Native American culture & teachings through a modern lens

Tag: History

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’.

Tears for the Future, Tears of Hope

A Native American proverb states, “You can’t see the future with tears in your eyes.” I love the poignancy and strength of the phrase. It denotes what, we as Navajo or American Indian people need to remember. We have to understand not only the reality of our present circumstances but also see our future is dependent on our ability to challenge ourselves to seek solutions for a brighter future. We can’t dwell on our past and the darkness of our histories, we have to learn to respect history and continue to move forward.

I was raised, in part, by two people who displayed through their life’s work how change can be made. My late Nalís were a couple dedicated to helping people, Navajo people, American Indians. They worked to foster in community members a sense of passion for retaining Navajo culture through education. The change they created was formed overtime through fight and individual acts.

I am daunted by the wicked problems of society and at times feel hopeless and unsure of the possibility of overcoming. As I write this, my heart aches for those who have been hurt by the events in Boston. As a runner I have always felt part of a family. Words cannot express the power of the moment when running a race you have trained hard for and having a fellow runner, one you have never met, high-five you. Or the point on your journey where you hit “the wall” and feel yourself ready to give up and someone reaches out to cheer you on. Those moments of connectivity are sacred.

It is these moments where the power of understanding we are all connected, can be found. We are all in this race together to seek solutions for our future. It is this belief which propels me forward. The moment when I realize the tools I have available to me which will help me fight to retain our culture and educate ourselves. The Navajo Rosetta Stone, independent Navajo Culture newsletters like Leading the Way, e-zines like Whisper n Thunder‘s. Each tool is an opportunity to seize more and more of the cultural knowledge, not for greed or ego but for survival and Native identity.

Monday would have been my late Nalí Adszaan’s birthday. While I miss her, I continue to find her life and her teachings an inspiration to me. She would always say, “Do it!” every time I’d share an idea with her. She’d note how she never asked for permission, her sense of urgency was one which fuels me in the last year of my twenties. I am continuously compelled to seek answers and help people.

I honor her and the life of my Granddad with my practice of random acts of kindness, with the projects not just launched but maintained. It is true you can’t see the future with tears in your eyes but sometimes the tears of reflection and longing encourage us to reach beyond what we think we can bear so we can continue to shape our visions for service beyond our own gratification.

Full disclosure: I am on the board of directors of Whisper n Thunder.

Changing Seasons

As I write this email, I am dreaming of snow. I religiously call my Dad every Sunday. Even though we touch base through the week, our Sunday calls are special. He told me yesterday morning that my hometown had its first snow of the season. Living in Phoenix you acclimate to having only 1 ½ seasons – hot and cool. In Navajo land, our lives revolve around the seasons changing. Each month indicates a teaching and set of actions to be carried out. We begin our year in October, Ghąąjį’ or the time of joining seasons and begin to harvest crops.

Recently, we moved from November or Níłch’its’ósí – the time of “thin slice of cold air” to December or Níłch’itsoh – the time of “abundance of cold air”. Our calendar exists as a map for what ceremonies occur in these periods.

The changing of seasons and the transitions from month to month mirrors the changes which occur in the bodies of both women and men. There are passages and ways to maneuver through as we pass through life. In Navajo culture the four directions act as a compass to our life and tell us of these times. The east represents infancy, the south childhood/adolescence, the west adulthood and the north, old age. We understand these times as life phases so getting older is nothing to be frightened of but just another stage in our lives with new responsibilities.

I am the oldest of four children. As the oldest, especially the oldest girl, I grew accustomed to taking care of my brothers and sister. I was always the one in charge when my parents had to work late or went to town. But there were many moments growing up where we were all equal. Age didn’t matter and I didn’t have to be the boss. When I was in fifth grade or so my brothers who shared a room got their first bunk bed. It was the coolest thing ever because the bottom bunk had a full size mattress and the top a twin size, so we constantly had sleepovers. This was normal from day one but the number of sleepovers grew swiftly with the snazzy new bunk bed.

