A place to call home

Navy veteran looks for Navajo mother he lost at birth

By Glenda Rae Davis
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, April 16, 2012

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F or Daniel Coffee, 44, belonging somewhere or to someone has been a dream just beyond his reach.

"If you don't belong," he said, "you might as well be sand in the wind."

Looking at his posture, it was obvious he was a veteran and his Navy SEALs cap affirmed that fact.

At the same time his Texas accent revealed the emotion behind his wish to be accepted, forceful when he talked of his accomplishments and softening when he talked about what he had done for others.

Growing up, Coffee said there were several things about him that seemed to come naturally but couldn't be traced to his family's habits and teachings, like his tendency to face east when he prayed.

He had always understood that he was different from his fair-skinned family.

"At age 10 my mother told me that I was adopted, which was obvious. I mean, I was a different color than my siblings," Coffee said. "She said that my (biological) mother was Navajo."

Coffee was born Jan. 31, 1968. His adoptive mother told him that his biological mother was pressured to give him up.

"By what I'm told, she already had five to seven children," Coffee said. "Since I was conceived not of her husband, he didn't want to raise me as his own. So, I was given away at birth."

As Coffee understands, his mother and her family were migrant workers in Gorman, Texas, and he was born in a field in Eastland County between Abilene and Fort Worth.

He was also told that she was originally from Shiprock or surrounding areas.

This is all he was able to learn from his adoptive mother.

"My mother was very reluctant in giving me any information about my life before she adopted me," he said.

After she died in 2004, Coffee said his hopes for finding his Navajo family became even more distant.

He turned to his adoptive sister, who is 21 years older than him, but "she had sworn to our mother that she wouldn't talk about my adoption."

Coffee said his adoptive father, who died in 1992, did not heed his request for information and did not recognize him as a son.

No k'é for Coffee

"I was never in any of the family pictures in my father's house," Coffee exclaimed. "I was treated like a slave."

He claims that his adoptive father physically abused him until he was 17 and left home.

Coffee finished high school on his own and joined the Navy at 19, where he was trained in aircraft ordinance, including the construction of missiles, bombs and rockets for Navy aircraft.

Wanting to do more, he enrolled in explosive ordnance disposal school, which taught him the process by which hazardous explosive devices are rendered safe. He spent the next two and a half years with a bomb disposal unit serving in Operation Desert Storm.

He is divorced and has one daughter, Daniella, who is 18.

Not until 1992 did Coffee decide it was finally time to visit the Navajo Nation and see if he could find his family.

"After being discharged I caught a ride with a couple of my Native friends, who were driving through the reservation," Coffee said, "but people were not so receptive then.

"I was turned away. They basically were saying, 'You are now a part of the white man's world so just stay there,'" he said. "It was very discouraging."

Coffee lingered a day and a half on the Navajo Nation before returning to Texas angered and frustrated.

He turned his attention to re-entering civilian life and earned a paramedic certificate from Howard College in St. Angelo, Texas.

He worked several jobs before settling down in 2005 to employment as an environmental protection specialist for the U.S. Army at Fort Hood, Texas.

"I have become well respected at Fort Hood," Coffee said. "I have brigadier generals, the third highest rank in the Army, calling me by my first name, which is rare in the military."

In one instance, he said, a commander called his boss and asked for him specifically to handle a training assignment.

"That day I trained 1,137 soldiers on environmental safety," he said. "Being able to train that amount of soldiers is just unheard of in the military, but I did it in one day."

Then, early this year, the yearning to find his Navajo mother and family took hold of him once again.

"It just was time," Coffee said. "At this point in my life I realized one thing has not changed and this is the feeling that I don't fit other places. As a man, I know who I am, but culturally, I have no idea."

Over the years Coffee has acquired knowledge about the Navajo people, including the matriarchal social structure that lent urgency to his desire to know his maternal roots.

"Ask your mother what would it have been like to have to give up her child," he said, "It's unthinkable, especially in our culture. I can't believe that by what I know of our people, that she would (not) want to know who I am."

Adopted again

On March 30, Coffee boarded an airplane for the 846 miles from Temple, Texas, to Albuquerque and the Navajo Nation to once again find answers and hopefully the woman who had to leave him behind 44 years ago.

A Navajo friend he'd met through Facebook, Stuven Jim of Yah-Ta-Hey, N.M met him at the Albuquerque airport.

Jim noticed Coffee's calls for help to find his Navajo people.

"Daniel told us his story and we, as a family, reached out to him," said Jim's mother, Shirleen Jumbo. "We just told him 'Sure, we'll help you.'"

"I adopted him as my little brother," Jumbo said. "I mean, this is a young Navajo boy who has been looking for his family all his life. He wanted to return to his roots."

Jumbo said her son went out of his way to make Coffee feel comfortable here, even taking him on a tour to give him a sense of physical connection with the land.

Over the weekend Jumbo took her new brother to Many Farms, Ariz., to introduce him to her father's family.

"My cousin, Linda Etsitty, immediately adopted him as her son," said Jumbo. "She just told him, 'You can call me Mom.' That just shows how receptive we were."

Another cousin, Richard Etsitty, offered a prayer for Coffee.

"I was just surrounded by kind-hearted people, who just wanted help," Coffee said. "They had no ulterior motives."

With a family to return to on the Navajo Nation, Coffee flew back to Texas rested in heart and spirit.

"It was just a great experience," he said. "Even if this is as far as my search goes, it would be enough because I found these people."

But he intends to return in two months to continue the search for his birth mother.

It's a task for which little official help is available. The tribal records office couldn't help because he does not have his adoption decree.

"It has been really hard to get my adoption records unsealed," Coffee said. "The last time I tried I ran into roadblocks and was later told that my hospital records were destroyed in a fire."

With the paper trail so cold, Coffee must rely on what little he was told by his adoptive mother and the hope that his birth mother wants to know him as well.

"I want a complete and full life," he said. "I want to come back to my people. I want to come back home."

Anyone with information that might assist Daniel Coffee is asked to contact him at 254-931-4360 or, or Shirleen Jumbo at 505-905-1744.