The response to my last post has been quite humbling. Not surprisingly, some have applauded it and some……not so much. While it was written in a passionate state of mind, I stand by my words. It has started some discussion, which was the purpose. I understand that for many, it raises questions while also being distasteful or uncomfortable.
One of the more pervasive statements I’ve heard from those who don’t know what to make of my last post, is “Why don’t you all just get over it. It’s in the past.” It’s a missive that is also widely used in regard to the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans in the United States. In terms of genocide, I have yet to hear anyone utter that phrase to people of Jewish descent in regard to the Holocaust.
It is easy to make such a statement when you consider the issue from a sliver of perspective rather than open your view to a much bigger picture.
No one in my lifetime has rousted me from my home, rounded up my family and forced me to march hundreds of miles leaving behind all that I know. Yet, I still have experienced indignities,big and small, whose roots took hold in those horrible times. It was only two years ago that I was at a holiday party chatting at the dinner table with a co-worker. In the midst of pleasant conversation about the scenic area I grew up in, my co-worker’s husband made a comment about “stupid Indians” in reference to the Navajo reservation being on daylight savings time. He apparently didn’t get the memo that I was Native. I was momentarily dumbfounded for a couple of reasons. One being, it was overtly racist but most mystifying was that these words fell out of the mouth of a Jewish person.
Surreal and awkward moments have become a strange normal for a lot of us. Not that far back, I was asked to take my boyfriend’s young son to flag football practice. I was glad to help him out and eager to see the little guy playing his new favorite sport. As practice was coming to an end, I waited just off the field, smiling at the sweaty little rabble of boys. They scrambled and took a knee around their coach. He gave them a pep talk then they wrapped up with a cheer, “Redskins! Redskins! Redskins!” Each chant was louder than the last. I stood there perplexed while my inner dialogue was having a moment. Apparently, that was the name the coach had chosen for their team even as the whole controversy swirling around the Washington Redskins name was at its peak.
So yes, the atrocities of mass killing of First Americans happened many years ago but their legacy persists. As proud as I am today of who I am, it wasn’t always so. Although I believe my experiences have made me stronger, I don’t want my children, nieces, nephews or your children to struggle that way. No child should grow up feeling less than.
Maybe it’s the fact that people can’t figure out what ethnicity I am, that allows them to speak without a filter or in a lot of cases, a conscience. Let me introduce myself:
Yá’át’ééh shi Dine’é (Hello my people), shi’kéh (my relatives), dóó táhanołtso (táh-an-nołt-tsó)! I am Tammy Van Keuren, I am of the Naasht’ézhí-Tábąąhá (Zuni-Edgewater clan.) I was born for the Anglo clan. My Cheii (Maternal Grandfather) is Táchii’nii (Red Running into Water clan.)*
I don’t speak the language of my people fluently (my apologies if my introduction was off.) For my generation, that isn’t uncommon. The reasons for our lack of ability to speak our own language goes back to the third act of our cultural genocide.
In the late 1800’s, after the “Savage” threat was diminished Native Americans were relegated to reservations, at the mercy of the government. It was decided that Native children needed to be “civilized” with education and religion in the form of boarding schools. Educating the children was the stated purpose of these schools. The ultimate purpose was cultural assimilation.
My mother and her siblings, like the majority of children on the reservations in the 1950’s were sent to boarding schools. These boarding schools were government-funded, operated by the BIA or Religious groups and far from home.
In boarding school, they weren’t allowed to speak their language or punishment would follow. It was even forbidden outside of the classrooms and in the dormitories. I believe this was the inception of why my Mom chose not to teach my sister’s and I our language.
I don’t feel angry about her decision to not teach us our language. I believe that for her generation, it was their way of hoping that we could have a better life. If we spoke English well, we’d be more accepted in society, especially with the hopes that their children wouldn’t always be tethered to the reservation.
Not only were they to sound like “Americans” they would look like them too. For some reading this, you may wonder, “What is the big deal?” Well, in many Native cultures, men traditionally kept their hair long and cared for. Boys were taught the importance of their hair from a young age and it became part of their identity as they grew into men.
I recall my aunt telling me that one of her first memories of boarding school was seeing the little boys crying and distraught from the forced haircuts. She remembers the pile of tsiiyeel (traditional hair bun worn by Dine) on the floor. To see something that was referenced in The Creation Story, essentially a part of you, taken and thrown on the floor then swept away like garbage must have been devastating.
I think my Mom was lucky, if that’s possible, in her boarding school experience. For many Native Americans in various schools across the country, boarding schools were rife with physical, mental and sexual abuse. Although, I still wonder if my Mom, Aunts or Uncles had endured any abuse at the hands of their boarding schools. I’ve found that in Diné culture, some things don’t get talked about.
No, my generation nor I had to endure those boarding schools but I do feel indirectly affected by them. Affected by a system whose philosophy, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man,”¹ continues to negatively impact so many.
There were times growing up, I felt embarrassed about my brown skin and the fact I was Diné (Navajo.) I remember how on standardized tests we’d be asked to check the box regarding ethnicity. We could only check one box. Being that I was half “American Indian” and half Anglo it was kind of confusing. I would grudgingly check the “American Indian” box.
I wanted to only be Anglo sometimes. Then maybe I wouldn’t have to put up with the lady at the drugstore following me in the short aisles thinking I was going to shoplift, while my blonde friend roamed unchecked. Maybe I would’ve been treated better by one of my middle school teachers who seemed utterly dismayed that I had the capacity, as a Navajo, to be intelligent and well-spoken. Maybe I could just laugh along when I heard classmates mocking the way Navajos talked instead of getting that anguished, angry feeling in my stomach.
As I got older, I cared less about fitting in and more about being myself. In high school, I started wishing more and more that I could speak Navajo. I never had the chance to have a conversation with my Great Grandma who spoke only Navajo. She had always been so fascinating in my eyes. She was a strong Medicine Woman and was highly regarded in the Cow Springs area. My memories of her are few but fond. I can still hear her voice singing a prayer for me when I was 5 years old because I was tormented by nightmares. I can remember the scent of her cabin, a mixture of sage, Bear Medicine and lingering mutton fat. She always smiled when she saw me.
Just when I was feeling that urge to connect more with my Diné family, she passed on. She died of stomach cancer that I believe was caused by living downwind of an open-pit uranium mill site. That site wasn’t re-mediated until the 90’s. Another contaminated site nearby was only recently re-mediated.
So when you are compelled to say, “The past is the past, get over it,” I ask you to think about what you are asking of us. This has affected us. It is personal to us. It would be personal to you. It is part of our story. My story is but a small one, one of thousands.
It was estimated that the population of Diné was around 25,000 before the Long Walk and subsequent internment. In two years, the population was decimated to between 5,000 and 8,000 people. So on a conservative estimate, that is 17,000 dead for the sake of “progress.”
We really aren’t asking for much. We ask for our voices to be heard. We ask for equality. We ask for consideration in matters that directly affect us. I don’t think that should be such a chore. Isn’t this America after all?
*an earlier version had my Maternal Grandfather’s clan incorrect.
- Pratt, Captain Richard H.-1892