How sovereign do we plan to be?

This piece first appeared in the Navajo Times on 6/8/2017.

Whether I’m speaking to my Anishinaabe relatives on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota or to you on this vast Navajo Nation, all of us are subjects to the same self-proclaimed warden: The United States. My question is: How sovereign do we plan to be?
Even if you don’t work for the federal or tribal government, surely you’ve heard the words “jurisdiction” or “red tape.” And more often than not, you probably heard it in a negative connotation. That’s because these concepts are constantly used against our people.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs will claim ownership of rights-of-way. Energy companies –both on and off the reservation –seek ways to seize land through eminent domain, legal loopholes, or dishonest bargaining.

And tribal citizens have to jump through a plethora of hoops just to open a business, a process that takes longer than obtaining an engineering degree from Arizona State University.

Energy development in Indian Country is no exception.

The Navajo leadership took a stand with Standing Rock last year, despite of the Four Corner’s poor track record for stopping the exploitation of oil, coal, and uranium resources. And it’s a tricky place to be. On such a large nation with a tragically high rate of unemployment, it takes a lot of commitment to turn down even the most meager of energy contracts for an undeveloped dream of a just, green economy.

In fact, when Trump announced this past week that he would not be supporting the Paris agreement and would instead move towards the four-year-long process of withdrawing, I couldn’t help but laugh a little for the administration was actually keeping its promise to all of the coal miners who had voted Trump into office. (When has the government ever kept promises?)

Yet Appalachia, where many of these coal miners are, is also an impoverished collective of Americans who often have a shared history of how they came to be in the mines. Streams run orange with acid mine drainage, the education systems are rated among the worst in the country, and rarely does a presidential candidate seem invested in the people there.

So, just as some Navajo politicians talk about the need for jobs, I could imagine many Appalachians feel equally backed into the corner with the threat of things like the Paris zgreement –something that is foreseen to run the coal industry out of business

However, coal, oil … none of these products are the solution, not to our energy demands, and not to our local economies.

Instead, places like Appalachia and Indian Country need presidential candidates who can affirm the necessity of such promises as the Paris agreement while also promising those who work in the mines that a green economy will receive them as well –and with far less health risks.
Appalachia may not be waking up to the reality that they have an alternative to an extractive economy, but the Navajo Nation has that opportunity to genuinely take care of its people.

The Navajo Nation’s modern government was birthed by the federal government in order to sign over oil leases to corporations less than a century ago. It also won the largest lawsuit any tribe has ever won for the BIA’s failure to honestly and transparently maintains its bookkeeping responsibilities for decades worth of Navajo energy transactions.

And the health consequences? Just watch the documentary “Broken Rainbow.” It’s any wonder the Navajo Nation hasn’t furiously severed all ties with each atrocity that has surfaced.

The problem is federal entities still have such a stranglehold over Indian resources, especially energy ones. Leases that may take a matter of days off a reservation will take up to seven years on tribal lands.

Even if tribes wanted to develop their resources, the layers of red tape scare away business. In addition, the BIA must negotiate, approve, and oversee all leases –meaning exorbitant amounts of funds are used on bookkeeping and oversight.

Meanwhile, tribes see very little of the revenue –and little to no accountability for the reclamation afterwards.

Should our tribal leaders take a stance in controlling this process in a manner that more closely resembles that of a sovereign nation’s power, tribes like the Navajo Nation might finally see some energy justice.

That also means our leaders could choose to protect the people regardless of Trump’s decision to pull out of international agreements about climate.

In addition to dedicating themselves to a just, green transition for the Navajo people and energy employees, Navajo leaders could be putting together their own climate plan. This plan could hold outside corporations accountable according to Indian law –not lax federal law –and force outsiders to respect tribal sovereignty.

By doing so, we would also see our precious cultural resources protected –from the snowy mountain caps to the medicinal plants that are all threatened by such things as rising temperatures and vanishing precipitation.

So, respectable members of the Council and the OPVP, how will you be responding to the needs for leadership committed to a climate plan and a just energy transition for the Navajo people?

Kayla DeVault
Tse Bonito, N.M.


it’s time Navajo Nation uses its powerful voice for indigenous solidarity, not oil prosperity.

In fact, it’s well past time.

Although I hold tribal membership in a different community, I was drawn last summer to work for the Navajo Nation government by its impressive example of tribal sovereignty in action.  Not many tribal communities can brag they have their own Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture, etc.  Not every indigenous person can point out the window to a traditional plant or a sacred landmark.  (My own tribe suffered both relocation and the Dawes Allotment Act.)  Because of Navajo leadership’s ability to negotiate at Bosque Redondo, these are things the Navajo people have never lost and that they must never forget.  The Navajo Nation has a powerful voice, so long as it chooses to speak.

I have heard Navajo leadership use this voice.  It is loud, and it can be condemning.  Think: Gold King Mine spill.  Or: Delegate Crotty’s passionate denouncement against Donald “Drumpf”.  However, when it comes to the environmental threats caused by extractive industries on tribal lands, whether on Navajo Nation or elsewhere, I hear relative silence.

And correct me if I’m wrong.  I would love to be wrong on this.

It’s a sad reality that the modern Navajo government structure was essentially developed by the Federal Government around 1922 to pass off the rights to sign oil leases.  Even the modern Federal Government is, shall we say, uncomfortably close to the lucrative extractive industries that have an incredible knack for getting away with compliance lapses and environmental devastation.

When, on November 6, 2015, President Obama rejected Phase 4 of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Lakota and their many allies celebrated this decision.  It would save the Black Hills, a sacred site, from destruction.  It would save the Ogallala Aquifer, the world’s largest source of underground freshwater, from contamination.  It seemed like the message finally got across…except now the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is threatening the Plains yet again.

Not only will this proposed DAPL, constructed by a private energy company, also cross the vital Ogallala Aquifer, it will also cross the Missouri and Cannon Ball Rivers half of a mile away from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.  In an immediate response, a campaign called #RezpectOurWater was launched, arguing that a leak in this line could destroy local water sources and make both people and animals sick.  The youth in the campaign ask, “If it was your family at risk, would you be okay with it?”  One girl states, “I guess they don’t think we’re that important.”

Do you remember how the Gold King Mine spill felt?  How it still feels?

I have grown up being told by the elders around me: “The 3rd World War won’t be over land, or trade, or even religion.  It will be over water.”  As the Lakota say, “Mni wiconi.”  Water is sacred.

I spent 2 years working for “big oil” as an Engineer.  How I got there was a kind of sick irony.  My undergraduate degree specialized in Environmental Engineering, yet, by the time I graduated, the “alternative energy” sector had transformed into the fracking industry.  In that short timeframe, I experienced enough emergency response spills to know how I feel about this industry.

I would spend 12-hour shifts, day after day, holding air monitoring devices near the heads of migrant workers as they attempted to salvage spilled oil from contaminated streams in nature reserves.  I carried empty water bottles to collect dead salamanders I spotted for the biology counts.  (I used to catch these little guys in the woods at home.  By 2014, I had seen more dead than living salamanders in my life.)  I have also endured the misogyny of laborers while performing oversight on well pads.  I suspect these man camps in Indian Country are responsible for the increase of rape and other violence against indigenous women.

Sure, an engineering job in the oil industry could make you rich.  But what good is money  when we’ve destroyed our collective home?  The most finite of resources?  Yet it’s not just the oil spills that are a concern.  It’s also the idea of burning fossil fuels.  The incredible impact humans have made to the health of our planet in just my short lifetime.

The theory of climate change is not a joke.  There is a pure science behind it, just like the theory of gravity.  We all feel the theory of gravity; it makes it easy to believe.  But not all of us feel the theory of climate change to the same degree.

