this bridge called my back

Invoking the art of creation on this bridge called my back

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 Phd Candidate in the academy, which is predominately white male dominated institution, when it comes to published works and research, the academy has a way of making non-white people feel some kinna way. In thinking about my inner child, there have been times when this Ndn girl feels a long, long, looooong way from home, even when I’m on my own ancestral homelands!

Although I was born in Los Angeles, most of my formative years were spent growing up in the SW in Dine bikeyah. My cultural upbringing grounded me and provided the foundation I need today while working as an education advocate. I am fortunate and feel blessed that my late grandmother Clara bestowed a name on me early on in life. As a child, I think back, and realize my grandmother observed and listened to me, even when we spoke two different languages. I now understand, we spoke the language of love. *As a qualitative researcher, I think my grandmother was also a qual researcher.

Despite not knowing how to speak proficiently in our language, we communicated. I didn’t know how to speak Dine and she didn’t know how to speak English, yet there we were, castaway’s in the ocean of life. I really don’t remember how we communicated come to think of it? I knew what she was saying, however, I couldn’t speak back to her as I think about it. When she doctored me with medicine from the land, when she spoke to her horse Fuzzball, when she told me to hold the sheep leg up when she butchered, then proceeded to cure the meat and hang it up, to when she instructed me to walk in one direction while she walked in another in order to find the sheep, to when it was time to wake up and rise for breakfast. Her homemade tortillas are still so fresh in my mind.

As I think back, pretty much, that summer was spent in silence and observation. I need to revisit this time in my life again because now, I feel silence encapsulated a significant time of my formative years. I was an extremely shy child who was always watching my cousins from the side or not included because well, I was too quiet and contented with playing by myself. It happens to only children. Although I am not biologically an only child, I was raised by an aunt who had one son that was 11 years my senior, so I spent a significant time in my formative years alone. I am content and okay with being alone and find that sometimes I need that time and get frazzled when there is too much going on. On the flip side… Making up for that silence has been fun. I own functioning introvert graciously.

When I chose to move to the Pacific NW I first moved to White Swan, WA and lived with a friend who I nannied for on Yakama homelands. Before I actually moved into Nimiipuu homelands I got to visit and spend time with extended relatives from the Valley before I moved to “Loveland.” *What Lapwai, Idaho is known as. As I think back, back then, I had no idea just how large my family was, and today, I have a huge extended family circle in Yakama who are from Tillequots/Ellenwood families. As I eventually got to meet my Ele who lived in Wanity Park, I am reminded of her teachings too. One that stands out the most is “respect.” I remember the day she sat in her recliner and rocked back and forth with her cane in her hand and looked at me with that side eye and said, “It’s good to have respect, but be respectful too.” Remembering that time, I have come to learn respect for myself and how I am in public because I’m certain my gram looks down on me. If you can imagine for a young college co-ed my idea and her idea were vastly different and another story.

When thinking about invoking the art of writing, I have my inspirations, or my muses to thank. Sometimes it’s a run or walk, or some time at the coffee shop, listening to my favorite songs, a great read or re-reading a book I have already read, or journaling, sometimes its my artist friends, my crush and his vocabulary, but even then, I also have to paint or draw or color to get inspiration. Having an active mind necessitates getting ish out. Much like the scene in Harry Potter when a memory is removed from his mind, writing is that peace.

When I can, I take part but also need to be in ceremony at certain intervals. If and when I travel to a new place(s), or try to make it to a pow wow to dance, (which hasn’t happened in a couple years), I have come to learn I need certain things to help get the ebb and flow moving along. Other times I visit family and just need to be present for home cooked food that is made with love. That’s actually my favorite, especially at my sister Clarice’s home. She welcomes me and my children and our kids are growing up so fast it’s crazy, and we’re hanging on as long as we can. The other things that help me the most is a good hot sweat and fresh air out on the land.

On this journey, while doing all these little things that create big things, I do my best to speak Diné bizaad and Nimiipuutimt to my children, in fact, I’ve downloaded a Navajo Toddler app and Nimiipuutimt app to help keep language alive in our home. I share this because there have been times when the feeling of subjugation and oppression, or structural violence within the academy can be the challenge. Hearing our languages, eating our foods, and family time is solace and a slice of heaven, in order to get that academic hammajang stuff out of my head!

As I begin to prepare for graduation, I have reflected on my formal education. As a challenge from my professor, and in preparation for dissertation defense, I am working on my data analysis and scripting my write up in draft form. This part of my journey has taken me back to living in border towns and the vivid memories of visiting my grandmas on both sides of my family tree and extended relatives.