A few months after getting the bed, I remember visiting my Grandma Mae, my mom’s aunt. She lives against the Lukachukai Mountains. It is the best place for fun as her place is near a wash which we relentlessly played in and always seemed to have water flowing. It was a routine visit as we ate and spent time with relatives. I helped my mom stay awake on our late drive home. My mom said shímasaní (maternal grandmother) Mae and shímasaní Lillian, observed I wasn’t playing with my brothers and siblings the way I used too. They noticed me sitting out more and just watching and hanging out with my older cousins. They thought I was getting closer to have my Kinaaldá. I was excited by this until my mom noted it meant I couldn’t “sleepover” in my brothers’ room the same way. She said I was going to be a young lady and needed to start to have my own space and sleep in separate beds. The next day, my mom and dad talked with my brothers and I about this new change. They mentioned to my brothers how they need to understand I was going to be a young lady and they needed to not play with me so roughly. They reiterated how I couldn’t sleep over in their room the same way.

I remember feeling excited about my Kinaaldá even though I hadn’t learned all the details at that point. But I also felt sad. Sad things wouldn’t be the same. Over the next year my mom would take me to several Kinaaldá ceremonies. We would help by bringing food or even just visiting with the family. We would stay up all night with the girl. Every time on the trip back to Kayenta my mom would answer any questions I had. In the times we went as a family to Kinaaldás my parents would explain openly with my brothers what a Kinaaldá was and how they would be a part of it. My sister was still a toddler so by default she was a part of the conversation.

My growing up meant as a family we moved into a new passage in our lives. We learned together and were more prepared when after a year, we started my ceremony. I admire the support my family gave me and the way my parents taught me about the Kinaaldá I would have by allowing me to be a part of others’ ceremonies.

The cycle of becoming a Navajo woman is part of this tradition. On a recent breakfast date, my friend Jessica shared how her dad would tell of four distinct points a Navajo woman uses a Navajo basket in her life. First as a young girl in her Kinaaldá, then at your wedding, next as part of the Blessingway ceremony as an expectant mother and then as the mother of the daughter having a Kinaaldá. I found this a beautiful way of denoting the passages a Navajo woman marks her life with. Navajo culture is built on interdependence and what I find special is even though the Navajo women life’s sees these points, they are not solitary actions. Each of these four events are shared by the family. Our culture is dynamic and built to support one another. As I move into other seasons this year I do so as a granddaughter, daughter, sister, auntie, teacher and student…always a student. Just like snow turns to rain and rain into sunshine. So to is our life. It is constantly changing…just like the weather.

Grownup Navajo: A Journey

In April, I lost my Nalí Asdzaan (paternal grandmother), a woman whose essence was what it meant to be a traditional Navajo woman. She was the epitome of Navajo education and a trailblazer. She was also my teacher and because of her I was raised as a traditional Navajo woman in modern society.

In my career I educate people about the uniqueness innate in American Indian cultures and art in the southwest. While I love my job and the work I do, I am cognizant of the trade-offs I make to do it. In essence this is the state I am referencing when I say grownup Navajo. The term grownup has child-like connotations. When you are young adults ask you, “What do you want to be when you’re a grownup?” Now in my late twenties, I ask myself that question. So being a grownup Navajo is an evolving state. One I think you never quite reach (if you are lucky).

As a grownup, who has grown up Navajo, I have to make hard decisions about how I connect with my culture. Being a grownup Navajo means I am still learning. I am a young Navajo woman taking ownership of my role as a carrier of Navajo culture. I carry a notebook with me everywhere. I jot down questions as a way to keep track of stories I haven’t learned or ideas and teachings I don’t quite understand. It was my Nalí Asdzaan who aided me in these efforts.

I do not call myself a grownup Navajo lightly. Being a grownup Navajo means I acknowledge the weaknesses I have in understanding and knowing certain Navajo stories, language and ceremonies. But being Navajo has also meant challenging me to be a stronger person, to decide to carry on because I have responsibilities within a larger society. In losing my Nalí Asdzaan, I have lost my teacher and role model. By starting this project, I am taking responsibility now to share and learn what makes us as Diné people unique. I look for new teachers but I also trust in the knowledge I have to guide me in this next phase of my life. My Nalí Asdzaan taught me well.

I was born and raised on the Navajo Nation between three communities Round Rock, Lukachukai and Kayenta, Arizona. I was taught to introduce myself by acknowledging our clan system, I am of the Táchii’nii (Red Running into the Water People), meaning this is the clan of my mother. We note our father’s clan by saying “born for” in my case, the Kii yaa’ aanii (Towering House People). My maternal grandfather is of the Tódikozhí (Bitter Water clan) and my paternal grandfather is of the Monteath Clan from Scotland. It is through our clan system that we find our place in our Navajo world.