The whole concept is rooted in emissions.  In fact, hozho is at the heart of this idea.  Most people can probably understand the need for trees.  Trees are the figurative lungs of our planet as they take all of the carbons dioxide we exhale and transform it into the oxygen we inhale.  We need each other.  It’s a beautiful balance.  But, as we change the oxygen-breathing-organism-to-plant ratio, that’s similar to sitting in your garage with your car running.  Likewise, as we change the chemical composition of the atmosphere through increased carbon emissions, we change how energy such as light and heat lingers in our air.  We see these effects in everything, from the intensity of storms, to the melting of glaciers, to even the inability of calcium carbonate to precipitate into the ocean for coral and fish to build their skeletons.

Everything is interconnected.

I’m going back to graduate school this fall to study energy technology because I believe in the urgency of reducing these emissions.  In fact, I was recently selected as a U.S. Delegate to travel with SustainUs for COP22 this November.  We will be participating in the United Nations Climate Change Conference to lobby for a change in global policy.  While I might feel only somewhat impacted by climate change from my home in Window Rock, I realize I have the privilege to influence change for those hit the hardest.  There are people in “critical” countries and tribal communities that will literally lose their communities in the next few decades if we don’t come together as a Five Fingered family and make a change.

Last year’s COP21 delegation launched the campaign #ZeroBy2050, demanding leaders to adopt policy that would phase out emission-spouting industries with alternative solutions.  The year 2050 was selected because, if the average temperature of the planet rises any more than 2C (which it is projected to reach by that year), vulnerable countries will be deluged by a rising sea.  Entire islands, homes, cultures.

At UNITY this February, I sat on stage for a panel discussion and watched my Inupiaq friend, Teressa Baldwin, passionately describe her Arctic Circle culture.  Then she burst into tears as she explained her traditional village would be completely underwater by the time she is a grandmother.  The next morning, she left for Russia to strategize with other leaders from affected Arctic Circle communities.

We live in a global community.  We must hold every person accountable for how they impact each other and our resources.  And we absolutely must stand in solidarity with these entire communities who are at the immediate risk of losing everything on account of our silence, our turned blind eye.

How would you feel if someone was blowing secondhand smoke on your child?  Would you ask them to stop?  Or would you pretend each time not to see it, and then to not acknowledge the child’s subsequent struggle with asthma?  The child is our future generations.  The smoker is the fossil fuel industry, and that industry is a chain smoker determined to never kick the habit.

In order to reach this emissions goal, we must already be in the energy transition.  Creating green jobs, setting new emissions standards, holding Big Oil accountable.  Taking the hands of both tribal and federal leaders out of the pockets of these industries.  We know this, and yet oil, gas, and coal companies have already laid claim on deposits representing 2,795 gigatons of carbon.  To meet the 2C mark by 2050, no more than 565 gigatons can be developed between 2011 and 2049.  2,795 is five times this limit.  Think of that.  Then think of these proposed pipelines that are meant to slice and dice Indian Country, traveling thousands of miles over freshwater reserves and sacred sites.

Navajo Nation leadership, this is your chance.  If you voiced solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux, if you committed to this fossil fuel phaseout, if you began sincerely investing in green jobs… Not only would the Navajo Nation become a leader in what tribal sovereignty means today, but it would also set an example for the entire world.

The Navajo Nation has such a potential to be a powerful voice and a world leader.  I just hope we all make the right decision and choose Solidarity over Oil Prosperity.

drought on the Navajo Nation & a need for more observers.

Back on March 22, 2016 – a.k.a. World Water Day – the White House held a White House Water Summit.  The Obama administration directed federal agencies to begin focusing on national long-term drought resilience policies.  This effort was primarily focused on how to solve ongoing water shortages that disproportionately affect Western states, specifically along the Colorado River Basin.

“We need to continue to develop collaborative strategies across each river basin to ensure that our nation’s water and power supplies, agricultural activities, ecosystems, and other resources all have sustainable paths forward,” said Michael L. Connor, the Interior Department’s Deputy Secretary.

But what are tribes doing about it?

Taking a look at a map, it’s clear that the Colorado River Basin includes more than just a few states.  It also includes ten tribes who make up the Colorado River Basin Tribes Partnership.  This group was founded in 1992 and involves the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, Cocopah Indian Community, Hopi, Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, Jicarilla Apache Nation, Nation Nation, Quechan Indian Tribe, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Indian Tribe, and Ute Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.


Of course, tribes not included are extensive.  Within Arizona alone, there are also the Ak-Chin Indian Community (Pima and Papago), Gila River (Pima and Maricopa), Havasupai Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Kaibab-Paiute Tribe, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Community, San Carlos Apache Tribe, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Tohono O’oodham Nation, Tonto Apache Tribe, White Mountain Apache Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nationa, and Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe.  Then of course there are the other states including even more groups, such as the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico.

What have tribes been doing to take action on climate change?

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has many sustainability goals for the Navajo Region due to the Executive Order 13653, and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe was awarded the EPA Clean Air Excellence Award this July for implementing an Air Quality Program (AQP) through its Environmental Programs Division.  But the reality is that the southwest’s water crisis is taking its hardest toll on groups such as the Navajo Nation.

In August 2015, protestors in Window Rock attempted to chase Senator John McCain from tribal land for his on-going efforts to steal water rights from the Navajo and Hopi tribes.  While the Navajo Nation already struggles to manage its own resources, Arizona is attempting to take surface water rights from the tribes and pull from their underground aquifers in an attempt to meet the high demands of cities like Phoenix and Tucson to the south.  There are many problems to these proposals, not just because of their clear violations of tribal sovereignty and water rights but also because of what they would be supporting: the continued growth of two large cities that already overuse water that they don’t have.

Meanwhile, many individuals in the Navajo region have been conducting their own research on climate change.  Dr. Margaret Hiza continues to observe sand dunes, noting that the invasive Russian Thistle (tumbleweed) with its tendency to break off without a root system contributes to the erosion and movement of dry sand.  Dr. Karletta Chief and her assistants analyze data of precipitation and make recommendations through a technical review.

The findings all point to a need for more data, and of more people acting as observers for precipitation and changes on the Nation.  Yet this enters the same area of concern brought up recently by the Dine Policy Institute’s Siihasin Summit: Reflecting on Research and Data Management in the Navajo Nation.  The Navajo Nation has its own IRB, a research board that helps approve of projects and ensures any data collected is in full possession of the Navajo Nation.  This helps prevent crises like Havasuapi-Arizona State University case that stole genetic data for purposes other than it was intended.  And while this step of tribal sovereignty (data ownership) is necessary, it is also necessary for the tribes to step up and begin collecting and managing it at an efficient and effective manner that meets the demands of the problems the Nations are facing.

It will be interesting to see how the Navajo Nation continues to respond to topics of Climate Change, especially when it is so heavily reliant on extractive industries that clearly contribute to the emissions and water problems of the southwest.


Everyone has a purpose in our lives.  Sometimes, it would seem like people only exist to anger us or annoy us.  But there’s a purpose to why they’re there.

Or, maybe we retroactively assign the purpose.


Whatever the case,

There’s a take-away from each account.

Sometimes those people are only people in our lives because we passively encounter them in public.  We may never say a word to them, or even look directly at them.  We might only overhear a comment they make, and then they move on.  That moment might be the only moment in all of history that we are near that person, never to see them again.  But what they say, we might hear it.  And it might stick with us.  And if it angers us, it might become fuel for us.

Today, I am writing from Phoenix.  It is currently 106F.  Hot, yes, but not as hot as it gets in the summer here.  To be honest, I like the heat.  I think it’s because I’m always cold.  People pull me out of the sun constantly, saying “Stand in the shade!”  I just say, “I sit in the shade too much.  I need this.”  It feels good.  It makes vitamins.

I miss the forests.  I miss the moisture and the greenery.  I want so badly to swim, but there are very few rivers or lakes to swim in.  The absence of these things really tear at me.