Through this journey, I have also learned more about myself and how I envision helping my home communities and family in the 21st Century. As my late grandmother Clara once told me, “we no longer ride to the trading post in a wagon, we use a truck. We no longer fight with bows and arrows, today we fight with what’s written on paper.” I think about my role as an education advocate and how it’s unfolded to help me see where I can apply myself. In my research readings I realize there is a certified teacher shortage, but also struggle with the fact that there is research on an Achievement Gap that our Native youth do not meet in standardized testing.

Despite recent law mandates in WA state, there is still a high need for Native teachers and I live in the borderlands of treaty territory. While this mandate states culturally responsive curriculum Since Time Immemorial must be taught in WA classrooms as a a law, I see a clear need for what next steps could be, however, how are Indigenous communities fairing with this? *Note to self, this is going to be a part of my closing chapter, because well… I am a citizen of Nimiipuu Nation and I live in a place that has an imagined border and Anzaldua comes in so strongly for me during this time.

At present, for my formal education, I am recalling 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. We’ve come a long way since then, however, we still need more Native writers! Debbie Reese has a great blog on this very subject titled American Indians In Children’s Literature and should be contacted if any readers out there want to see more on this subject.

All this to say, while my formative years were lived out in the SW, I went to Kaibeto Boarding School which was a Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) school and public school in one racist border town and another that was much nicer and reserved about it’s racism… reality is, the racism still exists. As I reflect on that time, until I was told by a relative who has traveled onto the next world, that I needed to transfer to a public school for a “better” education, I had no idea there was a difference. With the exception of my early years at that BIE school, where I learned about XIT Reservation Education and watched an 8th grade student do Go My Son, my recollection of the public schools I attended did not teach me or place Natives anywhere in U.S. History. So how do we leap forward without a hitch? *another research point to be made.

As I continue to reflect back, I have found that writing from an Indigenous consciousness has been a liberating experience. Without learning anything substantive or relevant to my culture while in the academy ( because culture is taught at home), 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. For example, growing up, we didn’t always have frybread (that was a treat) if anything 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 NW 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. It’s interesting because it’s usually been non-Natives who say what is “right or wrong” and dictating what is truth or not. Plagued with an insecure concern that I was not reading, writing, or performing as my white peers were, I have learned that it’s actually quite fitting for me to challenge the academy and write/critique from an Indigenous woman’s consciousness.

When thinking from this worldview, I am quite aware of the ancestral knowledge I have been blessed with. I write “Blessed” because, as an Indigenous woman, I am #Dine and #Nimiipuu. Coming from two distinct nations. The life I live is spiritual and I am connected to my ancestors who were here before me. Because of that truth, for Indigenous people around the world, being “blessed” is indeed a ceremonial occurrence.

It can happen anytime or when one goes through the sweat, or the Diné Beauty Way ceremony, or when my mother smudges me and my children with a prayer, or when my aunty Louise smokes me and my sisters down with holy tobacco, or when my Aunty Mary says an early morning prayer with corn pollen to humbly ask the Holy People to protect and guide us in the morning dawn light, or when my Aunty Sally shows me how to paint myself. The blessings received in those sacred spaces are a gentle reminder. The Indigenous people of this earth who have a bond and relationship with Mother Earth, Father Sky, Grandmother moon, and Grandfather sun that includes a responsibility to all that encompasses this place we call “home” wherever home is.

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 Indigenous people is connected to everything that we do. Whether we are in the academy, working in a tribal organization, a casino operation, or in an urban community, the Indigenous consciousness is present.

Presently, I acknowledge that I am a 21st Century Ndn. When January 1, 2001 happened I wasn’t thinking about my formal education. I admit to a time in my life when I was not concerned with what was going to happen to our Indigenous homelands, roots, berries, or our future generation. Today, I think differently. I think about what my role is as a mother, sister, daughter, granddaughter, niece, an aunty, and grand-aunt for the next generation. I believe what has occurred since that first day in the 21st Century on January 1, 2001, is when a new consciousness, an Indigenous female consciousness was reborn for me and one Gloria Anzadula named, La Concencia de la Mestiza.

The convergence of my ancestor’s prayers and my own prayers are no longer a dream, but reality. I am an answer for those prayers that have carried and protected me, today I see what is necessary. I have some of the same cultural values as my ancestors, yet have adapted because I am also all cultures in one. The work of a conscious Indigenous woman, in my opinion, is beginning to break down the barriers that have kept me and others limited in our thinking. Coming from an unconscious state, to a newly conscious and moving toward a more critically conscious and self-aware Indigenous woman has been a journey indeed!

