La isla Tequile

There I sat at the highest point of the island overlooking the icy blue water. I could see Bolivia in the distance, accompanied by a sky full of clouds preparing for the sun to set. This was like nothing I had ever seen before. The air was bitterly cold, but I felt warm inside as I closed my eyes, and in the distance I could hear conversations in a language I did not understand; the language of the indigenous people. This language was Quechua, and it was beautiful.

This weekend I had the amazing experience of visiting the Island of Tequile located on Lago Titicaca, the largest navigable body of water in the world! After a 7-hour bus ride from Cuzco to Puno and a 3-hour boat ride, surpassing the floating islands, we arrived at our destination- an island of which 2,000 indigenous people inhabit.

There are no vehicles on this island, only stone pathways built for endurance. There are fields of corn, quinoa, vegetables, etc. of which each family plants and harvests. At the age of 3, children are taught the art of their culture, of which thousands of people flock to see and purchase every year. Most interestingly, there are no police on the island; they are not needed. There is a strong sense of community, therefore people work together to keep the island going. Authorities, usually elders, deal with any problems, which I have been told has resulted in the extermination of persons from the island. It was the most utopian-like society I have ever seen- in reality.

I stayed in a small room with a family from the island. They had no running water, heating came in the form of blankets, and time was passed sitting amongst the clouds knitting and weaving. Their home reminded me of the reservation, especially awaking in the middle of the night dreading the dark walk to the outhouse. I didn’t realize how much I missed home until I was sitting at a wooden table sipping hot mate de muña, which was picked right outside the house. Seeing people who did not complain about the amenities they lacked, but instead lived happily in the warmth of their culture, was a timely reminder of how truly beautiful life can be.

The night was dark, and the island lit only by the moon, which hovered closely. I awoke early in the morning to accompany Papa and his two daughters to their field of corn. Another hike up the island, which I did not mind as the sun had come out. Once we arrived at their lot, we picked corn of which we would cook for lunch. I could see other families in their fields taking what they needed for lunch. This life was so calm. Only what was needed was taken from the earth, and nothing more-as it should be.

In the afternoon we visited the beach. The water was calm, life-giving, and endless. I was in a different world. A world untouched by the corruption of green paper and black liquid. I couldn’t help but wonder what life would be like if the entire world respected land and culture this much. What if the indigenous people of every region could teach the rest of society how to live? We’d all be much healthier, happier, and purposeful. I loved everything about this small island. Living in isolation does not always have to be difficult; it can be rejuvenating. Of course a lifestyle like this can only be lived by people who can handle it. Which time and time again will always be the indigenous people of the land.

It was amazing to see how well the Natives have maintained their culture, and way of living. I thank the people of the island for allowing me to learn about their culture, and the family who took me into their home, told me stories, and fed me well. My trip was too short, but one day I hope to return. Until then, I will always remember the mesmerizing nature walks, the resiliency of the people, and the simple, yet sufficient way of living. Whenever I see deep blue water, I will think of the beautiful island of Taquile.

 

 

A Forgotten Pride: Navajo Identity

 

I am the little girl at the end of a dirt road seldom traveled on. The curious mind who watched her grandmother weave rugs for 8 hours, never tiring. The young soul who never understood the land she walked on was crying for help. I walked aimlessly alongside my best friend, whose white paws left soft tracks in the red sand. We ventured to the cliffs where I stared at the giant monuments, and listened to the soft breeze of the wind. I was free. In mind, body, and spirit. I was happy. Perhaps it was because I had my grandmother’s house to watch the sunrise from. Or because my best friend was always waiting for me, prepared for another adventure. Maybe it was because I could breathe. This of course, was before the storm had begun.

