COVID Relief Work: My Reflection

I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom when my mentor, Ethel Branch, former Navajo Nation Attorney General called me. COVID-19 was spreading throughout the country, and we both knew it would eventually reach our Diné Nation. What could we do? I thought about the 13 grocery stores across our reservation, which spans across 27,000 mi², our community members who haul water every day, and the injustices that we continue to endure. The challenges we experience on the Navajo Nation; inadequate housing, limited access to nutritional foods, an underfunded healthcare system, and the fact that many of our community members live with underlying health conditions, would be completely exacerbated by this pandemic.

Ethel shared her concerns and asked me if I would be interested in joining a leadership team she was forming. Her idea was to start a GoFundMe to raise money we could then use to purchase food and supplies for elderly and immunocompromised so they could stay home and stay safe. We shared the same concern in that while the country shuts down, we were worried about those who aren’t prepared to stay home, or simply can’t because they need to travel the 4-6 hours round trip to a border town to purchase groceries and supplies. What if we could step in to fill that need, and be the resource that allows our people to stay home and stay safe. What if?

Ethel started the GoFundMe and within 48 hours it raised about $50,000. We were all shocked. We began having leadership team meetings, and it truly amazed me how Ethel pulled together Navajo women from various communities and professional backgrounds, and began building this organization from the ground up. I was so honored to be a part of this movement. It might sound dramatic, but it felt like getting a call to join The Avengers. Except, this team was of Navajo women, joining forces to step up and protect our people from a raging pandemic. Our superpowers were dedication, creativity, resilience, and love for our people.

There were many times where I felt in adequate to do the work that was required and needed during this time. Like much of my experience working on the Navajo Nation after graduating from Duke, I felt overwhelmed by the amount work needed in our community, and often frustrated at the systems in play that make community rebuilding so difficult. As a young 23-year old woman, it was also a challenge to get my foot in the door, gain trust from local leaders, and quite honestly, to be taken seriously. After working for my local government for a year, I was becoming exhausted, attending meeting after meeting and seeing no progress, let alone feeling like I was not being heard, and my input not taken seriously. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I returned home expecting to have this insurmountable and immediate impact, but I guess I was naïve to think I would fit in. On the flip side, maybe that is the beauty of my impact, I never settle and I never give up. I constantly pushed my peers, advocated for community change, and worked hard to create an inclusive environment.

But, the difference in working for my local government and joining the amazing women at Yee Ha’ólníí Doo d.b.a. Navajo & Hopi Families COVID Relief Fund is that I was finally given a chance to blossom into a leader. I am trusted with tasks, given the space to offer my input (which is taken seriously), and am an important part of the work we are doing. And, that feels so good to say – I am important. This is also such a unique experience for me because I have never worked with all Native women before. It is empowering. Joining Zoom meetings is like hopping on a call with all my aunties, strategizing innovative ways to help our elders and immunocompromised. The women I work with are amazing and I am so grateful for this opportunity to build alongside them and learn from them. Also, I want to add that it still baffles me that our team has yet to physically meet (all our work/meetings are done virtually). We’ve been working together going on nine months now, and we still have not met in-person. Think about that. There is so much trust that goes into the work we do, and I think that is what has contributed to our successes.

Since our inception at the beginning of March, we have raised over $6 Million, received over 10,000 requests for help, conducted over 400 food distributions, and served over 60,000 people on the Navajo Nation. Every day we are working diligently to continue this work; coordinating orders, training volunteers to safely distribute kinship boxes, and fundraising so that we can continue serving our people through the winter months. Here is the part where I encourage anybody reading this to donate to our organization. Let me tell you why. I often get inquiries from non-Native people asking me for advice, questioning aspects of my culture, or asking if I know of a Native-led organization I recommend they donate to. I believe more people are becoming aware of the realities of Indigenous people, especially during this pandemic, and are genuinely wanting to contribute. I have told numerous people not to drop everything and come to the Navajo Nation to help, but rather, to entrust in us, members of our own communities, to step up and protect each other. So, here is my answer; donate to the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID Relief Fund because we are a group of dedicated Navajo women working to protect our people. In the same way our elders and immunocompromised have depended on us to show up for them, we in fact must also rely on the generous donations that allow us to continue providing food, cleaning supplies, and PPE.

My role has been as the Utah lead, coordinating food/supply distribution in Monument Valley, and surrounding areas. Through both drive-thru pickups and home deliveries, I have had the joy of being the person that shows up to deliver essentials and witnessing the utter gratitude from our recipients. Contrastingly, this has also meant that I have been the person who receives the stories of loss, heartbreak, and a sadness I haven’t experienced before. A few weeks ago, I drove to the home where a few months prior I had completed a delivery of food and supplies. I felt a sudden sadness knowing that this family is no longer complete. I kept a brave heart and introduced a spirit of happiness as I waved form my vehicle, letting them know I’d be placing their kinship package on their porch. As I unloaded, they stood at their door, masks on, thanking me for the work I continue to do for our community. But, there was nothing more that I wanted to do than give them a hug, to say that I am so sorry for their loss. While knowing there is absolutely nothing I could have done, I still wish I saw their father standing with them at their doorway,  smiling and waving as I drove away, excited to see what essentials had come their way.