I began giving “Growing Up Navajo” talks as part of an outreach program for my job. It was a way for me to share a modern perspective with people who are interested in learning more about Navajo culture. I used my own Kinaaldá ceremony as a window for audiences to see into the Navajo world. What I didn’t anticipate was how my own appreciation of Navajo philosophy and the Kinaaldá ceremony would grow.

Over a year ago, my cousin had her first Kinaaldá. It was an exciting blessing. She was the second to the last cousin to have her ceremony. A Kinaaldá is a four day puberty ceremony held in honor of a young girl when she has her first menses. Traditionally, this would be held two times – at the point of both her first and second menstrual period. It begins with the tying of her hair and she is physically molded by a respected Navajo role model. Every day she runs to the east before dawn and at noon, each time pushing herself to go a little further. The second to the last day is the hard work of preparing the cake. The cake is baked in a pit in the ground spanning approximately 4 feet in diameter and 6 inches deep. The ground has been preheated with a fire making the pit hot enough to cook the cake. The core of the ceremony is an all night prayer session in which the girl and family sing for blessings. It is a beautiful night where the family and community come together to celebrate. In the morning, with the sunrise, the cake is cut and distributed to family and friends after the girl has run as far as she possibly can. The ceremony is meant to prepare the girl for her life as a young Navajo woman. She follows certain taboos and restrictions as a way to test her endurance, stamina and emotional capacity. It is a ceremony which personifies the transition the girl is making in her life and allows for the community to join in marking this special moment. As Navajo people we believe by the time the Kinaaldá ends, the girl is a Navajo woman and is prepared with the blessings of the ceremony for her journey.

I romanticize the Kinaaldá because I am one of only five girls (on my dad’s side). As I await the start of my youngest cousin’s ceremony, I feel proud that we have such a strong line of young women who have chosen to carry on this tradition.

The last Kinaaldá in my family was different. I felt there was much more I understood because I have explored many more stories and sought answers to many more questions. Since I had learned more I was able to give more.

There have been noticeable changes to the ceremony. Today, Kinaaldás are often planned and even shortened to fit into weekends. In an effort to become more streamlined – the corn for the cake prepared by the girl is sometimes no longer hand-ground. Some families use meat grinders so the batter can be prepared quicker. There are aspects of the ceremony made to be more convenient. One friend shared that her family prepared a spreadsheet to track materials they needed to purchase for the ceremony (a handy idea).

Depending on your family you may be offended, protective or inspired by these findings. My goal in writing this blog is to facilitate a sharing of ideas and perspectives to construct what the Kinaaldá ceremony means to Navajo society today. The differences are shared to provide dialogue and paint a landscape of the ceremony in present day, not as a critique. Foundational to all posts is the understanding that there are many different kinds of Navajo people. I am not a judge of the way the ceremony is practiced. On the contrary, I am most proud of the fact Kinaaldás still occur. This is a tradition that is practiced and being adapted to ensure its continuance.

An assumption of this blog is Navajo families view this ceremony as being a foundational aspect of Navajo culture – a necessity to practice. As I will explain in future posts, the Kinaaldá isn’t solely about the young lady having the ceremony. If that was the case, I believe the ceremony would have died out a long time ago. It is carried on because much like other Navajo ceremonies, this one is about the community, it is about Ke’ (kinship).

Found within the Navajo Kinaaldá are key teachings of leadership. It allows women to learn about their culture and importance of their role in our traditions. It stresses the impact of community, giving back, generosity and perseverance.

With this focus on Navajo culture there are lessons for men and non-Navajos. My culture is one which stresses the idea of connectedness; to family, to the land and to the people. It is my hope this blog can provide discourse about leadership and civic responsibility as seen in the communal ceremony. Ultimately, it will share how our practice of Navajo spirituality stresses community leadership.

My observations are meant to share a perspective – a Navajo view – a modern Navajo view about the complexity in this beautiful ceremony. This blog is aimed at sharing lessons from a people who have continuously preserved and are still celebrating the endurance, strength and beauty of our culture.

Grownup Navajo will continue to be a tribute to my late Nalí Asdzaan. I start this blog as a thank you to her for the greatest gift she gave me, my own Kinaaldá ceremony. I firmly believe this ceremony is responsible for the vitality and blessings in my life today. Because she was one who shared our culture both within Navajoland and out, I know this project would make her proud. I know because it was her life’s work to ensure Diné people were proud of who they are. It is because of the Kinaaldá that my heart resides in Diné Bikeyah (Navajoland). I look forward to hearing from you as this project evolves…Ahe’hee’ (Thank you).