But I also love the desert.  I love its resilience.  I love the chemistry of its skies.  I love its living geology.  Its biodiversity becomes so much more evident to me as I drive from the Chuska Mountains to the Sonora Desert.  Elevation has an incredible effect on beings.  We must adapt to our environments.

Unless you’re a human in Phoenix.

At lunch, I overheard a conversation about weather.  The man beside me was complaining about the cold.  He insisted living in cold weather was illogical and nearly impossible.  It was too much work to shovel snow off a car.  It was too cold to warm back up again.  All you needed to do was live where it is hot, run some air-conditioning, and feel comfortable.

This person, I might never see him again.  I never looked at his face, just his right shoe.  I don’t know his name.  What I do know is that he has no regard for the environment, no concept of the climate crisis, no idea of how social status affects one’s access to things like electricity and climate control.  Based on his comments during the conversation, he lives in Phoenix because he lives in an isolated, indoor environment, completely detached from the reality surrounding him in the environment, on tribal lands, and on the international southern border.  The woman across from him even described a friend of hers as being someone “interested in environmental rights or whatever you call it”.  Like, what?

This person could easily mean nothing to me, but was he really without purpose?  Whoever he is, he did contribute in one way or another to my view of Phoenix, of Arizona, of the United States, of the world.  It is a valid point that people don’t understand that air-conditioning is no global solution.  It is true that these people don’t realize the seriousness of living the way people live in Phoenix, the heart of a desert enclosed by tribal and park lands to the point that its growth is severely limited without infringing on environmental and/or indigenous rights.

Sometimes, we have to overhear the ignorant comments and conversations.  Without them, we wouldn’t know where to make corrections.  We wouldn’t know how to identify progress.  We would be stagnant.

In a way, strangers represent an entire population.  The majority of a population will likely always be strangers anyway.  It’s the ideas they have, the things they think and say, and their inability to see through other perspectives that become my concern.  That’s where I see the importance of strangers to my career path and my life.  Without these strangers demonstrating street ignorance, I might not realize the severity of such gaps in perspectives and understanding of critical topics.

Yahdilah…y Pa’lante!

Eurocentric Curricula: A Modern-Day Colonizer of Young Minds and Perspectives

This is a paper I did for HST102 at Dine College.  I probably could have written thirty pages, but I already went over the limit…


Kayla DeVault

Dr. King

World Civilizations 102

20 April 2016

Eurocentric Curricula: A Modern-Day Colonizer of Young Minds and Perspectives

Formal public education in the United States has its roots in the American Colonia Era. During this era, Christianity and white supremacy affected every aspect of political and social life in the United States as well as in many places in Europe or colonized by European countries. With an educational system being borne from this era, it is therefore understandable that the subsequent system be entrenched in Christian values and a Eurocentric perspective on the world and on racial equality. As eras have passed, more and more work has been done by the government and pressuring citizens to rewrite the curriculum, resulting in changes of religious content in curricula, the inclusion of a more racially diverse student body, and even topics like anthropology that explore more human histories. However, are the curricula in public schools still heavily Eurocentric? In particular, how are the histories First Americans portrayed today in these systems, if at all, and how does it reflect on how they portray themselves?

Until the Indian Citizenship of 1924, any Native American who did not relinquish his or her tribal citizenship could not be considered an American citizen. In some ways, becoming a citizen of both a tribal nation and the United States was controversial as it could be seen as undermining tribal sovereignty. Even so, this change means that it has been less than a century that Native American histories have become part of American history rather than an “us vs. them” viewpoint, i.e. a Eurocentric perspective. The question is whether or not the curriculum has shifted to reflect this societal change. Considering the heightened “Indians and Cowboys” film activities in the 1950s and 1960s, the American obsession with “us vs. them” and the Plains Indians cultures prohibited non-Indian Americans from seeing anything but the 1800s, stereotypical Indian fighting invading frontiersmen.

Even as the American Indian Movement rose alongside other Civil Rights movements in the 1970s, old-fashioned mentalities continued to affect modern Natives. The involuntary sterilization of thousands of Native women by the Indian Health Service during this era, under the guise of “helping” Native communities, demonstrates the prevalence of this outdated, “us vs. them” concept of Indians in the popular American viewpoint. Furthermore, the continued lack of coverage on such acts of genocide reinforces the disparities in including Indians in American history. Yet this is merely one example; American Indian histories extend for thousands of years over thousands of miles, and those histories are living. How well is our public school system doing to address such an enormous spread of topics and in a way that is culturally appropriate, accurate, and inclusive?

One of the first methods used for reviewing the curricula in public schools was to study the guidelines for Social Studies provided by the Bureau of Education. Various public school superintendents, from Flagstaff to Tuba City, confirmed that the Arizona Bureau of Education’s standards are the best resource for studying the curriculum of social studies from Kindergarten through 12th grade. Having also been a student in the Pennsylvania public school system, I spent some time analyzing that curriculum as well. I also took Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH), and so materials were reviewed for APUSH as another “American History Standard”. In all areas, the curriculum was reviewed for: 1) inclusion of Native histories; 2) presentation of Native peoples as historic-only, contemporary-only, or both; 3) breadth of Native cultures included; 4) emphasis on local history, including local tribes; 5) perspective on Native histories (Eurocentric or unbiased); 6) included or excluded historic events that are significant in Indian Country; and 7) Navajo history, especially the Long Walk.

Having attended several public and private schools in Pennsylvania, I am particularly interested in the changes being made to curricula as well as where there are still disparages. Indian mascots are used widely across eastern States, yet so many curricula fail to educate students on proper Native history, thereby perpetuating a vicious cycle of ignorance. One of my private schools is currently looking into a curriculum revision that includes training teachers on how to present materials in ways that are more culturally inclusive. In a conversation with my former school’s headmaster, she described the old curriculum as being “written and presented from the view of the oppressor”. In my years at that school and others, I can only recall a focus on the Removal Act, the Cherokee Trail of Tears, and a very general view of Indian Policy. Otherwise, topics included “Indians”. My younger brother was even given an “Indian name” in 5th grade, and we were both made to create paper headdresses to celebrate Thanksgiving. These activities not only inaccurately depict past and present Native peoples, but they also assume no Native child is on the receiving end of that education by the nature of how the information is presented. These lapses contribute to the Eurocentric curriculum perspective.

Today, education in Pennsylvania still lags behind in quality like much of the nation, but changes in the curriculum are evident. In fact, after reviewing resources for public education standards in Pennsylvania, I was pleased to discover some social studies curricula specifically geared to dispel “Indian” stereotypes in young students. One example of this is a 3rd grade activity that focuses on Anishinabe peoples relative to the Great Lakes region of the United States. This activity introduces students to past and present cultures of the various Anishinabe/Ojibwe people, discussing both original and contemporary locations. The culture and tradition of the Ojibwe people are studied in depth. The class is then tasked with researching the topic of migration of the peoples and reflecting on this migration’s role to culture. Another section, specified for grades 3 through 5, is “Not ‘Indians’, Many Tribes: Native American Diversity”. The point of this section is to show similar interactions between environment and culture for the Abenaki, Hopi, and Kwakiutl Nations. Students are asked to contrast and compare these wildly different groups and to demonstrate how their environment has shaped their cultures. These activities are encouraging to find in the curriculum guidelines because they demonstrate an effort to dispel stereotypes and create a better understanding of native peoples in both a past and present context.

However, not everything in Pennsylvania’s standard curriculum is up-to-date. While the examples found were great ones, they are not representative of the efforts across the board. These two examples were perhaps the only examples that could be made of this myth debunking, and the word “Navajo” only returned results for a collection of poems under a long list of books recommended under one track of high school history. Searches for the term “Long Walk” returned nothing, and so it is expected that even an intensive scouring of commonly used textbooks in the Pennsylvania curriculum will likely result in very little representation of significant southwest tribal history. Even the vocabulary used by these curricula to teach the most disgraceful parts of American history is rather biased. Textbooks are quick to describe the actions of Nazi Germany as “genocide” by means of “concentration camps”, but the reality is these Nazis replicated American designs that were used against tribal peoples – and yet we continue to use language like “walk”, “march”, “relocation”, and other milder terms.

