Grownup Navajo

Native American culture & teachings through a modern lens

Tag: Native American

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).

Shine Love.

It is hard to escape the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. today as it is the day which bears reminding of his work and sacrifice of life. There are many favorite quotes of his I have gained inspiration from, “To serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.” “Everyone can be great for everyone can serve.” But today what I choose to focus on are his words of love.

It’s his belief in the power of love which echoes an outlook which I spent nearly half of my life basking in, learning from. When my late Nalí asdzaan was alive she would talk about her day and share stories of her interactions with her students. She would note the top students in her class but much of her recollections were the students who struggled. She would note how hard talking to them was or what trouble they may have gotten into. At the end of her story, she would sigh – this was her trademark sigh as it would be her entire body surrendering to the situation but also accepting her place in that moment – it was a beautiful moment when she did this. I remember once asking her what she was going to do. She smiled and say, “I am going to show them I love them.” It was simple.

Her answer was love. Whether it was a child who would act out in a classroom or someone who wronged her, she would always choose forgiveness and love. My late Nalí asdzaan did so many incredible things during her life, in her career but of the many things I treasure is her showing me that love can change the world because it allows us to strengthen our ties of Ké’ (kinship) by showing we will be here and we are responsible to one another.

Since her passing, I’ve adopted the mantra – “Shine Love.” It is the way I work to live my day by exuding a love for life and respect for others. “Shine love”, is my attempt to leave those I come in contact with a feeling of being appreciated because you and I are here. (Of course, it also shares my unwavering connection to all things sparkly.)

On this day as we reflect on the work of the giants of grace, love and change in our lives and past, let us think of our call to action. Because these quotes and mantras are only words – stagnant on pages, resting on computer screens in the latest meme – without action. How will we summon the greatness in our souls out into the world? For these words to create the next movement our society needs we need to live them out. I believe love is the action, love of ourselves and others.

Shine loves.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yá’at’eeh Ya’iishjááshchilí!

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A near holiday in my world is the Summer Solstice. Approaching quickly, June 21, it’s the half way point of the calendar year – the longest day – full of the most sunshine. I find this day a perennial reminder of the need to stay connected to the natural world, a feat in the city.

A long standing tradition of mine is to celebrate both the winter and the summer solstice. The Summer Solstice serves as a special cause to gather friends and celebrate. Despite being domestically disabled (read: cooking is not my strong point) I revel in the opportunity to host friends and entertain. Over the years my lady loves and friends have joined in game night, sunrise hikes and pool parties all celebrating the joy of spending another season together.

June or Ya’iishjááshchilí means, “asking permission to plant early crops”. As Diné we are meant to prepare, pray and begin to plant the summer’s crops. It’s a cycle “always becoming” meaning we are continually focused on bettering ourselves, our practices. We have many stories of the important lessons the Sun has given us what better time, in the sunlight of summer, to note its brilliance and our necessity as “five fingered-people” for its warmth.

This month’s special “summer do” list is all meant to help to align, re-focus and make our life a little bit brighter…

MAKE. Tomorrow, June 18, has been declared National Maker Day. A day meant to encourage and celebrate the innovators and incredible creative who have contributed to the dynamism of our world. Why not set aside time today to make something…even if it’s just your bed, it’s a start.

GET TESTED. June is home to HIV/AIDS Testing Day June 27 and Native Health, a Phoenix non-profit, is hosting a screenings locally on select days this month. Take some time to practice some safe self-care.

VENTURE. Make plans this month to spend some ample time outside. Happening in Concho, Arizona June 19-22 and 26-29, is the Lavender Festival. Held on the Red Rock Ranch and Farms, this Arizona business, grows several different varieties. Summer is the perfect time to enjoy an event or festival.

BREATHE. Take a moment on Saturday to breathe in the sunshine, whether in the morning or at dusk what better reminder to understand our place in this world and focus on finding balance than the most center point of the year.

Yá’at’eeh T’ąątsoh: Season Awakening

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On my list favorite things are: magic, surprises, unicorns and seasons changing. I recognize how child like this love list is but I am continuously taken over by how much magic you can find when the seasons change. It is incredible how complex our environments are and how they have adapted to changes in environments.

In the past couple of years, noting the seasons change has made me feel more “grownup”. Every time I notice a change in environment – leaves changing, the early rise of the sun and it marking the start to a new day – I think of my elders. It was something my grandparents and aunties and uncles would note – the moments of surprise found in a day and how we as “five-fingered people” are just a small part of the world around us.

In Navajo, each month in the start of the year relates to the earth shaking off the cold hibernation of winter. It’s a time filled with new life and beginnings. From the “birth of eaglets” (February) to the time of the “eagles’ cry” (March), the month of the “tiny plant leaves” (April) and now May or T’ąątsoh, the time of “large plant leaves”. I enjoy the reference each month indicates throughout the year. In the spring especially, revival is what is underscored with the start of new life.

Too often we forget the many intersections in our life. The points at which our paths cross one another, the connections to our community, the effect we have on our environments. As we prepare for the next change in seasons we should challenge ourselves to see not solely how we are distinct from each other but most importantly how we are connected and how we can help one another.

This month’s love list encourages you to connect with others’ causes and stories, enjoy.