So many battles against COVID have been waged in my community, and beautiful lives have been taken from us entirely too soon. It is heartbreaking. It makes me angry and frustrated. Over 13,000 people on the Navajo Nation have tested positive for COVID-19. We have lost nearly 600 of our people. 600 mothers, fathers, masanís, cheiis, brothers, and sisters. This year has been devastating for our Diné Nation, and this entire country. We need to continue fighting together, protecting those who have protected us.

I’ll end with sharing a quote from Bryan Stevenson, which I first heard while listening to his TED Talk as I walked through Duke’s campus, on my way to class. “ You are going to be tired, tired, tired, but you have to brave, brave, brave.” There have been many moments along this journey where I pulled over to the side of the road to mentally prepare myself for what was to come. Instances where I found myself completely exhausted, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I want so badly to spread my reach far and wide, encompassing all of my people; to protect, and heal the pain and trauma this year has brought us. For now, I will continue to be brave, brave, brave.

Duke must do more for Native students

**Reposting an article I wrote and published in my school newspaper, The Chronicle. First published on 01/16/2019.

During my first week of college one student asked me, “you’re Native? I thought we killed all the Natives.” I took a deep breath, kindly told him he was wrong, and walked away. I wanted nothing more in that moment than to be around Native people, to talk about the many awkward situations I faced with someone who understood me. I was alone, and for four years this has been my reality.

I have always loved Duke. I grew up two thousand miles away from campus in a rural community called Monument Valley, located on the Navajo Nation. When I left the reservation, I made myself one promise: I would return with a Duke degree. My dream slowly turned into a nightmare.

I quickly learned that there were no classes on Native American studies, no designated space for Native students on campus, no Native professors, and no Native advisors. Most of my professors admitted that I was the first Native student they had ever knowingly taught.

I struggled to fit in at a school that prides itself on diversity, yet had no support for me. I did not feel comfortable sharing my financial, academic and overall Native struggles with a white counselor sitting across a desk trying to understand me. How could I expect someone who has never set foot on a reservation to understand my descriptions of it? Someone who could not possibly understand the intergenerational trauma I learn to suppress every day sat across me advising me to just “work a little harder,” or worse, “take some time off.” All I wanted was someone who understood the obstacles I was facing, without questioning me. I wanted to not have to defend myself every day.

I felt like a ghost. I walked across campus dreading every step to class because I couldn’t focus on studying when I saw videos of men and women sprayed with mace at Standing Rock and images of dogs attacking women and children. I feared witnessing history repeat itself. I began to care less about school when I saw yet another post on Facebook about an Indigenous women missing. So, to my professors, I am sorry if I am a little too distracted to raise my hand in class today.

As the only Native person in my classes, I am always held to an unfair standard. Numerous times I was asked by my professor to teach, to do their job, because they did not want to do the work to implement Native history in their courses. I have seen my Native friends drop out of Duke because they did not have the support they needed. I tried to fill the void of teacher, advisor and mentor for others, all the while barely staying afloat myself. I always contemplated my three options: transfer, quit, or persevere. Every day I chose the last, but it became harder to love a school that did not love me back.

It wasn’t until I joined the Sanford School of Public Policy that I truly felt seen. They welcomed me, never othered me, and when they didn’t have the resources I needed as a Native student, they connected me with organizations that did and Native alumni who could offer me further guidance. They never made me explain myself or made me feel like I had to convince them I belonged there, because they were proud to have me. It is because of the faculty at Sanford that I am here today, a senior at my dream school.

Duke needs to realize that there are Native students who continue to struggle because of the lack of support. Duke prides itself on diversity and inclusion, yet Native students are left out of this conversation. There needs to be a Native faculty member, advisor, counselor and designated space for Native students, because we cannot continue to do this alone. It has been disheartening to see my friends drop out of college or transfer to a different school knowing how much they loved Duke too.

I have tirelessly worked to create space and support for Native students through my role as an executive member of the Native American Student Alliance and as the Vice President of Alpha Pi Omega, the only two organizations dedicated to fostering the growth of Native students at Duke. I tell myself that perhaps one day another Navajo student will step onto campus, be welcomed by a Native community, and walk into a Native student center where she has resources available for her to succeed. I pray one day she will not wake up every morning convincing herself that she belongs here, because she knows she does.

Shandiin Herrera is a Trinity senior.

A Journey of Excellence

A few weeks ago I was asked what it meant to be an American Indian Graduate Center Scholar (AIGC), an organiztion I joined when I received the Gates Millennium Scholarship. I hold a very special place in my heart for this organization because it was the very first scholarship I recieved. To be quite honest, this scholarship was the very first organization to invest not only in my education, but in me as a person. As my college graduation raidly approaches, I have finally found the words to convey what this has truly meant to me.