It started every morning at 4:30 a.m. when I woke up to catch the bus to school 30 miles away. In classrooms full of other Navajo students, we embarked on our educational journey together. As we moved onto the next levels, our class sizes grew smaller, until we reached the end and only a handful of us continued onto college. This was normal. I understood that I was an anomaly, though at times I didn’t want to be. I stood in the same lines to receive food at the monthly food banks and winter clothes from our tribe. I saw the same alcoholics on the corners of our grocery stores asking to dig into our empty pockets. Still, I understood them, as they tilted their heads and wondered how I managed to escape our cycle. These were my brothers, my uncles, and my friends. I never judged them because I understood why they were there. I acknowledged that one wrong turn and it could have been me. Still, it would take 100 right turns for them to stand alongside me. I knew that.

It became harder to breathe. A lost breath for every one of my friends who went home to intoxicated parents. A lost breath for the miscommunication with our elders, because our Navajo language is slowly dying. A lost breath for the beauty of every Native American woman and the rage in her heart. This was the dark creeping its way across our nation, a dark shadow I spent hours in the library trying to run away from. I spent most of my time on the reservation figuring out ways I could leave and never look back. I was tired of observing my beautiful people destroying themselves. Tired of being so angry all of the time, and pretending I could be the leader that everyone thought they saw in me. The truth is, I never knew who I was because I never wanted to accept the real me.

I didn’t want to accept the truth. The truth is I only cared about school because my mother was taken from her home at 7 years old and sent to a boarding school where she was punished for speaking Navajo. How could I ever do poorly in my education when my mother endured literal torture for hers? The truth is, I was angry at what life had become for Navajo people. We used to be self-sufficient, innovative, and ambitious. Yet, all I saw on our reservation was what researchers now call intergenerational trauma. It was hard for me to be home because I spent most of my time dreaming about what life could be if I leave the reservation. I wasn’t careful about what I wished for.

It became a little easier to breathe when I received my acceptance letter to Duke, I felt like I had finally escaped. College was my dream. I saw the brochures of students who looked happy. It was a dim light of hope I kept lit to guide me through my darkest days. But of course dreams are always more kind than reality is. I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but I was immediately faced with new challenges. Simply existing as a minority of the minority on this campus was something I wasn’t prepared for. My entire life had been on the Navajo reservation, and now I was talking to people who did not even know my tribe still existed. How crazy is that? Talking to someone and their response to your identity is, “Wait, Natives are still around?” or “I think I’m 1/16th Native too, I don’t know what tribe though”. I do not know what confused me more, people who have somehow ignored complete Native Nations for 20 years, or those who pretended to know what being Native American feels like. This was my welcome to Duke memory.

In some odd way, that is exactly what I needed to change my perspective of myself. Instead of feeling scared that the trauma of my people would eventually catch up to me, for once in my life I felt proud of who I am. I was not as ignorant as the rest of these smart Duke students. I knew a history many of them did not know, a culture they would never understand, and a relationship with this earth that they have lost. It no longer mattered to me that it had become harder to breathe, because there were over 300,000 Navajos still breathing with me. I cannot look back through my family’s history and the history of the Indigenous people of this country without the feeling of disgust, hatred, and devastation. But, then I look in the mirror and I see the result of my ancestors’ resilience, and the strength of my tribe. For the first time in my life, I was happy with who I saw looking back at me.

I am the prayer my grandparents whispered at the break of dawn, the hope my mother kept in her eyes, and the faith my tribe holds onto. The culture that I love, and the people who inhabit the beautiful nation our ancestors died protecting is the only thing I wake up every day to fight for. Incidents like Standing Rock, remind me where Native Americans stand, still in opposition. We stand to say that our existence is our resistance.

