today, you inspire me and your work provides our world so much beauty. Ahé’hee’.

Notes of Gratitude

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To my dad’s dismay, one of my favorite genres of books is self-help. I find it oddly inspiring to read these books as a way to try to make myself better. My best friend consistently jokes when I reach a roadblock in my life, “Well I am sure you will find a way to fit it into one of your challenges.” This referencing my incessant 30 or 40 day plans:  vegetarian, vegan, more organized, the list goes on and on.

While my dad may not always appreciate my book selections, he is part of the reason why I am so quick to take up these types of tasks. My parents, when talking to me about my school performance,  would say, “We don’t care about the grades you get as long as you try your hardest and work smart.” This was inevitably met with a sigh on my part because I realized quickly, you can always improve and it’s this idea of doing more which reminds me of my Kinaaldá.

A main focus of the ceremony is the physical act of running. The girl is responsible for running early in the darkness of dawn and at noon. Running to the east, she runs farther than the previous run.  The run is symbolic of the importance to push yourself to be stronger.

This month I celebrate my 30th birthday. August is a special time as it reminds me to do very critical things – to give thanks and love more. My late Nalís, among so many things, taught me the importance of gratitude and love. They did so by showing me what it was to be generously thankful and love fully.

For this reason my birthday month challenge is #30for30notesofgratitude, meaning every day this month I am sending or hand-delivering a note of gratitude to someone who made an impact on my day.  I firmly believe it is through the practice of gratitude and loving one another abundantly we can change the world. What can be more profound or have greater impact than the giving of ourselves selflessly. My first few letters were to my grandparents thanking them for the lessons they instilled in my but most importantly, I thanked them for showing me the power of love through their love for one another.

In My Father’s Land

I entered this world through my mother but it is in my father’s land I live and call home. A place called Round Rock, a very small community in the heart of Diné Bikeyáh (Navajoland) in northeastern Arizona. This is the place where I grew up and lived when I was small. The place of many adventures in the iconic red dirt. I spent countless days with my late Nalís at their homestead and eventually had my Kinaaldás there.

My late Nalí with Round Rock in the distance.

My late Nalí with Round Rock in the distance.

People talk about the beauty of Navajo culture being found in the matriarchal structure without distinguishing the significant role men play in our society. In the book, Blood and Voice the author discusses the differences between the two as falling with the changes which happen to both the female and male bodies. Women have their menstrual period and men’s voices change when they enter puberty.

These two changes are critical to the longevity and continuance of Navajo society without women changing we would not be able to carry on the bloodline of our people. Men’s voices are necessary as they traditionally were the medicine men – they sung the songs of prayer in our ceremonies, they have the power to heal our people’s ailments. They are necessary to maintain Hozhó, the balance and harmony in our society.

Turquoise is a very sacred stone to Navajo people. I was taught to wear turquoise everyday as a form of protection. In Navajo we pray not only to Mother Earth but also to Father Sky. These beings are interdependent as we cannot have one without the other. Turquoise is worn to honor the men, to remind us we have both a male and a female side in us we must respect.

I have been shaped by the men in my life as much as the women. I am a young woman who proudly calls herself a daddy’s girl. My dad is the person I turn to when my heart and spirit is broken but also when I need to be inspired or pushed harder. It was my dad who molded me during my Kinaaldás. My wit and ability to keep up with the guys’ is due impart to my brothers who incessantly tease and joke with me. Growing up I took care of them but today more and more they carry me and my spirit when I doubt my own strength.

My late Cheí (maternal grandfather) was someone I only met once before his passed away suddenly, I do not remember this but my mom tells me he said I was such a beautiful baby girl. I know him only through stories and pictures but I dream about him and hope he is proud of the person I have become. My late Nalí Hastiin (paternal granddad) taught me two very important lessons with the way he lived his life – to love unconditionally and to fight. To fight for myself, my heart and my people. A quote he would recite often was, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” I love this quote and try to live my life by it as it challenges me to a sense of agency, it’s filled with civic responsibility.

As part of the American Indian National Veteran Memorial at the Heard Museum, Dr. George Bluespruce notes, “As American Indian people we honor two things continuously, our elders and our veterans.” I believe we must challenge ourselves to remember daily the reasons we are able to enjoy our lives seamlessly. Our culture and society was made by the people who came before us. It is our privilege to continue this work but we must also remember and respect the people who helped build today.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a time for us to remember not only the people who have made the ultimate sacrifice but also those who have stepped up to the call of duty to fulfill the promise of our country and to make our communities better. Like no other ethnic community American Indian people have served our country with the highest rate of servicemen and women per capita. I look around and my world has been touched by incredible men and women who have seen and understood the cost of our freedom. To my late grandfathers, uncles, aunties, brothers, sisters and dear friends who have served with humility, dedication and love, I extend my sincere gratitude for the lessons you have taught me. Your commitment can only be matched with drive to not be content with mediocrity and continuance to strive to the betterment of society.

Rising Star: Reflection

I love sparkle. My mom calls me a raccoon and sometimes a magpie because I am continuously distracted by all things glittery. It seems fitting a recent award I was honored to receive is called the Rising Star Award, something shiny. Given by the Arizona Humanities Council, the award recognizes a young professional, student or volunteer with outstanding and creative approaches to engaging the public with the humanities.

Post acceptance speech, with my beauty of an award.

With my beauty of an award.

I accepted the award with my dad at my side, the most handsome date.  This year marked the first year of this award and the 40th anniversary of the Arizona Humanities Council (AHC). Since 1973 AHC, has been dedicated to sharing the power of the humanities through the exploration of cultures, stories and experiences in an effort to create a civil and just society.

I am honored to have been one of two recipients of this award. Myrlin Hepworth, director of Phonetic Spit an organization which provides a space to empower youth to discover their voice and combat literacy. I have followed the work of Myrlin’s project and am in awe of the creativity and vision to use poetry and music to create life altering experiences for youth.

One of my favorite films about American Indian leaders is “Teachings of the Tree People: The Work of Bruce Miller.” It documents the work of the late Skokomish leader Bruce Miller, someone whose passion for teaching traditional basket weavings and cultural stories led the way for his community to revitalize these tribal practices. One of my favorite lines from the film clearly shows the brilliance of Bruce Miller and the value of tribal knowledge. I paraphrase, “As tree people we must understand not all of us are going to have the same knowledge. We all know different things. If each of us knew everything about our culture and history we would have no reason to need one another.”

I think this perspective of interdependence is critical. It is only through understanding and valuing the perspective we each have that we are going to be able to address the problems of our society. This is the value of the humanities. The humanities provide a forum for us to explore the concepts and ideas which make us uncomfortable.

In Navajo we call ourselves Diné, meaning “The People”. But we also talk about all people as Bila’ Ashladii’ or “five fingered people”. This is our common ground and a place in which we can begin to lean on one another to find solutions for the wicked problems of today. While it is important to be self-reliant, we also need to know it is our human nature to feel we belong…to one another.

Note: I extend boundless gratitude to Jovanna Perez, Billie Fidlin and Nanibaa Beck, the three women who nominated me for the award. I would not be as strong as I am or feel as though I belong without your guidance and support. Ahe’hee’.