I was seventeen years old when I received the Gates Millennium Scholarship. I had just been accepted to Duke University and my entire community was in a state of pride and astonishment. I began seeing my dream of attending an elite university unfold before my eyes. This dream would have remained dormant if it were not for the Gates Millennium Scholarship. A year prior to starting the application process, I met an AIGC representative at a summer program called College Horizons. After expressing my interest this AIGC representative told me, “we choose one of our own to learn with the best.” Immediately, I knew I wanted to be an AIGC scholar, and I knew I wanted my success to not only be my own but shared amongst my people on the Navajo Nation. I recognized that obtaining a college degree and pursuing a career that had the potential to transform the lives of my community members would be my way of giving back to everyone who had raised me. I did not receive this prestigious award alone. I received this award because of the bus drivers who drove me to school every morning at 5:30 a.m., the janitors who always stayed a little later so that I could finish my homework in the computer labs, the local businesses who donated money so that I may attend summer school at Phillips Exeter Academy, and because of the amazing teachers who never told a little Navajo girl that her dreams to attend Duke University were too big for a reservation girl.

Being an AIGC Scholar has meant being an advocate, a representative, and a leader. Duke has been academically rigorous, socially draining, and very early on I realized this school has very little support for Native students. There are no classes on Native American studies, no designated space for Native students on campus, no Native professors, and no Native advisors. Through my role as an Executive member of the Native American Student Alliance I have advocated for myself and my Native peers. From planning events, meeting with Duke staff/administrators, and being present, I have seen growth in our Native community from three students my first year to over twenty now. On campus, more and more Duke students and faculty are more vigilant not only about the Native presence at Duke, but about Native issues in North Carolina and across the country. Additionally, by utilizing my networks, AIGC included, I was able to be a part of the historic founding of a chapter of Alpha Pi Omega, a sorority for Native American women. I have served as both the Vice President and President for this organization that supports current and future Native women at Duke.

Over the course of my college years I have given guest lectures in American history courses where I shared history through a Native American perspective, highlighting events like the Relocation Act, American Indian Movement, Indian Citizenship Act, and Navajo Code Talkers. I have also done presentations in Environmental Policy classes where I discussed the history of Navajo uranium mining and the effects we are still living with. I have assisted in the planning of an alternative spring break trip to the Navajo Nation sponsored by the Duke Women’s Center. During that trip we studied Domestic Violence by visiting shelters, clinics, and the U.S Justice Court. In addition to my campus involvement I have received recognition for my leadership and involvement with Native youth by being nominated and named a Champion for Change by the Center for Native American Youth at The Aspen Institute. I have been honored to be the first Native American student at Duke University to receive the Udall Scholarship. In the same year I was selected to participate in the Udall Native American Congressional Internship where I worked in the office of U.S. Senator Tom Udall.

I stand here today because of the prayers of my people who believed in me long before I recognized my own strength. I was told that to be an effective leader I need a seat at the table where decisions that affect my community are made. Throughout my time at Duke, I have consistently sought to broaden my perspective and world view, and, more importantly, I have consistently thought of how I can take my academic knowledge to bring about true transformation in the lives of women and men on the Navajo Nation. Upon graduation I will serve as a Lead for America Hometown Fellow, a 2-year program through which I will work as a Policy Analyst and Project Consultant for my home community of Monument Valley, Utah.

My journey of excellence truly began when I joined the AIGC cohort and I am extremely proud to be a part of an organization that continues to contribute to the future of Indigenous communities. I have grown into a woman with the confidence to voice my opinions independent of what anyone around me thinks. I have learned the true power in bringing my authentic voice to everything I do. Most importantly, I am no longer trying to be a scholar, a representative, or a leader; I am a Duke scholar, I proudly represent the Navajo Nation, and every day I lead by example. My hope is to continue to inspire youth to pursue higher education, realize the power in their voice, and become active in their communities. I believe education is the powerhouse for reinvigorating cultural norms and I am proud to have had the opportunity to contribute to enhancing the Duke experience for Native students. As a proud AIGC Scholar, I continue to make the path better for those who will come after me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patience

My answer was patience.

Tiring is the adjective I use to describe my college experience as a Native person. Countless times I have bitten my tongue during class as I listened to my professor lecture on American history without mentioning the genocide of its first inhabitants. I have had discussions with policy professionals who spoke as if over 500 treaties with Native Nations have not been broken. I quietly sat in rage as I read another health report that completely ignored my demographic in their research. I have struggled in the “easy” classes at Duke. I have emailed professors notifying them I would not make it to class because I was “feeling sick”, when really I just didn’t want to sit in my own silence. Silence is lonely. Silence is reminding. Silence begins to embody your identity. That is what it feels like when I am reduced to the enemy, the historical figure – the other.

Diné nishłį́. Asdzą́ą́ nishłį́.

I am a Duke student.

My struggles in the classroom stem from my education in a reservation school system. Unlike my peers, my high school offered two AP level courses, not ten. I do not speak three languages because I am still struggling to relearn my mother’s. I may be seen as the “token” student in all my settings, but I have earned my place here. I work twice as hard to sit next to students whose attendance was inherited. My legacy is perseverance.

As a confused, often overwhelmed college student, I looked to my resources.

Unfortunately, but not to my surprise, Duke doesn’t employ any Native American faculty. There are no Native professors or advisors on my campus. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my financial, academic, and overall Native struggles with a White person sitting across a desk trying to understand me. They judged the community I come from, admired my resilience, but only advised me to “work a little harder” – or worse, “take some time off”.

But again, even in the office of a supposed advisor, I sat in my own silence. Misunderstood time and time again.

I always contemplated my three options: transfer, quit, or prove everybody wrong. Every day I chose the latter.

