What Makes Me Navajo? That you are my Grandchild.

What Makes Me Navajo? That you are my Grandchild.

A Reflection of a Grandmother's Teachings

By Carmen Lopez

Executive Director, College Horizons, Inc.

Photo: Carmen Lopez with Grandmothers Mary and Mae.

April 24, 2020

The College Horizons office is situated within the Pueblo Territory of Santa Ana and our staff, my team, my sisters we come from Pueblo and Navajo Nations. While Native communities make up 11% of the New Mexico population, 44% of Native peoples in our state are infected by coronavirus. We feel this virus impacting our local communities and we also see the national impact to Indian Country, villages of Alaska and to the Islands of Hawaii.

I come from the Forest Lake area of Black Mesa, AZ and my family lives between the mesa, Kayenta and Chilchinbito. My relatives were among the first to contract the virus, they were placed on ventilators, and I am incredibly grateful that they have all recovered and are back at home. Scrolling through social media feeds, I know the extended College Horizons family of alumni, families, faculty and educators are also grieving as their friends, relatives and loved ones contract the virus.

Over the last month, I’ve been thinking about my grandmother, Mae Begay Pulinos. She passed away a year ago today. She lived to be 102, an ideal Navajo age. She was born in 1917 and as an infant survived the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. She lived the Navajo Way of life of being and knowing – she was a shepherd, weaver, mid-wife, healer, protector, wife and mother of 12 children, care-taker of the land, engaged community member at the Chapter House, she was our matriarch. I wonder what she would be yelling-telling us today: stay at home, wash your hands, gather the herbs to cleanse, don’t bother the homes of wild animals, think good thoughts, make your prayers, take care of one another.

My mind has been all over the place trying to make meaning of this chaos that has knocked me off balance, that has knocked our world off balance. Or perhaps this chaos is knocking us back into balance. That my mind has turned toward my grandmother during this time is comforting. She is helping me make meaning, to understand new life lessons.

As I remember my grandmother today, I want to share a story with you. I hope it provides some comfort, some healing, a way to reflect upon our losses and to remember and reflect on our elders and ancestors teachings. The following occurred in 2004, I was living in Boston at the time. This experience and exchange with my mother and grandmother has shaped me as an educator and a parent, deepening my compassion and empathy for Native youth in their identity formation. At College Horizons I try to claim all of our students, to let them know they belong, that they are enough, that they are grandchildren of this land.

What makes Me Navajo? That you are My Grandchild.

Back in the summer of 2004 I was visiting Shimásaní up on Black Mesa. To get to our To’dichííní lands at Forest Lake requires that you know where the hell you are going – the Peabody/Kayenta mine roads are always changing, once the pavement ends at the mine’s Human Resource office, it’s another 10 miles on dirt roads with only land marks of hills, trees, washes and families homes to give you a sense of where you are going. Once we arrive, we unpack groceries, dog food, and bales of hay. Grandma starts to boil water, mixes dough and prepares a meal to welcome us home. After making a few trips to haul water, cleaning up around the house and hogan, we finally sit down to visit. My grandmother doesn’t speak English, I don’t speak Navajo fluently, so my mother interprets for me.

At this time, I was new in my directorship at the Harvard University Native American Program trying to build community. I wanted advice on how I could better help my students as they began to question their own (and their classmates) Native identity. I had so many meetings with students (undergrad and graduate) in tears about not feeling Native enough or angry about ethnic fraud occurring in admission through self-identification or feeling guilty and conflicted about perhaps not directly returning to their home communities to “give back” upon completing their degrees.

I started my conversation with Shimásaní.

Másaní, I’m working at a school with students who feel they are not Native enough. Some might not know their language, culture or ceremony as much as they want. Or maybe they don’t live with all of their relatives on their homelands. I want to help them because they are hurting, they don’t feel they belong to their people. What does it mean to be Native, to be Navajo to you?

My mom interprets in about 3 seconds. I say to my mom, “Are you sure you got everything I said?” She doesn’t respond to me.

Másaní answers. Mom interprets. But her answer doesn’t really help me. So I think, she must not understand what I’m trying to ask, I’ll ask her again, but in a different way, and I’ll emphasize to my mom to interpret everything I say this time.

I try again. I’m verbose. I end again with, “What does it mean to be Navajo?” Mom interprets, this time longer.

I remember this part so clearly. My grandma looks at me really hard. Full on stare. For several seconds. I meet her gaze. Waiting. She begins to talk to my mom, not to me. I can understand certain words and I can understand that she has asked my mom a question. She and mom are going back and forth in their conversation. I’m still waiting.

My mom finally interprets: She asked if you are feeling well. She wants to know why are you asking these questions? She wants to know if you are mixed up.

Because your question does not make sense to her.

In my stubbornness, I reassure Másaní that I am well, I’m not mixed up and that I am trying to help my students. I try one more time, "What makes me Navajo Másaní?"

She gives me another hard stare. I could tell she was becoming annoyed. In a raised voice she said, “You are my granddaughter. You are Bitter Water from this land.” And with that, she got up and walked out of the room.

I said to my mom, “That was a really good answer.” And I remember the rush of feelings – I felt so loved by my grandmother, she claimed me, I was hers. You belong to me, I belong to the land, you are a part of this place. The sense of belonging was palatable – this very land, this very winter and summer camp that I have known my whole life, that my mother has known that my grandmother has known, is me. Even with that profound expression of K’e, I also felt a rush of shame and sadness that I couldn’t have this conversation with my grandmother in our language.