Guest Column: A forgotten pride: Navajo identity

By Shandiin Herrera

I am the little girl at the end of a dirt road seldom traveled on. The curious mind who watched her grandmother weave rugs for eight hours straight, never tiring. The young soul who never understood the land she walked on was crying for help.

I walked aimlessly alongside my best friend, whose white paws left soft tracks in the red sand. We ventured to the cliffs where I stared at the giant monuments, and listened to the soft breeze of the wind. I was free. In mind, body, and spirit. I was happy. Perhaps it was because I had my grandmother’s house to watch the sunrise from. Or because my best friend was always waiting for me, prepared for another adventure. Maybe it was because I could breathe. This of course, was before the storm had begun.

It started every morning at 4:30 a.m. when I woke up to catch the bus to school 30 miles away. In classrooms full of other Navajo students, we embarked on our educational journey together. As we moved onto the next levels, our class sizes grew smaller, until we reached the end and only a handful of us continued onto college.

This was normal. I understood that I was an anomaly, though at times I did not want to be. I too stood in the same lines to receive food at the monthly food banks and clothes from our tribe. I saw the same alcoholics on the corners of our grocery stores asking to dig into our empty pockets.

Still, I understood them, as they tilted their heads and wondered how I managed to escape our cycle. These were my brothers, my uncles, and my friends. I never judged them because I understood why they were there. I acknowledged that one wrong turn and it could have been me. Still, it would take 100 right turns for them to stand alongside me. I knew that.

It became harder to breathe. A lost breath for every one of my friends who went home to intoxicated parents. A lost breath for the miscommunication with our elders, because our Navajo language is slowly dying. A lost breath for the beauty of every Native American woman and the rage in her heart.

This was the dark creeping its way across our nation, a dark shadow I spent hours in the library trying to run away from. I spent most of my time on the reservation figuring out ways I could leave and never look back. I was tired of observing all the beautiful people destroying themselves. Tired of being so angry all of the time, and pretending I could be the leader that everyone thought they saw in me. The truth is, I really never knew who I was because I never wanted to accept the real me.

I did not want to accept the truth. The truth is I only cared about school because my mother was taken from her home at 7 years old and sent to a boarding school where she was punished for speaking Navajo, and forced into Christianity. So, how could I ever do poorly in my education when my mother endured literal torture for hers?

The truth is, I was so angry at what life had become for Navajo people. We used to be self-sufficient, innovative, and strong. Yet, all I saw on our reservation was the effects of intergenerational trauma. It was hard for me to be home because I spent most of my time dreaming about what life could be if I leave the reservation. I was not at all careful about what I wished for.

It became a little easier to breathe when I was accepted to Duke, when my reality began to resemble my dreams. Duke had always been my dream school and I had jumped over so many obstacles to hold onto this hope. But of course dreams are always more kind than reality is.

For starters, it was hard waking up every day thinking the university made a mistake by accepting me. But existing as a minority of the minority on the campus was something I was not prepared for. My entire life had been on the Navajo reservation, and now I was talking to people who did not even know my tribe still existed. How crazy is that? Talking to someone and their response to your identity is, “Wait, Natives are still around?” or “I think I’m 1/16th Native too, I don’t know what tribe though.”

I do not know what confused me more, people who have somehow ignored complete Native Nations for 20 years, or those who pretended to know what being Native American feels like. This was my welcome to Duke memory.

In some odd way, that is exactly what I needed to change my perspective of myself. Instead of feeling scared that the trauma of my people would eventually catch up to me, for once in my life I felt proud of who I am. I was not as ignorant as the rest of these smart Duke students. I knew a history many of them did not know, a culture they would never understand, and a relationship with this earth that they have lost. It no longer mattered to me that it had become harder to breathe, because there were over 300,000 Navajos still breathing with me.

I cannot look back through my family’s history and the history of the Indigenous people of this country without the feeling of disgust, hatred, and devastation. But, then I look in the mirror and I see the result of my ancestors’ resilience, and the strength of my tribe. For the first time in my life, I was happy with who I saw looking back at me.
I am the prayer my grandparents whispered at the break of dawn, the hope my mother kept in her eyes, and the faith my tribe holds onto. My identity as a Navajo woman at Duke is my step on my ladder to a better life.

The great Chief Manuelito lead our Navajo people in 1868, the year our treaty was signed with United States government, allowing us to return to our homelands after The Long Walk. From a young age I was told stories of him and his altruistic ways of leading. He was born for the Bitahnii clan and so is my mother. It’s no surprise she is a leader by nature, and now the blood of our leader flows through me. He was the first to tell our people the truth, which was, “education is the ladder, tell our people to take it.” On my toughest days, I hear these words and tell myself if I climb the ladder now, my children will be born at the top, into a life untouched by trauma and poverty.Ê

The culture I love, and the people who inhabit the beautiful nation our ancestors protected is the only thing I would die protecting. After incidents like Standing Rock, I have become more vigilant about where Native Americans stand in relation to the federal government.

It would be naive of me to say I strive for justice and equality for my people. However, my presence in Duke classrooms, across campus, and in North Carolina is allowing me to meet more people, and educate them on Native American presence in America. This is an opportunity for me to reach them, network, and resist the neglect often felt by tribes. My approach to activism is out of necessity. If I do not be the voice, silence will continue to creep across my reservation.

Now that I have made peace with who I am and my purpose, I am able to breathe again. I never imagined that I would be living in a world where respecting and protecting Mother Earth becomes activism. I thought it was human nature to look at the land and be grateful and honor what the creator has provided for us. Instead, people see land as dispensable and care only about what the land can do for them.

I suppose this is why my identity is unique. Even though I have grown to see the ugly truth, I hold the beauty of life in my heart. The moments of liberation as I watched my grandmother weave are always with me. Her patience and beauty exist in me today. And the feeling of amazement and resilience as I captured the views from my backyard cliffs, remain my motivation to keep climbing.

I’ve grown from the little girl who learned to wake up every morning at 4:30 a.m., the lost teenager who straddled the line between culture and chaos, to the young adult who has reached acceptance, and regained the pride I was born with.

This essay is the first-prize winner in the essay category in the “Who Am I?” Multimedia Essay Contest 2017 at Duke University. It was first published on April 17 at

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