Partly my own fault I suppose. How could I expect someone who has never even set foot on a reservation to understand my descriptions of it? Someone who could not possibly understand the intergenerational trauma I learn to suppress every day sat across me advising me to just “work a little harder”. Needless to say, I became my own advisor.

“Oh, but life isn’t so hard Shandiin, you go to Duke University. You are a role model to so many Native children seeking higher education”

While I am honored to be labeled a role model. For those who look up to me for any sense of direction or guidance, I must be honest. College is hard. Not only in the expected long papers, sleepless nights of studying, cultural shock kind of way, but for us – in the, “wow, I really don’t belong here kind of way”. My eyes have been opened to the institutional systems designed to keep people who look like me in the margins. The very result of this can be seen in the education we are receiving.

Last semester, I sat silently through weeks of learning about American History. In the state of North Carolina, home to a large Native American population, we managed to make it through weeks without mentioning the prevailed existence of Native people. It was the dated “Beacon on a hill, kill the ‘savages’, live happily ever after” story you have heard all your life. Except, I seemed to be the only one who contested the notion that these lands were open for settlement. In fact, America had been inhabited long before the quest for westward expansion. I thought of my ancestors who were tormented by the federal government, genocides that were deemed wars, and truthful stories finding life only in the sounds of the wind. My silence was broken by the image of a “redskin” staring back at me from the sweater of a classmate. In that moment I realized that this is where history has led me. In a classroom full of students who wholeheartedly believed that Native people were “extinct”, as one classmate told me. These students have never heard of the American Indian Movement nor could they fathom that their presidents ordered the murders of thousands of women and children. Today, they  proudly wear the images of our dead men on their backs.

When I wrote a response on the legacy and perception of Abraham Lincoln, I included his order for the execution of thirty-eight Dakota men on December26, 1862, shortly before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. He was not a hero to me. My heros lie in unmarked graves, covered by generations of omission. I received a comment on my response paper stating, “Interesting comment Shandiin. Exactly what evidence do you know of that Lincoln carried out these acts you mentioned?” This comment came from a historian. I received a B on the paper. Here’s my thing – why would I cite sources that have the pages of my own history, our history ripped from their presence? And then the stories, often oral, in our way of recording, don’t fall under the same category of “evidence”.

In a policy class, I focused my semester’s memos on the Bears Ears National Monument controversy, advocating for the designation of the National Monument. It was then that I realized very few people understand and respect the value of cultural significance. My arguments did not appeal to the majority opinion, which was to free up the “open space” as a classmate put it, for the economic development of local residents. I worked tirelessly to prove that my homelands were sacred, and vulnerable lands will lead to and have led to, looting, defacing, and complete destruction. Not to mention, my tribe and the others who have joined the Inter-Tribal coalition still live off the land – we still depend on her, therefore we must protect her. Yet, if there was not a dollar sign attached to my argument, it failed. I received a B. However, when I was instructed to write the Op-ed in support of President Trump’s legislation to rescind the monument, I received an A. I don’t know what hurt more, the fact that I was practicing protecting my homelands and failed, or that joining the other side meant success.

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Patience.

I read old journal entries from my freshman year. I was excited, proud to be at this university. The more time I spent here, the longer my entries became. Filled with frustration and confusion. Why didn’t I say anything to the professor who did a disservice to our class by not accurately portraying my people? Why did I lie to my mom when she called to ask how I was doing? Why did I try so hard to fit into the mold of the “typical Duke student”? Why didn’t I fight harder to advocate for my people?

I felt like a ghost. I walked across campus dreading every step to class because I couldn’t focus on studying when I saw videos of men and women sprayed with mace at Standing Rock, images of dog attacks, and the fear of witnessing history repeat itself. I began to care less and less about school when I saw another post on Facebook of an Indigenous women missing. When President Trump announced his proclamation to reduce our Bear’s Ears National Monument I felt defeated.

When Standing Rock remained in the news – no comment. When Indigenous women went missing – no comment. When another young Native person took their life – no comment. So, I am sorry if I am a little too distracted to raise my hand in class today.

Is it really worth losing myself in order to conform to these systems? If receiving an A in a class meant surrendering my tenets as a Native woman then no, it is not worth it, and I will not conform. I decided I do not need the A everyone loses their opinion for. I just wanted validity. I thought an A signified my belonging at Duke. In reality, an A only indicated my conformance to their rules.

One day I woke up angry.  I promised myself not to bite my tongue anymore, not to just listen to someone speak untruthful stories, and not to quietly be left out of the conversation. I reanalyzed my position as a representative and as the sole Native voice in many of the spaces I occupied. I was directly harming myself by allowing others to talk over me.

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I approached that history professor after class and asked why he chose to leave so many important moments in our history out. As a professional in history, I assumed he must have had at least a basic knowledge of Native people. Yet, he did not talk about the mobilization of Native people with AIM, he did not inform the class that the last group to achieve citizenship did so under the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 – but most importantly he talked about Native people retrospectively. We are still here. I am here.

I challenged opinions, wrote pieces that were important to me, I found ways to make Duke more welcoming for myself. After all, I knew that if I did not take action over my education and well-being, nobody would.

I received an email from a professor in the Environmental Policy department asking if I could speak to her class – I was recommended by the History professor. I agreed and I presented on the effects of Uranium on my homelands and the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990.