I never imagined that I would be living in a world where respecting and protecting Mother earth becomes activism. I thought it was human nature to look at the land and be grateful and honor what the creator has provided for us. Instead, we have to fight to every inch of land, every drop of water, and every aspect of our being. Still, I hold the beauty of life in my heart.  The moments of liberation as I watched my grandmother weave are always with me. Her patience and beauty exist in me today. And the feeling of amazement and resilience as I captured the views from my backyard cliffs remind me to keep breathing. I’ve grown from the little girl who learned to wake up every morning at 4:30 a.m., the lost teenager who straddled the line between culture and chaos, to the young adult who has reached acceptance, and regained the pride I was born with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mountain Adventures ft. Machupicchu

I awoke at 6:30 with so much excitement for the weekend ahead. After a cold shower I was ready for the adventures that lie ahead. Our group met up at a park nearby, where we were met by a big white bus, and 4 very excited directors. We left Cusco around 8 in the morning, heading to our first destination, Pisaq. I had planned to sleep on the way there, because as always, I stayed up late dying to find out what happens next with Olivia Pope. Unfortunately, the winding roads would not allow my slumber, so instead I enjoyed the dreamlike views of llamas and a bird’s-eye perspective of the historic city.

Once in Pisaq we visited the centro arquelógico de Pisaq. There we explored more Inca ruins, while testing our stamina. As always, I was mesmerized by the structures built to last forever. We took many photo breaks, which often were disguised as water breaks. As we were on top of a mountain we were faced with the task of descending this beast, and a beast it was! I’ve always had a slight fear of heights, but growing up with a backyard full of monuments and cliffs, I’ve learned to manage my fears. With that said, this trail, or lack thereof was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life! We were literally scaling down the side of a mountain-free, like the Inca did I suppose. I am so proud of myself for completing what seemed like hours to reach stable ground again.

Once we reached flat land again, and I felt safe, we continued our journey onto the Inkam museum. I thoroughly enjoyed this museum, and normally I’m not a huge museum goer, but this one was awesome. It was a timeline of indigenous civilizations throughout Peru and South America. All civilizations leading up to the Inca Empire. There were also life size mannequins and reenactments to offer visuals of the people and their rituals.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch there, and I will never forget the iced tea! I also regret not writing down the names of the foods I eat, often they are Quechue dishes, but they are always so satisfying! After lunch, we hopped on the bus, took a nap, and soon arrived at the town of Ollantaytambu, and our hotel Pakaritampu. The hotel was beautiful, encompassed by protecting mountains and vibrant flowers. We were so high up in the mountains, I thought I’d soon learn what the clouds tasted like.

After settling in, we all decided to explore this majestic little town. We looked at all the shops filled with alpaca sweaters, jewelry, and funky tourist pants. In our attempt to pass the time before we were to meet with our directors for dinner, we stopped at a café shop in the main plaza. I ordered a coffee, and my mother called me. I separated myself from the group and found a table next to the window where I tried to describe my views to my mother. There I sat overlooking a beautiful town with the moon hanging low between the endless mountains, talking to my favorite person in the world. And there she sat thousands of miles away, looking out her window onto the setting sun, protected by the warmth of the monuments. We were living a life neither of us had imagined, and I was so happy to share that moment with her.

Soon it was time to head down the street to dinner. We ate at hearts café, where I enjoyed the best grilled cheese sandwich! I was so tired from the long day of managing my nerves trying not to fall off the side of a mountain, so I retreated to our hotel. If there is anything I will remember about this hotel, it will be the shower! There in the mountains of Peru, I took the best shower of my life. The water was steaming hot, and the pressure could cleanse even the darkest of souls. I slept like a baby that night.

The following morning, I awoke at 4:30 to get ready. My roommate Thara braided my hair, bless her heart, this is a lot of hair to tame that early in the day. We met for a quick breakfast in the lobby, before walking to the train station. We departed at 6 am on the PeruRail train. Our next stop- Machupicchu, Maravilla del mundo! It was a two-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes where we took a bus that took us the rest of the way up the mountain to the entrance of this unexplainable site.

We spent about twenty minutes on the bus which took us up switchback dirt roads into the heart of mountains. I was waiting for my fear of heights to return, but I was too in awe with what I was seeing to consider the fact that I was literally on a ledge. Once at the entrance, we paid to use the restroom, showed our passports, and proceeded past the gates that would lead us to the stone city. We did a two-hour tour, passing through every dwelling, and listening to what historians could gather from their research about the constructions and their significance.