Furthermore, there are many elements in the Pennsylvania history and social studies curricula that, as they stand, continue to present negative figures in a positive light. One prime example of this is the depiction of Andrew Jackson. As most Americans have likely been educated to believe, Andrew Jackson is generally portrayed as a war hero with many great accomplishments. His face appears on the twenty-dollar bill for this reason. Yet, as many modern Natives understand, and as activists like Deloria Vine, Jr. have loved to remind America, Andrew Jackson is far from a hero. Then how is it that, under the standards for social studies teaching for Pennsylvania on the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson is described as having a victory over the British in New Orleans which made him “a new hero” in the United States? (PDESAS). In fact, the link referenced for more information continues by stating: “Added to his fame as an Indian fighter, this brilliant action propelled him to national prominence and ultimately to election as president in 1828” (American History). How would an Indian student reading that line feel about what it was suggesting? Would it even occur to the other students and teachers who are non-Indian that this passage is an incredibly exclusive piece of “history”? The entire section also seems to fail drastically at educating students on contemporary issues, such as why today Andrew Jackson is so widely rejected as a hero in Indian Country. How could a modern, non-Indian student understand the motion to change the face of the twenty-dollar bill when any portrayals of Andrew Jackson in the public system are so positive?

The standards for education in the southwest are similarly governed by the States. In Arizona, the curriculum prioritizes Native history far more than eastern curricula tend to. Various Superintendents across northern Arizona supported this observation in phone conversations about their schools’ curricula. Just by reviewing the very general outlines Arizona sets for education in high school, topics regarding Native Americans appear in history, geography, and government strands. The first mention is in Paleo-Indian topics; an effort is made to differentiate the various kinds of tribal peoples and their specific inheritance. One section is set aside for the southwest populations, relevant as a local cultural topic. Unlike many other curricula for different states, the Arizona curriculum does require students to analyze the movements of American military and government and how these impacted the cultures and lives of the tribal peoples affected. In the government section, students are required to learn about the voting rights issues Natives faced – not just on a National level in 1924, but also following World War II in Arizona. This section also talks about the Code Talkers.

However, one observation is that the “Long Walk” is never specifically detailed in the curriculum, and neither is its famous eastern counterpart, the “Trail of Tears”. Even in descriptions of Kit Carson, his supervisor Carrelton, and Fort Sumner, many American texts shy away from capturing the true brutality, injustice, and Eurocentric mentality that dominated the era (Gordon-McCutchan). Carson, long praised for his efforts as written in White history, is in fact a criminal by modern standards. Especially among the Navajos, this holds true. Students today should be taught the same perspective, for anything short of that would be at conflict with the human rights topics they cover in other classes. Students on the Navajo Reservation or living near it – or perhaps just in the Southwest in general – should absolutely be made aware of not only this topic in history, but of the shift in perspectives regarding how we now reference it. Imagine if we still read passages on slavery in American history books written by those in support of keeping slavery in the economy. There are some perspectives that have to be updated and erased, so why is it taking so long to change Native American passages?

While it is true that local histories should be emphasized in one curriculum more than another, it is still important that the histories being taught at a national level should cover a significant part of Native histories. The curriculum set in place for APUSH is essentially a national standard for understanding United States History. The scores from the AP exams in this area are capable of earning college credits for high school students pursuing higher education degrees. The curriculum therefore should reflect an intense and holistic view of what is widely accepted as “American history”. Yet, APUSH does not define as “American History” starting at its Independence of 1776 or even in just the years leading into that event. Instead, it defines “American History” as 1491 and beyond. This inclusion of one year before Columbus landed in the Caribbean in a way implies that Native history is a part of the American story, but in reality its purpose is to establish an idea that Native populations have been conquered and how it was done. This is a troubling approach as it disseminates Columbus’ viewpoint on the peoples he and the Europeans after him used to justify their actions: Native peoples in a limited, narrow, and uncivilized context that fails to acknowledge cultural diversity and richness. Without making this distinction between how these “conquerors” viewed Native peoples and how they should be viewed, it becomes increasingly difficult to put contemporary Indian issues into a historical context. For example, just the very idea of “Indian policy” as a blanket term for how to “deal with” Indian peoples perpetuates the blurring of lines between sovereign nations and the “us vs. them” mentality that devastates understanding modern issues faced by tribal governments and citizens in the Americas.

Although the curriculum largely focuses on the “Five Civilized Tribes”, the Spanish missions and encomienda system in the southwest, and some of the political movements from the American Indian Movement in the northern Plains, I saw no indication of Hawai’ian and Alaskan indigenous histories. The Dawes Act and subsequent Indian Reorganization Act is mentioned, but no curriculum notes outline the Residential Boarding School Era, the Navajo Long Walk, the Livestock Reduction, the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute, or even the Termination Era of Indian Policy. In fact, Native history seems to end in 1973 with Wounded Knee – although, sadly, that is much more impressive than most histories that end with the Trail of Tears and which fail to portray Natives as living citizens with professional careers.

In addition to these curricula, one business book for business classes at Coconino Community College was analyzed for material relevant to Indian businesses. The book is “The Legal, Ethical, and Regulatory Environment of Business” by Bruce D. Fisher and Michael J. Phillips (1998). The purpose of the book is to “[emphasize] the relevance of legal environment topics to business functions” and to present a “strong emphasis on ethics, international law, environmental law, and women’s legal concerns”. After scanning the book’s contents for any coverage on Indian businesses or tribal entities, it was found that Native Americans are mentioned very few times in the text.

On page 459, a section devoted to “Exclusions from Coverage” mentions employer discrimination policies. In this, it explains that Title VII does not apply to Native American tribes, but nothing more is stated to explain why this is so. For the Navajo Nation, for example, there is a complicated business arrangement. Not only is employment priority Navajo (not simply Native American), but all business transactions fall under a complicated bidding process with Navajo Priority 1, Priority 2, and Non-Priority. Indian services provided by the Federal government, on the other hand, are Indian Preference. This concept is so widely misunderstood by the non-Indian population that it should be emphasized in all business texts. In a school like Coconino Community College, surrounded by Indian Country, it is somewhat surprising that is excluded. Another mention, on page 783, casually describes the Department of Energy attempting “to convince Native American tribes to accept [nuclear] wastes on their reservations in exchange for federal money”, as if this is ethical business practice (Fisher).

All in all, it appears as though states are making an effort to be more inclusive of non-biased Native histories that assist in dispelling stereotypes. However, the transition is slow, and it is especially slow in areas where there are less Native students or Native populations – i.e. areas that may have a higher tendency to not see Natives in a modern perspective and who would, therefore, benefit from these contemporary lessons the most. So many curricula focus on the expulsion of Spanish powers from the southwest without consideration that people already lived there. That is why incorporating lessons on the Long Walk is such a key point for introducing the atrocities committed by all armies during the 1800s in present-day New Mexico and Arizona. The real story of the Long Walk is not lost among today’s Navajos, however. Modern music about the walk can be heard regularly on KTNN, the local Window Rock radio station. There is also the famous song Shí Naasha, written in 1868, that sums up the true emotions of the walk back from Fort Sumner:

Ahala ahalago naashá ghą

Shí naashá ghą, shí naashá ghą,

Shí naashá lágo hózhǫ’ la.

Shí naashá ghą, shí naashá ghą,

Shí naashá, ladee hózhǫ’ǫ’ lá.

I am going in freedom.

I am going in beauty all around me.

I am going, I am going, in beauty

It is around me.

