Native American culture & teachings through a modern lens

Tag: navajo woman

Dear Girl-Made-of-Honey

Dear Girl-Made-of-Honey,

Please remember everyone will be drawn to the vivacity of your sweetness. Take note of who loves you without wanting more than you can be. Remember, especially, the ones who know you are still growing and leave room for you to be all your beautiful forms at once, as you choose.

Dear Girl-Made-of-Honey,

Watch for those whose words align so beautifully with their actions that you lose track of what is said and what is done because the lines of distinction have been erased with intention, attention and devotion.

Dear Girl-Made-of-Honey,

Live your promise to be the giant of your dreams, the queen who is king, never bowing down, submitting to anything less than you deserve.

Dear Girl-Made-of-Honey,

Your light can brighten the darkest places but don’t fear reaching out for a hand to hold. It’s in the darkness where touch can feel the warmest, where kisses can go deep and love of your true self can reach back into the cave within.

Dear Girl-Made-of-Honey,

Remember you come from the heavens. You are not solely stardust but the core of its brightness, your shine will at times be too bright for those around you. Look for the ones who instead of walking away or turn their back on you, sit in your presence with heart-shaped sunglasses so they can continue to stand in your love light.

Dear Girl-Made-of-Honey,

You are the goodness of the nectar, the sweetness of the fruit, the genesis of the bloom…you, dearheart, are a gift, hold that truth close.

Dear Girl-Made-of-Honey,

Remember you are beautiful and are the strength of your people, your mother, her mother and her mother. You are the pulse of a bloodline that traces the circle we walk around the fire in the Hogan. You are the antidote, the medicine that cures.

Dear Girl-Made-of-Honey,

You are a vision prayed into existence, the gift to a people, the leader of the next generation, a vessel of solutions to your people’s heartache. Continue to shine your prismatic rays as you uncover the treasure in the womb of your soul.

Dear Girl-Made-of-Honey,

You are not simply a universe…your existence is the past, present and future. You are a resilient multiverse brimming with the light of millions of ancestors and descendants. So rest in the simplicity of your greatness knowing deep within you there is only complexity of the love of the people you are from.

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.

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.

Stay Gold.

#STAYGOLDGIVE31

At 30, I am making every one of my English teachers happy, as this almost birthday girl has been thinking of Pony Boy Curtis. The greaser from the S.E. Hinton’s book “The Outsiders” has come to mind several times this August as I set to mark my golden birthday – the day you turn the age of the day you were born. While the American novel is filled with the drama of rumbles and the fuzz, the phrase “stay gold” stands as poetic reminder to remain true to oneself and in full of goodness and innocence.

August prompts me annually to reconnect and give more of myself to others and the causes I am passionate about it. Last year I launch a month long thank you campaign – #30for30notesofgratitude – sending notes of thanks to people in my life. In the same vein this month I want to pledge to donate 31 extra hours of volunteer time.

Much like my gratitude practice I dedicate a great deal of my time to volunteering. I find it rewarding to work with many organizations including Whisper n Thunder, Arizona Humanities, Valley of the Sun United Way and the Phoenix Symphony. In each role I have learned so much about the impact the organizations have in our community.

My #STAYGOLDGIVE31 challenge is my effort to remember being involved and active in the many communities I am a part of is critical to my personhood as an asdzaan Diné (Navajo woman). Whether it is helping out relatives with ceremonies or taking care of our elders, the giving of time to help one another is a priceless gift. Foundational to improving our society is remembering being a part of a community carries with it an inherent obligation to not solely show up but be present and participate. Stay gold friends.

Ode to the Desert

ODE

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).

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’.

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.

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’.