One of the most interesting things I learned, is that Machupicchu is encompassed by four mountains sacred to the Inca. They had a strong connection with the land, so strong that they felt comfortable living so high up and so isolated. This particularly interested me because it reminded me of the land of my people. We too live within our four sacred mountains, a land that has helped us grow and prosper.

Update: clouds do not taste like marshmallows.

After our tour ended we went on our own adventure up to la Puerta del sol, located at 2,745 meters above sea level, on one side of Machu Picchu Mountain. It is said that this gate served to control the people whom entered the city. From this historic location, only reachable by the Inca trail, you can see Machu Picchu, the Urubamba River, the Huayna Picchu mountain and the surrounding area.

The hike was intense, but very worth it once we reached out destination. It took about two hours’ round trip and we were surrounded by clouds! That too, is an experience I will not soon forget. What it felt like to be so high up, walking a trail built by such a powerful, innovative people. It was so beautiful.

Once we decided we should head down before we all realized how frightening this was, we met up with our directors for lunch at Indio Feliz. The food was so delicious and I appreciated how they decorated their entrees. I had pollo de piña, and enjoyed the best limeade of my life! After so much walking, this lunch was heaven-sent! According to a friend’s phone, we walked more than 6 miles and climbed over 200 floors. Not bad for a warm Saturday in Peru!

Completely drained, we returned to the train station and made our way back to our hotel. I don’t remember being that exhausted in a while. I immediately showered and was fast asleep once we returned to our hotel. The following day we returned to Cuzco, which was about 2 ½ hours in bus. Once I got home, I told my family all about my adventures…and then I slept some more! It was definitely a trip to remember. I am so thankful for this experience!

Update from Peru

It is hard to believe that I have been in Cusco, Peru for a little over a month now. Also, this is my first blog post in my time here, half because I actually forgot that this existed, and half because I’m more of a pen and paper kind of girl anyway. So I thought I’d write more of an overview of my experience this past month. Then, granted I have the time and the energy, I plan to go back through my journal and share my thoughts along with some pictures of how amazing this experience has been thus far.

So, let’s get started shall we?

I cannot express how nervous I was to be in a different country where the language, culture, and geography is completely different than anything I can say I am familiar with. My family was nervous for me to participant in this program, as they should be. I mean I am the youngest and the only girl, but I’d like to think that I am also the most adventurous. So, new country, new language, new adventures? Bring it on.

Upon arrival to Cusco I immediately felt the stress of always having to translate things in my head, and praying I’d be able to respond fast enough to carry on a conversation. Unlike the rest of the members of my group, I only had three semesters of Spanish to lean on. I had always done well at reading and writing the language, and now the biggest challenge would be speaking. Obviously there were times where I felt lost or even like I had no clue what I was doing here. But, my directors believed in me and my rapid learning of Spanish, so I had to remind myself that I deserved to be here just like everybody else.

Each day I became more confident with myself and naturally things became easier. My Spanish has improved so much and it is so fun to have conversations with new people. Cusco is an amazing city full of history and art; and occupied by beautiful resilient people. I have to admit, I press pause every once in awhile on my way to work, in the Plaza de Armas, or in a taxi midway through another adventure. I stop to look around at my surroundings, to take note of what I am feeling, and to acknowledge how amazing my journey has been that it led me to Peru. I have had so many moments of pure wonder and appreciation for Ni’hoodszáán ( madre Tierra, Pachamama, Mother Earth).

To be completely honest, the sole reason I applied to Dukeengage Peru was because of the focus on the Indigenous population. As a North American Native (a proud member of the Navajo Nation), I have always been curious about what life is like for our brothers and sisters in the south. Growing up on a reservation is entirely different from the common upbringing in the U.S., and is often described as living in a different country. We even have inside jokes of dual citizenship. I remember leaving the reservation for college and having a major culture shock. I expected the same to happen here, but in a strange way I feel accustomed to some of the norms here. For example, most homes here are not heated, and we are in the winter months, so it is a challenge. Majority of homes across Indian Country deal with this same reality. So I wasn’t taken too much by surprise. It even reminded me of home, huddling around Shimásaní’s (grandmother) stove in the winters. The people here are warm and welcoming, quick to offer you food or tea before you even sit down. This kind of hospitality makes me miss home. Many of the conversations I have had with locals revolves around culture, history, and the emphasis on respecting and protecting the land we walk on and the water we drink. The relationship with the land is what is most important. I’ve come to the realization that indigenous cultures may differ, but there is always teachings and customs that remain equivalent.