I returned to that History class at the end of the semester, where I presented on American History from a Native person’s perspective. I was granted the freedom to talk about anything I wanted, anything I thought this class of 100 or so Duke students should know. I am thankful for that moment and for that professor who allowed me an opportunity to let me speak for myself.

I found my voice. Though I have created more work for myself by giving guest lectures and presentations, I am grateful for these opportunities. I appreciate the professors who have allowed me to educate their students. And to the greater Duke community who have opened their minds and hearts to me.

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College is about adding moments to your story. For my first two years at Duke my narrative had been on mute. I accepted the silence- I made it my home. I am often asked what the turning point for me was, and honestly I just want the next Navajo student who attends Duke or any institution to understand that their positions are important. Our struggles are important. Our opinions matter. We matter. It is hard to succeed. We juggle the life of a scholar with our cultural teachings, and sometimes the two collide. If I have learned anything, it is that it is possible to remain whole. It is possible to piece ourselves back together when the world continues to take pieces of our identity.

Still,

Diné nishłį́. Asdzą́ą́ nishłį́.

I am a Duke student.

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The question I was asked was, “what do you pray for?”

My answer was patience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

News

What would you do?

when a childhood friend has left

to find happiness in another world.

Traveled to the next life, praying for the real opportunity to live.

There are two waves that hit you.

The first comes in the form of a text message reading “he is gone”.

You feel shocked, numb, hurt.

Every childhood memory will come back to haunt you.

Moments, moments, moments now frozen in time.

You will analyze every hello and goodbye – looking for hints.

There is no way you could have known.

So, what do you do?

The second wave comes, and you are no longer shocked

but, you are angry.

Because this is the second death you have heard of this month from home,

two.

Two young souls – lost.

Angry, but understanding

It is an epidemic. Silent and creeping, always heartbreaking.

But I don’t believe he took his own life.

He took the life that was plagued.

Born into an environment created for his death.

Where the easiest thing to obtain is a bottle of alcohol, or pills – you choose your poison.

Home was intertwined with heartbreak and poison,

so far gone that we accept this kind of living.

It is hard to catch because this place is also lonely.

Located in a desert of every kind,

geographic desert, food desert, a desert of mind.

He took that life.

Evil, desolate – reservation.

It is too close to home.

Because it came down to two decisions,

you choose life or you don’t.

In a society already influencing you to choose the latter,

supplying bottles over food – poison over healing.

Life does not look so appealing –

anymore.

I hope you find happiness, love, and healing.

I pray that your heart is whole again.

I am not angry at death, because it lurks in the air we breathe.

I am angry that we have to be extraordinary to live normally.

You were not weak.

You were kind, loving, beautiful – and now missed.

You were a blessing to us.

Thank you for fighting this long,

for being a friend to me

for always hugging me when I saw you

for smiling, always.

Thank you.

Every time my phone rings, my heart stops because I am afraid to answer

To hear news of the passing of a childhood friend

a community member,

a young Native soul.

This seems to be the only news I receive from home.

Plagued.

Dark.

Extraordinary.

So, what would you do?

What do I do?

 

Reservation

Many reservations are rural ghettos, intentionally located as far away from the rest of the world as possible. I, like many other indomitable Native Americans, have made it off my reservation. Though I am still reminded every day of the polluting of the land that I love with a society that tried to break me, I rise; we rise.

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I know your heartache, living on a land so vast that it begins to haunt you. And as you run at the break of dawn, the path never ends. Your prayers and cries are heard only by forgotten souls, who carry your feet, both haunting and comforting. You are lost, defaulting to anger, but you are not alone.

You are living on land designed to break you. Designed to tear your family apart, to convince you that there is no world outside of its borders. Hope is a white word that has no meaning to you. A word not meant for you. You are living on land encompassed to kill you. They have tricked you into believing that you do not matter, that you are less than them, less than human.

You reside inside an arena, as they are looking in, watching everyday as you refuse to give up. You confuse them. How are you still alive? You were placed there, left to disappear into the sunset, but you did not fulfill their myth. Instead, you protest their lies and protect what you have left. And they return, always to take more of your land, your teachings, your music, your beauty and call it their own. They take pieces of you to build themselves up.

But you remain whole in faith, spirit, and pride.

They never considered that this land could never kill you, because she is your mother.

They poison her veins and sell her body.

But you,

you protect your mother

you pray, you sing, you cry for your mother

you die for your mother

as she has continuously done for you.

She has made you strong.

It is the reservation that taught you to walk boldly, but carefully, and always in beauty; never alone.

I know your heartache.

I feel the pieces that are missing too.

Beauty

She said she loved my hair.

It is long, dark, and straight. She described it as beautiful and she wished to grow it as long as mine someday, down passed my lower back now. I smiled and thanked her for the kind compliment. I even let her touch my hair, easing her curiosity to know if it were real or not.

She didn’t know that as a young girl I used to hate my hair. I envied the girls with short hair. They didn’t have to wake up early to see their mother standing at the foot of the bed holding a comb. They could color their hair and chop it up just how they liked and nobody would say anything. They had so much power.

I cried and cried because my hair was too long. I hated the small tangles I’d come home with just as much as the aching relief of undoing my mother’s tight braids. Everyone around me looked exactly like me. We all had long black hair.  We existed in the shadows, out of the spotlight that only showed short blonde hair. Under this spotlight, beauty lived.

