As an Indigenous woman it can be challenging to live in a world that does not celebrate my unique heritage outside of the Rez. As a graduate student in the academy, which is a predominately white male dominated institution, when it comes to published works and research, the academy has a way of making an Ndn girl feel a long, long way from home, even when I am living and loving on my own homelands in Nimiipuu territory.
Although I was born in LA, I was raised on the Rez for the most part in border towns and consider myself to be grounded in my cultures. I was blessed with Indian names from my late grandmother and an aunt, both who helped guide and taught me what little I know. I participate in ceremonies, travel and dance at pow wows, traditional family gathering sites seasonally with extended family to harvest roots and berries as our ancestors did. Although I am not fluent, I do my best to speak Dine and Nimiipuu to my children. In fact, because we don’t live on or near Dine’bikeyah I downloaded a Navajo Toddler app for my five year old who enjoys learning. I share this because there have been times when the feeling of subjugation in the academy can be quite the challenge and seeing or hearing bits of our culture in technology reminds me we are as innovative todays as we were back in the days gone by.
As I begin to prepare for my qualifying exams, I have been reflecting on my formal education, in part, as a challenge from my professor to unlearn what I’ve been taught, but also in preparation for dissertation research. The challenge has taken me back to living in a couple of border towns and the vivid memories of visiting my grandma and extended family.
Through this journey of introspection, I have learned more about myself and how I envision helping my home community in the 21st Century. As my late grandmother once told me, “we no longer ride to the trading post in a wagon, we use a truck. We no longer fight with a bows and arrows, today we fight with what’s written on paper.” I think about how we as a community struggle with keeping our Native youth in high school and preventing dropout, suicide, achievement gap that our Native youth do not meet in standardized testing, domestic violence, and substance abuse. On the flip side, I also think of the positives healthy choices and coping mechanisms, extended family helping each other out, employment, ceremony, and family. These positive things prove we are resilient and will survive just as our ancestors did.
In my reflecting back on my educational journey, I recall the books I had to read that showed visuals of blond haired children playing near red and white painted barns with animals like chickens, pigs, and dairy cows. In my formative years, I attended a Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) school, until I was told by a relative who is no longer with us that I needed to transfer to a public school for a “better” education. With the exception of my early years at that BIE school, where I learned about XIT Reservation Education and watched an 8th grade student perform Go My son,
my recollection of the public schools I attended later did not teach me or place Natives anywhere in U.S. History.
What I recall was the racism in one border town to be extreme and in the other, diverse and more acceptance and open minded people. Not to mention learning how to sew in what used to be called Home Economics, and in Science, how to dissect a frog, more importantly, the difference between a deciduous and coniferous forest! What I especially remember (unrelated to Natives but huge in world history) was Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Watching the parade in his honor and seeing the many faces of his people crying in celebration was emotional. I recall writing about that world event and earning a scholarship in government class to attend Close UP in Washington, D.C.
As I continue to reflect back, I have found that writing from an Indigenous perspective has been a liberating experience. Without learning anything substantive or relevant to my culture during my formative years, I know that any Indigenous knowledge that I have learned has been instilled in me through my family and the culture I was exposed to. Although we didn’t always have frybread (that was a treat) we ate tortillas daily. When I reconnect with childhood friends we jokingly tease about how Blue Bird flour is a part of southwest culture, just as I see canned salmon is in the Pacific Northwest cultures.
Since my formal education training, I’ve been working on unlearning and reacquainting myself with the strengths and weaknesses that I had buried. I find that my insecurities have been rooted in being told what was/is “right” or what was/is not according to non-Indigenous teachings, more poignantly, according to a colonized system of education in my formative years. Plagued with an insecure concern that I was not reading, writing, and performing as my white peers were, I have learned that it’s actually quite fitting for me to challenge the academy and write from an Indigenous woman’s perspective.