This song reflects the anxiousness and relief of the people returning. It is also cultural significant when one realizing the story and the impact of reentering the boundaries of the four sacred mountains. Furthermore, “walking in beauty” and “harmony” play such an important part to Navajo culture, and seeing it as such a positive way to recover from Fort Sumner demonstrates the resilience and cultural strength of the Navajo people. The spirituality is completely interlocked with their experience at Fort Sumner, despite the conditions and lack of hope. Their song and prayer is what kept them together. These are things students are not able to learn from modern curricula and therefore are not able to understand wholesomely when visiting the Navajo Nation or surrounding areas.

In conclusion, the American education system still has a ways to go before it will be truly and equal and unbiased learning experience. Once students are able to recite the culture, history, capitals, and names of tribal nations as well as they can European ones, they will be closer to understanding the country they actually live in; and once students can stop using descriptors like “African”, “Asian”, “Indian”, and “French” or “Italian” as if they are parallel words, equality will be better established in the way we perceive the world. We have had numerous battles about removing religion from schools; it is time we begin making greater strides to reform the “Native American” curricula in these schools as well.

Christianity and Navajo Sovereignty: Colonization’s Influence on the Navajo Political Structure


Diné College

Kayla DeVault
Navajo Nation Government: NIS226
Mr. Vecenti


Although recorded Navajo history did not begin until the arrival of the Spanish some nearly 500 years ago, oral traditions recount history since the beginning of time. It is these oral traditions the recount the resilience of Navajos – but also the Navajo ability to adopt and adapt. While language remains one of the most preserved and uniquely Navajo parts of the Diné tradition, the influence of the Anasazi, the Pueblos, the Spanish, and subsequent groups remains unquestionable. The latest influence – Christianity – calls into question to what degree this influence threatens traditional structure and belief, and how have the policies of foreign powers assimilated and reshaped the perspective of tribal leadership today.

There are many values – or lack thereof – that could be considered traditional Navajo. Most notably, these include: matrilineal clanship, Hozho and K’é, a lack of land ownership or even static inhabitance, etc. Even the silver-making and weaving industries demonstrate a shift in economic practices as the Spanish first came into contact with the Southwest. All of these influences have had a significant impact on cultural retention. In the place of tradition, most often Christianity has come to the forefront of religions on the Navajo Reservation. This shift has had an incredible influence on the way many Navajos now think, how resources are managed, and how Navajos treat one another.

Although traditional Navajo belief upholds the importance of women in Navajo society, the influence of Christianity and “Western thought” has put the value of women behind that of men. Clans still function matrilineally, but the value behind that system has been nearly lost. As womanhood also represents the Mother Earth and what it provides for Navajo life, a disconnect is also garnered in this way between the Navajo people and natural resources. Navajos never believed in landownership, but the idea of “property” has been introduced by European influences, resulting in an attitude of superiority over all non-human and non-male aspects of life. Although women once represented portions of Navajo leadership, the influence of Christianity and other Western thought has decreased the influence of women to nearly non-existent.

Another important factor that has been altered over the years is ceremony. Not only has the influence of peyote from the Plains region been adopted into many systems within the Navajo Nation, but so have missions, the Native American Church, and a focus of monetary compensation amongst practicing medicine men. These changes have resulted in a shift of values and a challenge in maintaining a ceremonial structure. As the Nalchid was eliminated with one of the most significant Navajo treaties, it should seem that the era of traditional leadership was also eliminated. These leads into the final concerns: actual government structures and the priorities they make.

While it is important for the Navajo government to be focused on language and culture retention, it is also hypocritical of it to pursue such endeavors while completely adopting American democracy structures, Christian principles, and non-Navajo values. This betrayal begins when reviewing the history of the Navajo government: in essence, it was formed to hand over oil lease-making capabilities to the American government. In its place, we now see Navajos supporting extractive industries for the sole purpose of being competitive in the economy. In so many ways, the Navajo Nation – at least as a governmental structure – has adopted a mentality that views “poverty” in the same way that many non-Indians monetarily base it, have supported rigorously the concept of land ownership, and have not called into question enough the concern that, while tradition should remain, a separation of Church and State is commonplace in the American democratic system. Instead, we are faced to wonder what might become of centuries of resilience to dissolution in the face of policies meant to foster assimilation.





















Christianity and Navajo Sovereignty: Colonization’s Influence on the Navajo Political Structure

Since perhaps the beginning of time, Christianity and Navajo tradition evolved, grew, and spread on completely parallel paths. Although they are on opposite sides of the world, the two religions actually share many of the same values. For one, they respect theories of creation, existence, purpose, and duty to a holy figure(s). This respect dictates much of how they govern themselves and function in daily life. There are certain rituals that both religions require which help to maintain a balance acceptable to each religion’s individual belief system. In fact, many religions could be described as fundamentally similar as they, in many respects, are like a political ideology designed to create and maintain peace within society. They unite people. They create a tradition.

Yet it is when that unity forms superior coalitions over other groups of people and when the Word of God is bared as a weapon that religions like Christianity transform into something different. When Christianity transformed into Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery, it became a highly influential and highly deadly reign of terror, especially in Indian Country. Beginning with the era of the Spanish Inquisition and the genocide of peoples from present-day Caribbean down to South America, Christianity was used for cultural erasure. Centuries later, it was still being used to build political framework. Its values have been written into the American Constitution and way of thinking, even when Separation of Church and State attempts to remove it.

Most “New World” contact with Christianity came first from the Spanish. The very title “New World”, alluding to the “discovery” of two more continents, demonstrates the “us” and “them” notion Europeans held that made the “them” (“uncivilized indigenous peoples”) irrelevant in society. Because the ideals being practiced in the Catholic Church at that time had a very strict concept on what made “civil society”, the Spanish were amongst the many Europeans who were incapable of viewing indigenous life without their biased lenses. These lenses meant that enormous and complex civilizations such as the Aztec, with impressive structures that attract tourists to this day, were viewed as incompetent, simplistic, and heathen. The Doctrine of Discovery elaborated on that notion, giving Spanish and other Europeans cause to “civilize” indigenous peoples under the guise it would save their souls. (Wilkins)

Today, missions still attempt to influence indigenous communities. However, the techniques they use could most harshly be called bribery. They build new churches, schools, houses, wells, and things that appeal to the community while passing out Bibles and literature for conversion. The mission work of early Spanish colonization, on the other hand, can most harshly be called genocide. Their techniques included mutilation, torture, enslavement, and murder. If the diseases they brought did not destroy large populations, their brutality and capture of indigenous peoples did. These practices were rampant during the 1500s and continued for centuries in different forms across different parts of the “New World” as a power tool. This marked the beginning of a power struggle era that continues to affect tribes who are “excluded, marginalized and ‘Othered’” in a number of contexts. (Smith, 35)

The Navajos first made contact with the Spanish in 1583 in the vicinity of Mount Taylor. Coronado had claimed the New Mexico territory for Spain in 1540, and in 1607 Santa Fe was established as the capital. The Spanish “rule” in the area would last until the Mexican overthrow in 1826. (Wilkins) During these nearly 300 years of occupation, the Spanish continued their assaults on the Navajo, the Pueblos, and various other tribes in the area. They manipulated tribes against one another for their own personal gain and sent conquest after conquest to find the large swaths of gold they were convinced awaited them in this “New World”. Spain’s interests in this land were strictly to exploit it for its resources and take the wealth back to the crown. These resources not only included land and minerals but also people. As a means of manipulation, they also attempted to sign numerous treaties with the Navajo.