When I was fourteen years old, I chopped it all off. I felt liberated; I felt beautiful.  I smiled at my new appearance, as my mother’s heart broke. I ended the early mornings of brushing my hair. I ended the excitement of braiding my hair for the pow wow. But, I wanted short hair so bad. I wanted to be different. I needed to be beautiful.

To me, my hair showed the world that I am Navajo.

My skin is brown.

I live in a place recognized only as the land where cowboys killed Indians.

My hair symbolized my inferiority.

My hair was a reminder of a history I never lived through, but mourned over everyday.

I read the books, about the Indians and their “savage” ways. The descriptions of degradation and the dehumanization made me feel embarrassed. In school I was taught that Native Americans are people of the past, defeated.  So I was confused as to why I still existed, and all I knew was that I wanted was to exist as one of them. I didn’t want my long hair,  I was ashamed.

She didn’t know that it took every ounce of courage in me to realize that my hair is beautiful. Most of my life I have struggled to accept my uniqueness as beauty. I struggled to accept my identity and my culture as my own.

I was a little girl being shaped by a world that didn’t want me.

Then one day, I vowed to never cut my hair again.

I vowed to never let this society influence my thoughts.

I decided to be proud and not ashamed of who I am.

I decided that the words in those books were fabricated, written to poison the minds of little girls like me.

I discovered that in the shadows is where the real beauty lies.

So, I promised to learn to love myself.

And to say, “yes, I love my hair too.”

Con Los Niños

I first noticed the colorful walls and the fun artwork as I passed through the wooden gate. To my left was a small garden, vibrant with flowers and a playground entirely made out of tires. I grinned like a child, thinking, “wow, we can do that on the rez!” I know every family has at least 5 cars they keep saying they will fix one day, and a stack of tires. Anyway, I walked down the winding brick stairs into my new job. I took a deep breath, prayed for a good day, and opened the door.

Hola!”

In front of me sat 10 babies with their faces covered in orange peelings. Oh, their beautiful smiles! They were all gathered around a small round table, completely blissful as they slurped their orange slices. I grabbed a chair and sat down next to the cutest little boy I have ever laid eyes on. He smiled and showed me his food, “mira, mira, mira!” and then he slurped away. A few minutes passed as I observed, broke up a few fights between hungry babies, and searched for more fruit whenever I heard, “más, más más”.

I still remember that first day. I was so scared. For 9 weeks I would be caring for these babies. What if I’m not good at it? What if they hate me? I don’t know how to make a baby stop crying, or how to make one laugh? I didn’t even want to think about the changing and bathing stations. I had zero experience with childcare. Now is always a good time as any to learn right? But my real question was, it too late to run? It was one of those moments where I literally asked myself out loud, “Shandiin, what have you gotten yourself into now?”

And then a little girl ran up to me and wrapped her little hand around my finger, “vamos!” and pulled me out of my thoughts. It was really too late now. The first week of work I repeated names and memorized drawers. I watched intensely when others changed diapers and cleaned dirty hands and faces. I took so many mental notes, I was not going to be the volunteer that created more work for everybody. I was going to be great!

In the mornings from 9 am to noon, I was feeding, changing, and befriending the curious babies in the guardería. I wiped little noses, and dusted little pants and shirts off when my babies fell. I listened to imaginary stories, and reassured concerned eyes that everything will be alright. We sang songs every morning in a small circle-always together. This was their incentive to participate so we could all go to the park. My favorite was Buenos Dias

Buenos Dias

Canto yo

El sol dice hola, la luna dice adios

Buenos dias

Canto yo

El gallo canta, es mi despertador

Buenos dias

Canto yo

Si canta con ganas ser un dia mejor

Buenos di………..aaaaas

 (10 babies screaming with excitement)

It was the moments when a child would run to me when they were crying and I picked them up and held them in my arms. When they chose me to change them, I believe that to be the highest honor. Or when they laughed and laughed when I whispered, “hola cariño” into their soft ears. With their little palms, they’d run up to me as I sat on the ground surrounded by building blocks and grab my face and smother me with besitos, besitos, besitos! I miss my babies.

That moment of victory after sitting for 15 minutes massaging their soft heads and they finally drift off into a slumber, has given me more gratification than anything else I could remember. When I would check on them, I’d see a little body pop up and look around, well rested from their nap.

Hola mi amor, como dormiste, bien?”

A little head nod.

And I walked over and lifted him out of his crib so we could play some more.

I did this for nine weeks. I could have done it for nine years.

From 12 pm sharp every day I took a small stroll a few blocks down to the jardin, where three of our kids attended. And every day they ran full speed to the little metal door shouting, “Shandiin esta aqui!” They handed me their bags and books, and we walked home together enjoying the warm sun and avoiding big dogs. Some days they’d ask me their favorite question, “Tienes los dulces con azucar y limon?” Of course. We colored, painted, wrote our names, ate candy, played on the glorious tire playground; we had the times of our lives. They were so full of energy and positivity. They made me want to be 3 years old again, and chasing mariposas in the park.

Ok niños, vamos a almorzar y despues necesito salir.”

“Pero te vas a regresar mañana, no?”