When thinking from an Indigenous woman’s perspective I think about the ancestral knowledge I have been blessed with. I write “Blessed” because, as an Indigenous woman, the life I live is spiritual. I am spiritually connected to my ancestors who were here before me and believe being “blessed” is indeed a ceremonial occurrence for Indigenous people. It can happen anytime or when one goes through the sweat lodge, or the Diné Beauty Way ceremony, or when a mother smudges her children with cedar, or when a relative says an early morning prayer with corn pollen to humbly ask the Holy People to protect and guide their loved ones. The blessings received in these sacred places are a reminder for Indigenous people that we are the People. The Indigenous people of the world have a bond and relationship with Mother Earth, Father Sky, Grandmother moon, and Grandfather sun that includes a responsibility to all that embodies this place we call home wherever that may be.
As Chief Seattle (Suquamish) is quoted,“The earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.” I recognize that the Indigenous knowledge we carry within our hearts, minds, and spirits as nations is connected to everything we do. Whether we are in the academy, working in a tribal organization/administration, a casino, or in an urban community, the Indigenous consciousness is present.
As an Indigenous woman in the academy, I look to women before me like Zitkala-Ša (1876-1938) for inspiration who wrote from an Indigenous woman’s perspective and challenged society just enough to say, “This is me and I am here.”
Presently, I acknowledge that I am a 21st Century Ndn. When January 1, 2001 happened I wasn’t thinking about my formal education. Heck, I was worried about computer systems crashing and as a result a nuclear threat around the world that would affect us in sleepy ol’ Lapwai, Idaho. I admit I was not concerned with what was going to happen to our Indigenous lands, roots, berries, or our future. Today I think differently. I think about what my role is as a mother, sister, daughter, granddaughter, niece, aunt, friend, and grand-aunt. I believe what has occurred since that new day in January 1, 2001, is a new consciousness, the awakening of an Indigenous woman’s consciousness.
Because my ancestors fought and believed in protecting the future, I see what is necessary. I have the same cultural values as my ancestors, yet have adapted because I am all cultures at the same time. The work of a conscious Indigenous woman, in my opinion, includes breaking down the barriers that have kept me and the rest of my home community limited in our thinking and proactivity. To show others what it means to transcend time as a NiMiiPuu woman is challenging, it’s not easy, and one that includes some isolation but also faith. Finding answers that help heal the problems that have plagued our community, especially between our women, is work. Not to mention for our men, children, culture (and within that) our language and intellectual property rights.. The fight to help keep our land, language, culture, and to grow healthy people that can help to end violence against our families, women, men, and children within our community can be emotionally, mentally, and spiritually taxing.
As other Indigenous nations work and fight an oppressive system, I can only help myself first and change how I live first. To end victimization and work towards building up our community one person at a time begins with me. No matter what work entails, we are most often working for the common good of our respective community, wherever that may be.
While in the academy I have been awakened by a woman who challenged me to think beyond those reservation boundaries, I was too afraid to believe in what she believed in. It took a Japanese black woman who challenged me to find my Indigenous roots. It went deeper than any textbook or video I ever watched. It took a woman who respectfully declined an Ivy League opportunity, not knowing she would eventually find me along her journey, to help awaken an Indigenous woman’s consciousness. Not to say she was the only catalyst, but when the stars aligned there was an auspicious occurrence that has altered my thoughts and belief system, not only in myself, but in my people.
My challenge to our community is to awaken to that big dream and use our Nimiipuu ancestral awakening and to begin dreaming a better dream for our people and build up, to encourage our community more often than not. To dare to dream bigger than we’ve ever imagined and decolonize how we view the world. Decolonize how we view women, men, education, family, and indigenous culture for our youth, but also ourselves.
It’s by far been an easy trek, it’s been challenging. At times I’ve felt lonely and failed at keeping my own words to myself, but with each new rising sun, I started where I left off and tried again. Like Aaliayah sang in her song, If at first you don’t succeed, you dust yourself of and try again.” That line pretty much sums up how I live my life. Imperfect, but with each day, I work towards being a better woman than I was the day before.
*I actually drafted this back in 2012 and since then, have gone back through this and find my writing reflects a different style. Although same principles apply, I can tell where my growth and change has occurred personally. This was a great exercise to revisit old writing works.