Taking Quechua language classes, visiting museums and Inca ruins, and talking to my Peruvian family about their heritage and lifestyle has been more than I ever imagined I would be doing. It has also been great to have the chance to share and educate Cuzqueños on Northern Native Americans, and more specifically the Navajo tribe. They give me a piece of their culture and I give them a piece of mine.

On top of everything, I have been blessed with a beautiful Peruvian family that I have grown close to over the last month. It is a little scary how much alike my parents are to my actual parents back home on the reservation. They have really made this feel like home. On the weekends I go to the market with my mom. We sit and have tea while sharing our cultures and conversing about whatever comes to mind. When I come home my sisters (3 and 9 years old) are waiting at the door for me. We do puzzles, I teach them english words, and we watch Peppa Pig. My father always has a story to tell, and he loves talking about politics-we have great conversations! I can’t imagine living in Peru with anybody else.

I always dreamed of traveling when I was a little girl, but my idea of that was literally anywhere off of my reservation. Never had I imagined I would one day be standing on Inca land. I have been blessed with the opportunity to be apart of this humbling program. It is times like this that I can’t help but be appreciative for the sacrifices of my ancestors, the support of my tribe, and the endless love from my family and friends. I am not supposed to be here, but I have a habit of doing things I’m told is impossible. Ahé’hee’ Diyin Dine’é for protecting me on this journey.

Music of the Night

I do not cry in front of my mother

when I look at her

I think of the beautiful brown child silencing her thoughts, afraid they might slip off of her Navajo tongue.

When she braids my hair

I fantasize about the young soul who once ran free, hair flowing with the breeze, protected by the warmth of the sun.

I do not cry in front of my mother

When she reaches for my hand

I feel the shock of the yard stick striking her small soft palms as she forgot to speak a language that was not her own.

When my mother is slow to stand up

I see the young girl who scrubbed floors on her knees in dormitories that have become graves to forgotten children, cultures, and languages.

I do not cry in front of my mother

Sobs are the sounds at night creeping their way across stolen land

the sound of my grandmother as she lie awake wondering where her children were, wishing she could begin again.

With her long dark hair knotting behind her, my mother tucked the corners of her bed in – praying for the day she would return home.

The lines around her eyes are not wrinkles, but dried up streams that once flooded with silent tears.

The music of the night

I do not cry in front of my mother

When she calls for me, “shiyazhi?”

I respond in our forbidden language; the way she would have to her mother

Instead she learned to say yes ma’am to white women who envied her cheek bones

Instead, she was fed lies

to hate the color of her skin, the length of her hair, and the creator of whom she prayed to.

And when she hears the words boarding and school in the same sentence I see her cringe

And I want to run to her and hug her and tell her that I am here

and I am not her mother, but I am sorry

I am sorry I let them take you

I am sorry I couldn’t protect you

I am sorry your mother couldn’t be a mom when you needed her most.

I do not cry in front of my mother

Because when she looks at me she sees herself

And I will not remind her of her past

First blog post

After much consideration I decided to start this blog. Since I was a little girl my mom always bought me journals and I’d be so eager to fill them. To this day I have piles of journals, encrypted with the details of my life. I always doubted my writing because, well I thought I had nothing interesting to say. What is so interesting about a girl from Monument Valley, Utah? Well, as I’d soon learn- everything.