These treaties were manipulative because they demanded things from the Navajos that were often one-sided requests. They were also manipulative because of the conduct in which they were signed. During this time, there were five distinct bands identified among the Navajos. The largely decentralized structure of the tribe was neither convenient for the Spanish nor well comprehended on account of the lenses through which they viewed all indigenous societies. For these reasons, they imposed on the Navajos they encountered the political framework to which they were accustomed. Rather than requesting to meet with a collection of Naat’aanii, who actually better represented the voice of the tribe, they handpicked a single Naat’aanii or even a couple of Navajos not in a recognized leadership position and “anointed” them as “Chief”. This resulted in treaties that were not acknowledged by the entire tribe. It also created friction within the tribe itself, leading to the Cebolleta band’s designation “Enemy Navajos”. (Wilkins)

This schism remained for centuries amongst the Navajos. As the Pueblos around Santa Fe were close to and especially impacted by the Spanish brutality in the name of Christianity, the Cebolleta, who were the easternmost band and therefore the closest to Santa Fe, often negotiated with the Spanish to protect themselves. Their continued “selling out” intensified the animosity felt amongst the bands. The Spanish capitalized on this animosity in an attempt to divide and conquer the Navajos and continued to transpose their views of what constitutes as leadership, views that were heavily entrenched in their Christian values of the time.

From the Spanish era also came a wealth of livestock, including sheep, horses, and cows. The sheep brought wool, and weaving became a trade of many Navajos. Silver-making also found its way into Navajo trades. Many of the styles of jewelry still used today come from Spanish armor details, including the squash blossom – a modified version of the pomegranate that was reclassified as pomegranates were not known in the southwest in that time. (Iverson) Although trade and even acculturation were always a part of Navajo life and survival, these influences from the Spanish were the first tastes of assimilation that would later sweep all of Indian Country.

The Mexican rule in Navajo territory was very brief, from 1826 to 1846. The Mexican government repeated the errors of the Spanish in its treaty-making process with Navajo “leaders”. When the American government seized the entire New Mexico territory, they too made this error. It took until the Treaty of 1868 before true leadership was gathered and an agreement was negotiated. (Wilkins) However, everything about the Long Walk, Bosque Redondo, and even the Treaty of 1868 was a snapshot of the continued attitude of racial and religious inferiority against indigenous peoples. Most significantly to the analysis of how Christianity has affected modern Navajo society during this era is the Treaty of 1868 and the assimilating values embedded in its thirteen articles.

On July 1, 1868, the Treaty of 1868’s creation was concluded at Bosque Redondo. It was advised for ratification on July 25, 1868 and then proclaimed on August 12, 1868. Its thirteen articles are still applicable today to define the relationship between the Navajo Nation and the federal government. Article I called for the cessation of war and wrongdoing. Article II delineated the Reservation proper. Article III called for the construction of a warehouse, agency building, carpenter and blacksmith shops, schoolhouse, and chapel. Article IV assigned an agent reporting to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Navajo people. Article V established the distribution of land to individuals. Article VI made education for children compulsory. (Wilkins)

Article VII provided seeds and agricultural implements, and Article VIII includes other provisions to be given. Article IX demands that railroads, military posts, and roads be able to cross the reservation and that no attacks may happen to US citizens or their belongings. Article X established conditions for the validation of any future treaties. Article XI outlined provisions for Navajos to return to the Reservation from the prison camp. Article XII appropriated monies and, finally, Article XIII was the agreement to making the Reservation the permanent home for the Navajo. The treaty was signed by W.T. Sherman (Lieutenant General Indian Peace Commissioner), S.F. Tappan (Indian Peace Commissioner), and numerous leaders including Barboncito, Armijo, Delgado, Manuelito, Largo, Narbono, Ganado Mucho, etc. (Wilkins)

On the surface, these terms seem like a possibly honest effort to reestablish the Navajos. It provides them with some means of farming, livestock, food, clothes, monies, and also services. However, this is yet another tool of transposing values onto a tribal nation. Article II and Article V created distinct land boundaries for the tribe as well as boundaries for individual land ownership. The concepts of land ownership and static inhabitation go very strongly against the traditional values of Navajos. Without even taking into consideration the spiritual implications of delineating land for ownership, the static state of living was never part of tradition or resource management. Many Navajos have summer homes as well as winter homes. Their farming practices relied on fluidity as well, such as planting corn in areas that flood and utilizing canyons for growing peach orchards. The idea that a Navajo could sustain him- or herself completely on one tract of land does not fit into the cultural context.

As Berry states, the changes of a farming system is “a matter of complex significance, and its agricultural significance cannot be disentangled from its cultural significance… At certain critical points these systems have to conform with one another or destroy one another”. (Berry, 45-7) Smith in Native Science emphasizes this idea, stating that Native cultures are a product of their pre-Columbian state as well as the current federal policies that altered their lives. In terms of landownership, the “communal nature of resource allocation and decision making” was the backbone of many community function. Smith points out that, in the traditional framework, “no single individual has clear and proper title to any parcel of land, meaning that decisions must be made by or for the whole tribe”. (Smith, 62) In these ways, Articles II and V are transposing Western concepts of how Navajos should live and is therefore one (although relatively subtle) mechanism of assimilation.

Article VII, similarly, dictates the Navajo agrarian lifestyle. Although southwest tribes actually had incredibly well-adapted methods for growing crops suited for their environment, Americans did not acknowledge their techniques as being intelligent. Rather, they viewed their lifestyles as lacking. Generations later, we are suffering as a nation from the impacts of such American farming techniques as monocropping. It is clearly not an intelligent method, considering contemporary concerns. Yet the Treaty of 1868 demonstrates the headstrong attitude that American society was civil, proper, and rightful society, so Article VII distributed the tools to assimilate Navajos to American-approved farming methods.

Article III is a great example of the kinds of services Americans prioritized and therefore imposed on the Navajos. Not only were they imposing a different political framework for the distribution of services, they were also imposing their values and idea of how a society should function. Through the creation of warehouses and blacksmith shops, for example, they were suggesting these elements are pertinent to being “civilized”, as if lacking such things equates to a lack of advancement, capacity, and intelligent. Most critically, of course, is the provision for a chapel to be constructed. With this inclusion, it is crystal clear that the American government believed Navajos needed their Christian god to have a future as a civilized society. Finally, assimilation can also be seen in the demand for a schoolhouse. Article VI’s call for compulsory education excludes the possibility that Navajos are already educated, meaning it does not recognize traditional teachings and ways. The Americans only acknowledged formal education using the framework they value. Sadly, Article VI also opens the doors to a future program of residential boarding schools, cultural erasure, and the installment of generations of trauma.

1868 was a turning point in many ways for the Navajo, although not always for the better. It freed them from enslavement, but it also promoted the transposition of political and societal frameworks rooted in Christian values. Politically, the Naałchid, which was never acknowledged by any European or American government, disappeared around the time of imprisonment. (Wilkins) The Naałchid was crucial to maintaining the traditions and traditional structure of Navajo society. It was heavily based in ceremony and also community involvement. Traditional indigenous values and leadership are described as “a spiritual mindset in which one thinks in the highest, most respectful, and most compassionate way, thus systematically influencing the actions of both individuals and the community”, and therefore the Naałchid’s existence symbolized the resilience of culture and values in the midst of severe oppression. (Cajete, 276)

When the Naałchid ceased to exist, the American government was able to impose a Commissioner (Article IV) to oversee the implementation of the federal government’s tools of assimilation on the Navajos. Decolonizing Methodologies says it well by stating: “When confronted by the alternative conceptions of other societies, Western reality became reified as representing something ‘better’, reflecting ‘higher orders’ or thinking, and being les prone to the dogma, witchcraft and immediacy of people an societies which were so ‘primitive’.” (Smith, 51) In subsequent years, the resurrection of formal Navajo government was merely an extension of the arm of federal agents to control Navajo resources.   The assault on indigenous peoples continued through policy:

“Federal policy has had two competing policy goals when dealing with the First Nations: recognition of sovereignty and resource acquisition. The first policy goal acknowledges the Indian Nations as individual and sovereign entities with which treaties and international agreements are to be made. The second policy, best defined by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, includes acquiring all available resources for use and employment in the economy of the United States.” (Smith, 39)

The erasure of traditional government its replacement of an American structure facilitated this kind of political assault.