“Si, mi amor, mañana voy estar aquí con ustedes, y voy a tener los dulces con azucar y limon.”

I always gave every single child a big hug before I left work for the day. As my days winded down, each hug was a little tighter and a little longer. They didn’t understand.

It didn’t matter what kind of day I was having. I could have been exhausted from a sleepless night or grumpy from a bad breakfast, but once I saw their little faces the world was perfect.

They were perfect.

My last day was the hardest. I couldn’t believe how fast time had passed. I had become a part of the family, yet my time was up and I would be returning to the USA. I promised to always remember my time in that house. It was the best 9 weeks of my life. These children taught me so much. They helped me improve my Spanish. They were patient as I learned our routine. They showed me love, endless love. They proved to me that life is full of hidden treasures and happiness that can be uncovered in the sounds of laughter and comfort of love. I uncovered a bit of happiness on that mountainside in Peru. Happiness I will never forget.

And then this happened,

Necesito salir ahora, me voy. Voy a extrañarte mucho mi amor.”

“Te vas?”

“Si, me voy a mi pais. A mis casa. Tengo que ir a mi escuela como tú”

“Vas a regresar mañana?”

I wouldn’t be at work tomorrow. When would I be back? They would all grow up and forget all about our time together. What if they asked for me the next day? Even worse, what if they waited for me and I let them down. Nobody warned me about this part. Everybody guided me on starting my work here, but nobody warned me how hard it would be to leave.

I have never spent a more meaningful summer than this. I haven’t felt this much growth before. I feel stronger and abler to love than I ever had before. I have those children to thank.

To my babies:

I think about you all every day. I sing our songs every morning. I know you are all doing well and still shouting, “Hola!” whenever someone enter the room. I know there are new volunteers there every day scared, but ready to love you. Give them time, be patient, as you were with me. They’ll get the hang of it. Just know that I will always be here for you. I love you.

As I walked up those brick steps one last time, I looked back on this house that held all of our memories. The kids were all running around playing as I made my way through that wooden gate. As it slammed behind me, I realized that morning was the last time I’d hit the buzzard to enter,

 “Quien es?”

“Shandiin”

Is it weird to say that I felt more at home and in peace in Peru than I often do in my own country? I am back on the reservation, but a piece of me is waiting for the time to read 8:30 so I can catch the bus to work. A piece of me is longing to have a conversation with sweet Spanish voices. A piece of me stayed in Peru.

One day I will go back and smile at the old me who was brave enough to create these memories. This is a painful memory. This is beautiful.

 

Always Returning

I return to these rocks

These rocks are

My home and my vacation

My place of solace and solitude

This is the place I come to scream and shout

And to sit in silence.

I return to these rocks

These rocks have ears

These rocks have hearts

They listen to the secrets of my truth

They cry with me

They laugh with me

These rocks mourn my losses so that I may return weightless.

I return to these rocks

These rocks cut deep into the depths of my soul

They puncture the untouched mourning I was saving for tomorrow

These rocks soften my edges; making me human again

They outreach their arms so that I might lie in comfort with my grief.

I return to these rocks

These rocks are apart of me

And I of them

They are my mother and father

My grandma and grandpa

These rocks are ancestors I never met, but greet every morning.

I return to these rocks

They wait for me

They hear my footsteps as I approach

And I always do

Because I am always happy

Full of gratitude and good news

They hug me and tell me they are proud.

They wait for me

They see me running, running, running

Afraid I might not stop

But I always do

Because I am always grieving

Overflowing with hidden sorrow and horrible news

They hug me and tell me they will protect me.

I return to these rocks

And I wonder who had come before me

Who sat on this very ledge with their heart bleeding?

Who stood on this ledge smiling, smiling, smiling?

And when it is my time

Will I too walk into the valley never to return

Will I too become apart of these rocks

Will I be strong enough to withstand any adversity

Will I wait to hear the footsteps

Will I be the bearer of good and horrible news

Will I prepare to comfort

To laugh to cry

Will it be my turn to teach her how to stand tall

Will I too become these rocks

Will I become beautiful,

indestructible?

Yes, yes, yes

I return to these rocks

To stay.

My visit to the Amazon Rainforest

After the worst 10-hour trip in a small, hot, and smelly bus; we arrived at Puerto Maldonado at 4:30 in the morning. Not really knowing what to expect, we stepped out into the comfort of the hot temperature, where we were greeted by Charlie. I guess I’ve just come accustomed to not hearing English spoken, so it was a nice surprise when Charlie spoke to us in perfect English. After some brief introductions, we all piled into yet another small, hot, but less smelly bus and drove about 15 minutes to Charlie’s house. His home, also a hostel, was beautiful! There were hammocks in the front yard where we relaxed for a while, while he and his wife prepared breakfast for us.

The sun still hadn’t risen, but I was already excited to watch the sunset in this tropical location. Soon we were off to catch our boat to our bungalows! We drove through town as Charlie pointed and explained to us the culture and lifestyle here. Soon, we arrived at the plaza, where in view was a big bridge, the road that led all the way to Brazil. It would take 2.5 hours by vehicle to cross the border into the country I still hope to visit one day. Once on our boat, we traveled down the river Madre de Dios, for about half-an-hour until we arrived at our destination.