SHOP. May is host to Small Business Week, a time to bring to highlight small businesses make to our community. As highlighted in this post from the White House blog, “this country’s 28 million small businesses create nearly two out of three jobs in our economy”. The amount of Native owned-small businesses are at an all-time high. New to my computer’s favorites bar is the online store Rezonate Art, an Indigenous Arts Collective representing seven different artists from different mediums. This collective not only elevates the work of talented artists but it plans to invest in community impact projects to further the power of dollars spent by supporters.

LISTEN. In the latest episode of schmooze my partner Jovanna and I interviewed our moms. Though I talk with my mom all the time, having a special conversation in tandem with my soul sister and her mom was a treasured moment shared. Too often we forget we all come from women and how much can be learned when we take a moment to absorb each other’s stories.

PLEDGE. This week marks National Womens’ Health Week, hosted by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, it’s meant to remind women to make living a healthy life a priority. Take a moment to pledge, along with other women across the country, what you want to improve about your health.

SEND LOVE. As the Naaltsoos Project shows, Grownup Navajo loves snail mail! One of my favorite sites is the The World Needs More Love Letters. An organization dedicated to sending love notes to those who need an extra dose of support and encouragement. This month make time to send a note to someone in your life whose helped you lately or someone you miss.

Enduring Love Through Loss

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I am blessed my first “real job” out of college was also my dream job. Starting it years ago, I had no idea I would be here this long and while every January work-anniversary is marked with, “has it really been this long?!” it is also a month in which I ache and miss my Granddad the most.

My Granddad was with me when I received my job offer. It was the two of us who decided it was a good fit for me and I would take it. I was staying with him and my late Nalí Asdzaan at the time as I had a temporary job in the community they lived. While she would go to work we would talk about life. This was already a difficult period as I was coping with the sudden loss of my soul sister Audrey who was killed suddenly in a car crash the month before.

Audrey and I had met the summer before in such a cinematic way in Washington D.C., I was assured we would be friends forever. Looking at it now, I suppose we are, just not in the way we planned. My Granddad helped me deal with her being gone. Little did I know by mid-February, they both would meet. It’s been nearly eight years since we lost him to cancer. While the battle was long and hard fought, my starting my job is always tangled with my losing him and me “growing up”.

The two events shaped me permanently. My Granddad and Audrey were both two people who lived life with such bravery and chutzpah. My Granddad taught me so many lessons but of everything, he instilled in me a sense of responsibility to my people, family and my heart. In the past year, I have renewed this commitment to myself by choosing my heart above all. Though the journey hasn’t been easy, I have decided to live my life the way he did with an allegiance to Ké’ and love. He is my north star just as my late Nalí Asdzaan is my east. They are my guide posts who assure me soul mates, kindred spirits exist.

I realize I am the best parts of the people around me. We are all made of light and brought together through a desire to create, to leave a mark. Of the many conversations we had prior to starting my job one thing rang through our conversations, my Granddad’s hope for me to have a life I loved. As I write this, to him, I hope he sees my zest for life and how much I am grateful for him. And I can honestly say, this life of mine, is better than we both dreamed possible. As my cousin Aaron assured me, our grandparents are as close as I want them to be. So I look ahead with the promise of a journey which will continue to challenge me to grow with both of them at my side.

New Year Reflections: A Navajo Perspective

JMRoessel Sunset

I miss Diné Bikeyáh most in the fall and winter seasons. There is a special connection I have to my land in the winter time when it receives its first dusting of snow.  It’s not solely the look of the land but what the transition signals. The change in seasons means the continuation of key parts of our culture. It signals our ability to tell our sacred origin stories again. I look forward to playing string games with my uncles and all the joking which will ensue. There are also “normal” winter things which just feel better at home. The making of s’mores in my backyard may feed my sweet tooth but often feels incongruous next to my pool and palm tree.

In Navajo we call October, Ghąąji’ meaning “the joining of seasons”. It marks our new year and the time we harvest the crops of the summer and begin to prepare for the winter’s ceremonies.  It is a time for us to cultivate the richness around us as we anticipate the hardships winter will bring.

When I moved to Phoenix to attend college, I promised myself I would return home at least once a month. It’s a promise I have only broken a few times as the demands of work have taken precedent. My winter trips home are what I long for mostly because it’s when our ceremonial cycle reaches its pinnacle with our YeíbicheÍ ceremonies. Held traditionally from the time of the first snow until the first lightening comes. Attending Yeíbicheí ceremonies offers an instant connection to my family and community. Everyone comes together to support the healing of the patient with whom the ceremony is held. As with all our ceremonies, it is a time for us to connect with one another.

I dream of home in the desert. It’s the desert which sustains me and quenches my thirst to be home. It’s the desert which distracts me from what I miss. As the seasons change, I plan the style changes I will make – more scarves, autumnal hues, boots and tights. But most importantly, I look for openings in my calendar so I can travel home to see family. “Being Navajo” is a continual transformation as I am always learning what more I can do. In a world filled with such complex beauty and chaos it is easy to assume the lessons are just as intricate. But the truth is simple – we are wondrous beings with an inherent need to connect to each all we need to do is just show one another we are important by being present.

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.

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.