The death of the Naałchid is important because it also meant the death of women leadership and women vote amongst the Navajo Nation. Censuses conducted by the United States as a means of assessing the need and distribution of certain services outlined by the Treaty of 1868 transposed Christian, Western values in its very methods. For example, a head of house would be an adult male. This imposes a concept of what makes a human an adult. It also imposes the concept that women are accessories to a household and not significant except as housewives. Even community voice was now limited to the male figure as women were discouraged from participating in elections. With the Indian Citizens Act of 1924 establishing Native Americans as U.S. citizens and therefore creating voting rights for them in elections, women were still left out. Native women would not receive the right to vote in such elections until as late as the 1960s. (Wilkins) What part of these changes sound Navajo in a tribe that revolves around its matrilineal community relationships? None do, because they are all values transposed from a Christian-dominated, predominantly white, and patrilineal society.

The residential boarding schools created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs have an awful legacy that emphasizes the further imposition of Christian values on indigenous societies. “From being direct descendants of sky and earth parents,” reads a passage of Decolonizing Methodologies, “Christianity positioned some of us as higher-order savages who deserved salvation in order that we could become children of God”. (Smith, 35) In an attempt to “civilize” them, children of sovereign nations were ripped from their families and their cultures for years at a time, made to dress in Western clothes, made to cut their hair, taught English, and made to practice Christianity. The federal government’s slogan for this schooling program was, literally, “Kill the Indian, save the man”. While some families took advantage of the program, believing it was in the best interest of their families and their children, most had no choice. Children were subjected to brutally and a high degree of trauma that burdens individuals to this day. Even to this day, education is often taught from the view of the oppressors. Cajete captures this idea biased educational standards, stating “through the curriculum and its underlying theory of knowledge, early schools redefined the world and where indigenous peoples were positioned within the world.” (Cajete, 34)

With these assimilation policies in effect coming into the 20th century, Navajos begin dressing more and more like Americans. The three-tiered traditional skirt, for example, is a product of this acculturation to whatever degree it was actually forced or voluntary. Yet the assimilation policies increasingly focused on the political framework of nations themselves as the years passed and resources were desired on land reserved through relatively recent treaty enactments. This became especially critical on the Navajo Nation when oil was discovered in 1922. (Wilkins) Within one year, the federal government managed to swoop in and create a business council with handpicked Navajos. The focus was not on community building and organization, of course; it was on oil rights and leasing. This is an example of what Smith is describing in Native Science when he states: “Conflicts between culture and economic activity can arise. Past development strategies either were conducted by outside interests for the benefit of outsiders or were designed with the goal of assimilating the tribes into the mainstream capitalist-style economy.” (Smith, 15)

Although the Navajo Tribal Council has gone through a number of changes and reforms since the original council was created, the reality remains that Navajo leadership was no more the Naałchid. It was becoming increasingly American. In fact, studies by the Diné Policy Institute on government reorganization recommendations confirm that the present-day Navajo government is merely a copycat of the American democratic system. Only a small amount of traditional values have been incorporated, and they were late in coming. Beginning with the American attempt to reorganize tribal government with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, Navajos were being pressured repeatedly to adopt a Constitution and to reform their system. They repeatedly turned it down, only occasional attempting to appease the Bureau of Indian Affairs with a draft. (Wilkins) To this day, no Constitution draft has been both accepted by the Council and approved by the federal government. With all the changes the structure continuing to parallel the American system, the question remains today if a Constitution would be beneficial.

The Navajo Nation Council remains unique from most American government systems in that it is unicameral; however, the rest of the government is a three-branch model after the American democratic framework. The 110 chapters, representing local government, are slightly reminiscent of the Naat’aani years of the past. The Chairman and Vice-Chairman positions have, in the last decade, been transferred to a President and Vice-President position to further copy the American model. (Wilkins) Presently, the Navajo Nation exercises tribal sovereignty authority by having its own cell service and utility company, its own tribal parks, and even numerous entities such as Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, Navajo Nation Occupation Safety & Health Administration, and Navajo Nation Division of Transportation. However, these are also copycat structures, adapted from the federal government. Most tribal government offices actually report to the federal offices of the same nature and are obligated to do so by law.

The concept of Checks and Balances is also incorporated into the structure, following the American organization. This became a hot topic in 1989 after the Tribal Council scandals, and the embezzlement of tribal and federal funds continues to be an issue. (Wilkins) Some argue our current tribal leaders, victims of the residential school era, are byproducts of systematic oppression and that their trauma is evidenced through their values and choices. Just a short trip across the Navajo Nation will reveal the shift of values in the leaders as well as the people, as paved roads, cars, and rodeos are thoroughly juxtaposed against hogans, livestock, and chapter signs in the Navajo language. Perhaps these shifts and these histories help explain the values Councilmen uphold in the present day.

Society is always fluid and should be that way, so it is not to say that the Navajo Nation should remain static. Static things fail to sustain themselves in the world. As Smith describes, “maintaining cultural integrity does not necessitate returning to pre-Columbia economies…Rather, the behavioral characteristics that make an individual an Apache or a Navajo or a Mohawk are maintained and developed”. (Smith, 15) The shift of values includes the resistance for women to be community leaders or to have certain rights. Whereas traditional Navajo society viewed women as sacred, like many indigenous nations, the residue of past Christian influence and forced assimilation has altered that perspective. No longer sacred as they once were, and also caught often in a vicious cycle of trauma and substance abuse, indigenous women are now facing the highest rates of violence, including domestic violence. Navajo women are not immune to that statistic. The striking down of same-sex marriage’s recognition on the Navajo Nation is another example of how missions and policy have ingrained Christian values to the point that the Two-Spirit society of hundreds of tribal nations are being forgotten and dishonored. These mentalities are learned, not traditional or inherited.

Another example of these shifts in tribal leadership is the current President Russell Begaye and his values. While he was elected after Chris Deschene’s disqualification for not meeting an arbitrary degree of Navajo language fluency, and while Begaye is in support of promoting tribal sovereignty through language retention, he is also known for his refusal to partake in a traditional ceremony during his inauguration. Although Vice President Jonathan Nez partook, Begaye opted for a Christian equivalent. His devotion to Christianity permeates his policy-making and opinions regarding how to govern the Navajo people. This contradiction is problematic as it raises questions about the Separation of Church and State. Should such an argument be used to hold him to all required traditional practices of modern day leadership, such as the language requirement, would the argument for such separation be made? If so, that point threatens the last threads of resistance to assimilation: incorporating traditional values and customs in the governmental system and even in the tribal colleges’ educational framework.

From the first encroachment of the Spanish to the current American-Navajo trust relationship, the assimilation of values and frameworks have been rapidly impacting and in many ways traumatizing the Navajo society. This degree of colonization has resulted in a number of structural changes and value shifts. Although the Navajo system does attempt to incorporate the values of Sa’ah naaghai bik’eh hozhoon, the overarching structures, policies, and even paradigms reflect the values of a Western society rooted in Christian values. (Wilkins) Until the Navajo Nation is able to shake its learned stigmas against women and other realms also shunned by certain non-indigenous religious extremes, it will be difficult for the tribal government to truly function as the leadership structure of a sovereign nation.


















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Smith, Dean Howard. Modern Tribal Development: Paths to Self-Sufficiency and
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misconceptions about Navajo food

Written as extra credit for Mr. Vecenti’s NIS 226 Navajo Nation Government class.

Last Saturday, June 4, I was about to do a presentation in Window Rock to the Navajo Nation Youth Council. I had received an invitation from a fellow member of Generation Indigenous, Triston Black, who that morning was elected as President of the Youth Council. My presentation was a proposal to start a Navajo Youth Working Group on Climate that will be modeled off of the EPA National group I’m a member of and which can be used to provide feedback directly to National environmental policies and programs. Food sovereignty was one of the bullets in my many topics the group could discuss and research. Before I managed to give my presentation, Vice President Jonathan Nez stepped into the room to discuss food sovereignty and the importance of gardening. He invited us to his Vice Presidential house after our meeting for a cookout and to see his demonstration.