My name is Shandiin Herrera and I reside in a rural community on the Navajo reservation, of which has transformed into a tourist hub. If you have not been to Monument Valley yet, I’m positive you have seen our beautiful land in almost any Western film. I was born to a beautiful Navajo woman and a kind-hearted Spanish man. Unfortunately, I entered the world after my paternal grandparents had left along with my maternal grandfather. But, I carry the stories that have been passed down to me. I knew my maternal grandmother for eleven years, before she left to the spirit world. She was a timid, kind Navajo rug weaver. Her rugs have been sold to many tourists lucky enough to have met her. I miss her dearly.

My mother spent the first seven years of her life on our land where she lived in a traditional Navajo Hogan with my grandparents. Her childhood was cut short when she was sent to boarding school, as were all Native American children. She bounced around the four corners (Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico) before moving to Oregon with a foster family where she would graduate from high school. After a very rough education experience, my mother graduated with her Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Utah. A token, not only of her intelligence and work ethic, but a symbol of her resilience. Soon after she would meet my father.

My father was a coal miner in Utah, where his family resided. He would see my mother for the first time on a bus in rural Utah. As she was on her way back to school in Salt Lake City, and he on his way to work, their paths crossed. From her memory, he was a random guy on a bus that asked too many questions. But, from his perspective, there sat the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. From his memory, there sat his future wife. My dad, the hopeless romantic he is, was determined to convince her of his idea that they were perfect for each other. Finally, my mom had reached her stop and said goodbye to this man. She was too timid to admit he was very handsome, but lucky her-he wouldn’t let her go without first getting her phone number.

I don’t know if my mom was just very determined to finish school without any distractions, or she was just trying to blow of the stranger from the bus. But, she told him she was not looking for anything or anybody because she was starting her Master’s program and did not have the time nor energy. So what would any hopeless romantic do in this situation? He waited. Two years later he contacted her, and well I assume they fell in love and everything was rainbows and butterflies. To this day he has never left her side, and he has lived on the Navajo reservation for almost 30 years. That’s their story, one day I hope to have one nearly as romantic as theirs.

 

For now, I like to think I am following in my mother’s footsteps; pursuing my education, traveling, and enjoying my youth. My childhood on the reservation was filled with cultural teachings, all of which has shaped the person I am today. We didn’t have much, but I would not have traded my childhood on the “rez” for anything. I loved playing outside on the open lands, breathing the clean air, and being surrounded by our four sacred mountains of which we fought so hard to preserve. My ambitions led me to always have an itch for learning all that I could in school. I had dreams bigger than my reservation. Dreams my parents could have never wished for.

I am now 20 years old, and I will soon be entering my junior year at Duke University, where I am studying Public Policy. It has been such a blessing to be at a renowned institution, where I study alongside some of the brightest students in the nation. There are only a handful of Native American students there, but I like to think of the Native nations that are represented, and in that, we are many. My time at Duke thus far has been a challenge I never knew I would encounter. But, the reservation raised me to be tough, and that I am. Duke has given me opportunities that my mother gasps at, and my father asks me to repeat.

Currently I am in Cuzco, Peru where I am spending nine weeks of my summer. Duke has a program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called Dukeengage, that allows students to travel all over the world to expand their learning through service learning projects. I was selected to participate in this program, of which has been fully funded. After receiving the Gates Millennium Scholarship in high school I did not think the Gates family could do more for me. I was wrong. This trip has been amazing! I still have 3 weeks left in this beautiful country, but I know they will flash by. I am living with a host family and working in a home for teenage mothers and their children. The focus has been on helping the indigenous population. As a Native of North America, I was excited to learn the culture and lifestyle of our brothers and sisters in the South. They have welcomed me with open arms and curious minds. I know this trip is one I will always cherish. The children I work with remind me of the beautiful children across the reservation, and for that I am humbled and appreciative of this amazing experience.

When I think of the journey I have been, I always remember where it began. On a dirt road winding through healing land, to the opening doors of classrooms thousands of miles away; I have the experience of two colliding worlds. But for now I have found my balance. In this world of chaos and doubt, I walk boldly as my ancestors did, and I smile at the new challenges I am faced with.