Truth Be Told

Signed copies of the book I co-authored with Soong-Chan Rah, "Unsettling Truths - The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery" are available from my website:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"When I grow up I want to be a shepherd"

I imagine that is what my grandfather said when he was a young boy growing up near Blanco Canyon in New Mexico. I remember him telling me stories about when he used to herd sheep as a child. That is until he was 'enrolled' in school. At a young age my grandfather was removed from his home and sent to a boarding school. There he was forbidden from speaking Navajo, practicing Navajo traditions and culture, and even learning from his elders. He was made to pick an English name and a birthday. Everything that was 'Navajo' was pushed aside and replaced with what was 'American'. He no longer was given the option of becoming a shepherd when he grew up. He was forced, at an early age, into a whole new world and this world had little value or patience for who he was or where he came from.

In an effort to give their children the best possible chance of surviving in this new world, my grandparents encouraged them in English and in their education. At the same time, they also heavily deemphasized the Navajo language and traditional way of life. As a child, I saw my grandparents nearly every day and for several years, as they grew older, I practically lived with them, sleeping at their house nearly every night. But they rarely spoke Navajo to me and only told me stories when I asked, which was not very frequent. As a result, I never considered becoming a shepherd. I never considered moving back to the Reservation. I thought I was to take the path that led deep into this 'new world' that lay before me. I graduated from Rehoboth Christian high school and enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). And I have to admit, upon leaving for college I had no plans of ever returning for anything more than a brief visit.

But nearly 12 years later (about 5 years ago), I moved with my family from where we were living in Denver, CO back to the Navajo Nation. Ever since I left for college and especially as I began raising a family I began to realize how important it was to understand who I was and where I came from. I wanted to understand and speak the Navajo language and to become familiar with our culture and traditional way of life. The world is becoming more and more integrated and assimilated; television, radio, the internet and the Global Marketplace are bringing people together in ways that were never imagined even 25 years ago. Unfortunately, as we are being drawn ‘together’ we are also being stripped of many of the things that make us different and unique; things such as language, cultural traditions and dress. Kids on the Navajo reservation are sitting in our trailers and hogans watching TV and surfing the internet and being bombarded with the same ‘ideal’ images for body, clothing, careers and life styles as the kids in Beverly Hills, Manhattan and Miami. Our Navajo children look around and see the unemployment and depressed economy of the reservation and quickly realize that learning to herd sheep, speaking Navajo and knowing their clans will be of little value in this new global economy. So they learn the same thing my grandfather was told, that things which make us distinctive and unique are supposed to be shed and tossed aside in an effort to 'fit in' and succeed.

This is exactly what happened to me, and after I realized it I was incredibly grateful that I still had a chance to reverse my course and offer my children something different. So my family and I moved back to the Navajo reservation and were given an opportunity to live in a one room hogan out on a sheep camp located on a dirt road six miles off of the nearest paved road. For three years we lived there with no running water or electricity. We had a dirt floor and an outhouse about 50 yards away. Sheep, cows and horses frequently grazed right outside our door, and we lived alongside and at the mercy of the elements (wind, cold, heat, rain, snow and mud).

Since graduating from college I have been trained and began working as a computer programmer and data analyst doing technical support, database design and web programming. And while living in Denver I started doing contract work for companies remotely, outside of the Denver area. Most of the time, I would telecommute over the internet and occasionally would travel to visit my clients on site. Prior to our move back to the Navajo Nation, I tested and discovered that I could receive a digital cellular signal at our hogan. This meant I would be able to keep working for my clients; by connecting my cell phone to my laptop I could use it as a modem and get on the internet at DSL speeds (I call myself the Verizon Wireless poster child). Once I was on the internet, I could perform all of my assigned duties for the clients I was working for, or at least in 3-4 hour segments, which was the battery life of my laptop and cell phone. But I was also able to charge them in our car if a longer work session was necessary. I found this arrangement worked out extremely well and was delighted that I could give my children the experience of growing up in a very traditional Navajo setting while still demonstrating to them that we could also actively participate in the Global Marketplace. I especially remember one afternoon, I was returning from herding sheep. It was the first time I took them out by myself, and it felt like a graduation of sorts. I recently had completed a computer contract, and we were beginning to wonder where my next project would come from. I had my cell phone with me and as we came up over the hill, I saw that I had received a voicemail. A previous client of mine had called to let me know they had some additional work for me and were wondering if I could begin working for them again soon. Some of the work would require travel, but much of it could be done from our hogan. I remember at that moment feeling a surge of pride, hope and purpose. What a wonderful privilege it was to be able to raise my children in such a culturally traditional and rural environment and yet still have the opportunity to work in such a technically advanced and competitive field.

About a year and a half later my family and I moved from our hogan to Fort Defiance. Our current house is still located on a dirt road, but now we do have electricity and running water. I am still doing contract work and have clients around the country that I consult for on a continual basis. My oldest son attends Dine Bi'olta, the Navajo Immersion school here in Fort Defiance. At his school, Navajo is the primary language of instruction, and he is learning daily about the culture and traditions of our people as well as math, science and reading skills. We regularly travel back to our hogan and occasionally pull him out of school so he can participate in activities with family on the sheep camp and around the community. I see all of this as a valuable part of his education and understanding of his identity. He knows and sees that daddy works on his computer and often has meetings with people around the country and even the world. He also knows that at times I need to travel to do my work, but frequently I am able to do it from our house in Fort Defiance or even from our hogan out at the sheep camp. And this is exactly what I want him to learn. I want my son to know that he can live on our reservation, participate in a traditional way of life and spend time talking with and learning from the elders of our community while at the same time also participating, competing and succeeding in the new Global Marketplace.

