Native American culture & teachings through a modern lens

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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.

Ode to the Desert

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I was raised in Diné Bikeyáh (Navajo land) but I grew up in the desert, a place that has taught me many lessons. Of them, how important it is to stay hydrated and (one of my favorites) how a place so hot can be full of so much earned beauty because everything, including the people, has survived such extreme conditions.

I moved here after graduating from high school. Arriving to attend Arizona State, I wasn’t shocked by city life or by how big my new school was – all of that excited me. The greatest challenge was taking care of myself. Not because I didn’t know how but because I was used to herding the Roessel clan. The oldest of four, I cooked and cleaned while my parents worked.

Though my sole responsibility was to go to class and do my homework it was a difficult adjustment. I worried about what wasn’t getting done back home and who was helping my mom. I’d think of family members and community happenings. I was homesick a lot but slowly the desert made it easier.

Reflecting on the nearly ten years I have lived here, I have come to love the land. Though winters are glorious here, I am quite fond of the summer. I love how the town feels as though it’s mine without the “snow birds” and long waits in restaurants. I love the comfort of the heat and illuminating sunshine – the power of place, home to the O’odham. I am grateful I have carved a space for myself.

Today after a very long day in the office I found my way to one of my favorite places. As I walked monsoon clouds moved in and the rumbling of thunder sounded. It sprinkled a soft gentle “female rain” on the dirt path. It’s been through my gratitude practice and prayers that I have been able to maintain my connection to home. But in the moments when the monsoons come I am closer to Diné Bikeyáh, the closest I can get being as far away as I am. As my incredibly insightful friend recently reflected wet dirt is “a smell that reminds us we are of this earth and connects us through our senses.”

Traveling recently in New Mexico, I was swept away in the feeling of being home. A grand grownup moment for this current phase of my life, I see being a modern adszaan Diné (Navajo woman), means my state of “being home” travels with me. Though I dream continuously of being able to do my work and “be home” one day, I embrace the blessing of finding home in new lands and wondrously, in people.

As I walked in the rain tonight, I listened to the rain fall and let it engulf me. I was reminded of my childhood, adventures in enchanted lands, how my mom talks of us “bunnies” being brought into this world on days that were filled with rain and as I breathed in the familiar scent I thought of Diné Bikeyáh. I learned in the desert how to connect not just to myself but most importantly to others. In a place so arid and foreign from the playground I grew up in, I was blessed with a life so rich and lush I could never have imagined…Ahé’hee’ (thank you).

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.

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.