This journey, this life, this walk crossed many bridges. Some I have burned and don’t look back at, however, they also lit the way for me and those are bridges I am also thankful for crossing. To show others what it means to transcend time as an Indigenous woman and to find answers that help heal myself, my children, and family in addition to the unresolved historical and inter-generational grief trauma that has plagued our community, especially between our women, our men, our culture (and within that) our languages infects my thoughts on some days that I can not sleep. To fight the good fight to help keep our lands, our language, our culture, and our people… it includes ending the inter-generational trauma’s and violence against families, women, men, and children within our community. To fight, resist, and overcome victimization and build up our community one person at a time with resiliency.

What has also been transforming, while in the academy, I have been awakened by a woman who challenged me to think beyond those reservation boundaries because I was too afraid to believe in what she believed in. My professor, Dr. Paula Groves-Price who identifies as Black and Japanese has challenged me to find that one place where I can write about my Indigenous roots. She’s helped me flesh out what I’ve needed to look for and while she is not an Indigenous woman, she gets me. And much like Anzaldua, “this bridge called my back” that the academy tries to break, this place where we have found one another, has become a beautiful place of transferring and transforming knowledge. I have learned much about her in the last year then I did in all my tenure because I opened my life up to it. Amazing what happens when trust occurs. Not to say she was the only catalyst, however, when the stars aligned there was an auspicious occurrence that has altered my thoughts and belief system, not only in myself, but in my community.

I’m thankful for my professor who was encouraging when I felt like walking away from the academy and throwing in the towel(s) *emphasis on plural. It’s taken some time for me to see what she saw in me, and I’m thankful for her challenging me to write more, to edit again, to go back and read, then to STOP reading and get out of my head, to relax, to cry, to dream, to go into ceremony, to run, to laugh, to get it together, to stop whining, to listen and be who my creator intended me to be.*Note the willful inner child in me rears her ugly head a time or two.  The last two years have been a tenuous process in which I was afraid to trust her, but also uncertain of how I would navigate this part of my journey. Today, I am absolutely thankful. Thankful she took the time to mentor and foster in me the woman that I am becoming.

As I close out with this post that is dedicated to the women in my life who stand out, but also to the men in my life both my dads who in their pain of reliving boarding school traumas and neglect showed me a better way. To both my late grandmothers who taught me so much, but I also my grandfathers who were leaders in their time. My sisters who call and check in on me and help with my babies, and cook for me or us, and to my sister-friends who love and encourage me, and remind me to blow that ish out and laugh, to my brothers who show my sons the ways they were taught, whether it’s to hunt, to dress, or mentor.

My colleagues within my department and program, but also in particular my professor. who held onto me even when I didn’t want to be held. More importantly, she believed in me. It’s amazing when that happens, because when you believe in yourself it’s awesome, but when you’ve got someone who also believes in what you believe, it’s magical. Her most recent work that I feel deeply honored to be a part of helped me realize what I envisioned and became even greater than I imagined because of her. While we have other colleagues to thank as well, Dr. Price listened and heard my ancestors, I saw it yesterday.

As an 21st Century Ndn, I’ve still got a long ways to go. However, as I finish up my program, I’m looking at those who supported and encouraged me. Not with their words, but in actions, and have helped me see what I couldn’t see. For that I am thankful and send my gratitude. Today, I dare to dream a little bit bigger than I imagined. If and when you ever hear that expression, “You/They gon learn.” Trust, I absolutely know what this means! 😳😜

Works Cited:

Anzaldua, G. (1987). “La conciencia de la mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness.” In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinster/Aunt Lute.

Moraga, C. and Azaldua, G. (2015) The Bridge Called My Back, 4th Edition: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Albany: State University of New York Press.


renée holt is Dine from the Sleeping Rock or With the Rock clan and enrolled citizen of the Nez Perce Nation of Idaho. A mother of three and a PhdD Candidate at Washington State University in the College of Education, Cultural Studies and Social Thought program, she also presently serves on the Board of Directors for Equity in Education Coalition of Washington and the Potlatch Fund which are both based out of Seattle, WA.

Categories Indigenous

1 thought on “this bridge called my back

  1. Wonderful post. We do our best, given what we have. It has to be enough. As to the academy, who knows how best to address that. I feel confident you will bring insight and knowing top it. What happens in response is not in our control.


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