I carpooled over to the event with my friend Chris Brown, a graduate of Yale University who came back home to work in the health programs with COPE. Chris was telling me some of the gardening initiatives he has been a part of with COPE. I knew COPE was involved in food sovereignty topics, having gone to a conference in the fall at the Tribal Museum, but I hadn’t realized to what extent they were promoting the same ideas. I told him about the AISES initiative I was helping write grants for, a collaborative community garden project through Navajo Department of Agriculture at the Navajo Nation Fairgrounds. Apparently my group isn’t the only one talking about using that space for a community program. However, the project is stalled to the point that we are only doing periodic demonstrations and plantings at the Ag building while we await approval for in-kind surveying services on the garden site.

When we got to Mr. Nez’s house, we were asked to sit with our food and listen to a number of speakers representing different groups. Mr. Nez again addressed us, stressing the importance of family building through gardening, of eating healthy, organic, non-GMO foods, and of buying and selling Navajo-produced rather than importing. He proposed many adjustments to the system. One of the women in the gathering told me she had helped push the “Junk Food Tax” through in recent years. Everything they said I agree with, yet I couldn’t help but notice the sugary Brisk teas and sodas, bottled water, bags of chips, pizza, and mutton stew. At least there were vegetable trays and someone cut a watermelon, but all of the food came with Basha’s bags and labels. I’ve shopped at Basha’s before and know how limited the green section is, let alone the organic, and most certainly let alone the non-GMO section. I found it mildly hypocritical to preach one thing while eating another. I mentioned to Mr. Nez the La Montanita Co-op in Gallup, a place that sells local, organic, non-GMO food – and a lot of vegan products – in a crammed store. He had never heard of it, but Chris had and he told him the directions.

When we were done eating, we learned that it was time for us to do the next plots. We were shown how to plant a “Lasagna Style” garden. Although we were all in nice clothes (and someone even had on heels), we picked up the tools and began digging shovel-deep. In sections, we removed dirt, piled in the lasagna ingredients, then moved the dirt from the next section onto the top of the first, continuing until the whole row was completed. The layers included laying down cardboard and wetting it, then adding various mixtures of straw, manure, pine needles, compost, and these mysterious handfuls of ash and what they referred to as “protein” to make the soil rich. Mr. Nez stressed how wonderful the soil is on the Navajo Nation and how we need to be growing crops. I wondered how many kinds of crops he’s tried growing in the sandy, alkaline soil…where any moisture gets whisked away immediately. This environment definitely requires certain crops that know how to thrive here.

As we completed the lasagna garden and planted kale, melon, and other seeds in the beds, Mr. Nez showed us the various holes being dug to the west of the garden. These holes were in a square array with a few feet of separation between holes. They were layering these holes in the same way. He explained this is where the corn, squash, and beans were being planted in a Three Sisters style garden. He then helped cleaned up the area, and I noticed that some of the workers were throwing their watermelon rinds into the lasagna layers. However, Mr. Nez was collecting all of the trash and throwing it into the same bin. Someone noticed that their recycling bin had become a trash bin, so people worked to separate again. Before we left, with seed samples provided by Tolani Lake, I asked Mr. Nez if he had spoken to the Department of Agriculture. I told him about the demonstrations there and how they have an enormous list of programs doing this kind of work. He said he wants to see it at schools and in more communities; I asked if he had talked to Carole Palmer because she has been a part of starting many of these gardens at schools all across the Reservation, and she knows dozens of other organizations doing the same. He didn’t seem like he knew what I was talking about.

This morning, I saw Chris’s picture on the Native News Online feed and realized our gardening day has been published on the national media. I glanced through the article and saw, yet again, the mentioning of a Three Sisters garden and how Mr. Nez has this new vision for the Navajo people. While I absolutely agree with his vision – about wanting to control the food system, getting Navajo produce in the Basha’s stores, fighting diabetes and obesity through a more traditional diet, etc., I couldn’t help but be frustrated on many levels. I am definitely impressed with how active Mr. Nez is and how he has popped into more than one of my meetings in the several months that I’ve lived in the Window Rock area. He is constantly on the move. I believe he does leave a positive impression with the youth. I also believe he is hasty to push his programs without doing his research, and I had a long conversation with people in already-existing organizations who reiterating everything I had thought.

I learned that Mr. Nez was already offered a list of all of these community projects in existence, but he either didn’t look at the list or refused to take it when it was offered. He has this attitude like people aren’t already doing this work whereas the work is being done, we just need help from someone like him to expose the work and support it. One of the largest problems with these projects is they tend to die. There is motivation for only so long, but keeping a project sustained is the issue. It’s more of a lifestyle change and less of a project fad to make these initiatives last. Another huge issue I see is this disconnect; for example, Mr. Nez preaching about very specific foods, then serving another. Or how he was throwing away watermelon rinds in the very same garden he was promoting compost. How else do nutrients get back into the soil if we don’t promote it? Fix nitrate all you want with crop types and rotations, but soil depletion is still a real thing.

Most significantly for the Navajo people, the types of foods and styles of gardening is something that is clashing significantly. Even in Mr. Nez’s garden, his use of the Three Sisters model is infuriating to many traditional farmers and educators. I have seen this model planted in schools as well and have been asked to dispel this myth. This style of gardening is specifically Iroquoian. While many tribes used companion planting, Three Sisters very distinctly refers to the New York region of the country – quite the opposite to where we were here in Arizona. You know this is true because even the various seals used within Navajoland demonstrate the four sacred crops. Yes, corn, beans, and squash – of varieties native to this region – are part of those crops. But tobacco is being left completely out of the picture. To me, that’s almost sacrilegious to leave ceremonial tobacco out of traditional planting initiatives on Dine Bikeyah.

To follow this last point, planting corn in a square is also something completely foreign to the southwest. The Hopi are known to have planted their corn in spirals. There was also the importance of where you plant, and before land ownership was a practiced thing on the Navajo Reservation, crops could be planted where they best thrived rather than wherever a particular owner of a plot of land could arrange to have a garden. This included planting corn in areas known to flood, or also planting peaches in canyons such as in Canyon de Chelly where the walls protect the trees from the awful winds this area is prone to, particularly in the spring.

Finally, there are a few conversations I don’t hear being discussed enough when it comes to food. I feel like so many demonstrations happen for planting, but how many happen after the planting is done? How many harvesting, canning, or seed-saving talks are given? Will Mr. Nez be doing this as well? And, most importantly to me, what about the Navajo traditional plants? This includes knowing the names in Navajo of the plants (which we were not given at the demonstration) and knowing the traditional medicinal plants. When I give my talk at the Chinle Science Camp this coming Monday, I will be stressing these exact points. Most importantly, I will try to instill in the kids the need to view food as medicine, and vice versa. Some plants are more clearly for caloric or nutritional purposes than for healing, but there are places where the two completely overlap. And realizing mutton, frybread, and certain other dishes are not in fact Navajo in the genuine ethnic sense I think is important to reconsider how the diet here has changed so rapidly.

I don’t mean to undermine the efforts Mr. Nez is making because I know how easy it could be to just sit there as the Vice President and not engage with the community. He obviously is very active in the community. I just wish he would listen more to the community, to the projects we have going, and to the experience we have before trying to promote a “new thing” that is in fact very old and popular. With his help, however, we could potentially really turn around a lot of projects, unite the community, and dispel many of these myths and bad practices I have mentioned. I will continue to reach out to him about the activities already happening, whether through the youth or not, and hopefully there will be a change for the future of Navajo food sovereignty.