I miss my grandparents and often wish they could have lived long enough to see the full circle I have traveled. I know my grandfather would be proud of where we live and how we are raising our children. And I think he would agree with me when I say that I am convinced that the future leaders of our Navajo people, our country and the world, will not just be those who have successfully navigated and mastered the academic and economic paths laid before them. But they will also have a deep understanding of their own identity and a strong connection to the communities they come from. These leaders will know who they are both within, as well as separate from, the Global Marketplace. They will know how to navigate through it, but will not allow it to define them. And their children will have the opportunity to say "When I grow up. I want to be a shepherd."


Unknown said...

That is a terrific article for the Times. I’m wondering if you have any idea how many other Navajo have this same vision, this same passion. I’m guessing that it’s a small number. Either way, large or small, running your article in the Times is a terrific way of sharing it with others.

You know, I was living in Alaska during the time that television came to the villages. When I first got there, the only television station that went to the villages via satellite was the state educational channel. When villagers wanted to be “entertained,” the village rented a 16 MM movie and showed it in the Community Center. Most of the villagers would attend. And the school library was a busy place in the evenings, too, because many were finding entertainment and education in the books and magazines in the library.

Then came 1984, satellite television now offered a vast array of shows - white man shows. Attendance at movie showings dropped dramatically. The libraries saw a drastic decline in usage. When I stayed in villagers’ homes, our conversations were now competing with the distraction of a TV blaring, and sleep was harder to get because the TV was left running all night long.

And the rest of what you wrote about had occurred and continued to occur. Western clothes, “lingo” learned through television, and a rush to reject traditional values, traditional history, and language. As a White man who was only visiting, I was still deeply saddened and spent a great deal of time with the high school students in the villages talking about the danger of letting the world around them squeeze them into its own mould.

I was fascinated by the history of the people I visited and impressed with their hardiness and strength, and I had many chances to hear from the elders and learn about their past. I remember one conversation with a man and woman in whose home I was having breakfast (sourdough pancakes!!!!). The were both in their mid-90’s and were alive when the families of the local area were forced to move to one location (to become Selawik, AK) so that their children could go to school. Forced relocation in Alaska for different reasons than in the Lower 48. The children were forced to speak English only, and, of course, the curriculum was all from the White man’s perspective. I said to the man and his wife how impressed I was with their story and how valuable this history of the village must be to the young people, who could learn about their heritage from living people. The man told me that no one asks them to tell the story. No one wants to hear it. What a shame.

Anyway, I guess I’m telling you this to say I have a little sense of where you have come from and where you want to go, and I am so very glad that there are people like you who have made a commitment to carry on the culture and values and dress and language and all that goes with being Navajo. I encourage you to continue full-speed ahead!

Anonymous said...

I am an Ojibwe, I grew up on a place called Hill 57, outside of Great Falls, Montana. Your article reminded me of this. Hill 57 was used as an argument against termination in the 1950s and 60s during the active years of federal termination policy. The local clergy who were Catholic--used the Hill to illustrate the experience of a tribal people when you strip them of recognition and land. I guess to that degree, their argument was successful. We had no running water or electricity even though the middle class, all white neighborhood of Valley view was less than half a mile away, just on the other side of the hill.

We were a traditional community, I tend to think that our older people had a view that as long as we were left alone, they were self sufficient laborers, that we would be all right. We didn't have any idea just how marginalized we were politically and economically. Our elders focused on the commununity life and we existed in kind of a bubble separate from the Great Falls community.

I like your story of living simply in a hogan and the comfort and security that I am sure your family must feel to be a part of their community and their homeland. While Hill 57 no longer exists; due largely as a final act of dispossession; that is the only sense of security that my relations have ever had. The physical place is diminished and so is the sense of community. Many of them were too eager to abandon this place; thinking that it would always be there or that it was replacable, of course, neither was true.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I'd like some feedback: if this is readbale.
I'm not sure how to opoerate these kinds of forums

Unknown said...

I'm just finding your blog thru this article (thru the CCDA website) and feel like I've had a good visit with you. Did someone pour tea and I didn't notice?

I resonated most with your thoughts on how much effort it takes to choose to build bridges, to say Ya'ah't'hey (forgive the phonetics!)instead of staying with assumptions or judgments. It's not measurable, but it's huge, and I'm glad there's people who are willing to do it. I think as adults we can model that for kids in a way that will make it a much easier step for them.

I've spent the last ten years as a white woman living around First Nations communities in Canada (Blackfoot Nation last 5 years) and I felt that choice almost every day. I responded differently depending on how centered or needy I felt. I've moved away, to Fort Collins, CO area now, largely because I ran out of hope and energy for that kind of self-extension, but I'm hoping my story comes back around. I miss those times and friendships. And I recognize the value of your choices and commend you.

Now, I think there's some more great articles for me to read on this blog! Thanks for posting your thoughts.

SD Sue said...

thank you Mark for your insights. for a white woman who has always wanted to be a shepherd and to live in community with real people you give me hope. we met at the CCDA conference last week. i feel Lakota on the inside even though i am white on the outside (a reverse apple?)

Unknown said...

I would love to know more about you! I have been spreading your name throughout the internet and I hope thats okay with you! I honestly think you are very special and more ppl need to hear your story! Mark Charles!