With the helping hand of Charlie, we each stepped off the swaying boat into the mud, and up the wooden stairs to the mainland. We were all introduced to our bungalows, where we would be spending the night. Excited we each picked roommates and unpacked. At that point I felt like I was bathing in mosquito repellent, but we all smelled of DEET; we were in this fight together. The views from our front porch was that of our hammock, the endless river, and the mesmerizing Amazon rainforest. It was so surreal!

Soon we were all called to participate in our first activity-tree climbing. I was excited, but only to watch all the others. Due to my slight fear of heights and lack of upper-body strength I did not climb all the way to the top, but I still tried and it was still a very fun experience. I don’t think I have ever done anything like that before, many of my group members had done rock climbing before so they did very well with this activity. Still, it was a lot of fun!

After sweating off all of our sunscreen and bug spray, we reconvened at the lake for kayaking! The sun was so strong, but there was a slight breeze as we worked our way down the river and that made all the difference. It was a really good workout, no surprise there. After about an hour of kayaking and enjoying the river encompassed by vast lands of deep green, we returned to land.

Next we embarked on a walk through the forest. There was hardly a path, only that of which our guide, Rafa created, and we made sure to follow closely. Our walk was so much fun, we were surrounded by forestation and I refrained thinking about all the insects watching us. We stopped abruptly when we spotted a snake in the brushes nearby. I was both amazed at the size and scared at the realization that I was in the forest a few feet away from a giant black snack. I felt a little safe behind Rafa, who grew up in this forest and knew everything there was to know about surviving here, so it was fine. As we walked through, we made many stops to learn about the different uses of trees and plants as foods and medicines. The deeper we walked into the forest, the closer we became to Rafa’s home, where his family had a farm. My favorite part trying the different fruits, they are so much tastier fresh off the trees! We had some delicious oranges and guaba, some even tried termites and larvae.

After our walk we retreated back to the river where we met Charlie with our boat. There we traveled downriver watching the sunset. I had always thought the prettiest sunsets were back home in Arizona, in Monument Valley. Well, my home now has some competition. There really is nothing like watching the sky turn from blue to pink on the Amazonian river is. The water reflected the pink sky perfectly and for a few minutes it was hard to believe this was real. This was a different kind of nature. More green, more exotic, more surreal. But there I was, embracing it all with nine amazing friends.

Once the sun was down, we began our search for nocturnal animals along the river. It was a bit nerve-wrecking cruising in the dark in waters unfamiliar to me, but still I was up for the adventure. With our spot light we searched for red eyes. After getting stuck twice and watching nervously as Charlie and Rafa jumped into the water, we decided we had seen enough for the night and made our way home, where dinner was waiting for us. For dinner we had my favorite, plantains, rice, and catfish fresh from the river! Also, some fresh fruit juice. It was delicious!

After the long day, we all retreated to our cozy bungalows. What a night that was! My friends and I battled all night with cucarachas (cockroaches). In total we had seven in our room, and after that it was very hard to fall asleep. Now, in retrospect the chaos of that night is a hilarious story. Some of my favorite memories are in that rainforest. Once I was safe in my clean sheets and mosquito net, I slept great!  For me, the sounds of the forest were very soothing. I awoke by the sun shining through my window and caught some of the sunrise–breathtaking! We ate breakfast together, and packed up for our second adventure into the Tambopata reserve!

We did about a four-mile hike through the rainforest where we tried not to slip in the mud, some of us succeeded. We stopped to observe a long line of ants hard at work, and I immediately thought of Bug’s Life. Then we saw some monkeys in the trees, an entire family preparing to take a nap. In the distance we could hear the dinosaur-like sounds of the howler monkies. It was incredible! Soon we reached our canoes, and continued our adventure to the Sandoval Lake. It was amazing! We saw so many different types of birds, turtles, butterflies, etc. It was hard work paddling through the lake, but I swear it was like a scene form Jurassic park!

We stopped at a small home, now hostel along the lake where we had our lunch. For lunch we had Juane, which is rice, meat, olives, hard-boiled egg, and spices, all wrapped with bijao (macaw-flower) leaves. It was so delicious; by far my favorite dish I have had in Peru. After lunch I took a much needed nap in the heaven-sent hammocks. I was tired, and was then looking forward to the long bus ride home, where I’d be able to sleep! Soon, we began our retreat back to the entrance of the reserve and made our way back down Madre de Dios.

Once back at the main plaza of Puerto Maldonado we all went to the market where we bought some fresh fruit for the long trip back to Cuzco. I also bought some castañas, or Brazilian nuts. I did not regret anything I purchased at the market! Soon we were dropped off at the bus station. We all bid farewell to Charlie and his colleagues, who had been the best of hosts! I will surely be recommending his business to anyone who is interested in traveling to the Amazon! They are so family orientated and welcoming you will feel right at home. More importantly, in such a foreign place, you will feel safe! After a few hours of waiting, our bus had arrived and we all boarded and quickly fell asleep only to wake up 10 hours later back in the cold of Cuzco. This undoubtedly has been my favorite trip in Peru, followed by Tequile of course.

Peru is such a beautiful country full of beautiful and welcoming people. As my time winds down, only 9 days left now, I only hope I can one day return to visit the friends I have made and experience the beauty of the land all over again.