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Guest Column: Washington office staffer remembers 9/11

By Maxine Hillary

There are moments that will stay with me for as long as the Creator chooses to give me breath. The hot Texas afternoon President Kennedy was assassinated. When we lost Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Bobby Kennedy. The day we landed on the moon.

My contemporaries would probably mention the same—and those significantly younger than us probably would not.

But the memories of the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, lives in a generation of people who don’t know what the world looked like before the Twin Towers crumbled into rubble and the United States engaged in a conflict that continues to this day.

My heart breaks for all of the lives shattered by what has become known as 9/11 in the U.S., the Middle East, Indian Country and on the Navajo Nation where Diné people stepped up to defend the United States and Dinétah.

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, the Navajo Nation Washington Office was a buzz of activity. Our executive director, Michelle Brown, and the other legislative staffers were accompanying President Kelsey Begaye, Chief Justice Robert Yazzie, Attorney General Levon Henry, and 30-plus delegates in meetings with the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, a champion of indigenous peoples rights and supporter of tribal sovereignty.

Because the meetings did not impact the portfolios I managed, only our administrative services officer, the late Lillie Gatewood from Tsaile, Arizona, and I were in the office.

I received a call from someone on the Navajo Nation informing me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I didn’t know at the time that the Pentagon had been hit and I figured it was a terrible accident.

Lillie and I went into the conference room and flipped on the TV just as another plane careened into the second tower.

“We’re at war,” I uttered, as in that moment our lives changed forever.

As news filtered in, our phones began ringing from family members who were calling us to see if their relatives living in or visiting DC were OK. The Hill closed as did the Metro, all air traffic, and federal offices all over town.

Having been in an underground room with the senator, cell phones hadn’t been able to get a signal so we had no idea where anyone was. One by one, our leadership filtered back into the office. There was little time to strategize – they needed to be housed and fed – and we needed to figure out a way to get them home.

If there was ever an opportunity to sink, swim, or shine, this was it. Option one was out. So we rolled up our sleeves and did what we had to in order to serve the Navajo Nation – we put our own concerns and reactions aside.

As restaurants were closing, we found places to order food. Hotels were adjusting bookings to accommodate stranded guests. With no flights and Amtrak seats filling up, we rented cars and our delegates drove home.

That weekend I went shopping to create emergency kits for each staff member including flashlights that, as I mark my one-month return to the NNWO, are still there – and some still work!

It was only about two weeks later on a Saturday watching the funeral of a New York firefighter on television that I finally broke down in tears. Lillie later told me it took her that long to come out of emergency mode and process what had happened too.

The 9/11 event and NNWO’s response to it did not go unnoticed. President Kelsey Begaye wrote thank you letters to our office and specifically complimented Lillie and I on our quick work at organizing the logistics for staff and leadership.

Chief Justice Yazzie expressed his gratitude with the warmest of sentiments, as did the Navajo Nation Council.

Perhaps one of the most memorable aspects of this tragedy was Michelle’s recognition that in all of our taking care of the immediate needs of our visitors and subsequent DC activity, we, too, were traumatized. She brought in medicine people to pray with us and provide healing so we could continue to do our work with healthier hearts, minds, and spirits. We found a blessing in a crisis.

As the years go by and I find myself once again in the service of the Navajo Nation, as I do every Sept. 11th, I view that day through the lens of NNWO. I think fondly of how in supporting the Navajo Nation, we embraced each other.

Our dear Lillie has passed on as have another of our colleagues, Keith Bitsui from Inscription House. Some of us are back in service of the Nation. Some of us have lost touch. Several of us still visit and stay in touch via Facebook. Each year our comments are augmented by the recollections of our friends and family who lived through it with us.

We recall empty streets, an enhanced military presence, television screens filled with anguished faces, and the huge empty holes in grounds that hold the memories of people who will never be found.

This Sept. 11, NNWO and the Navajo Nation are challenged with another crisis – one that has stolen even more precious lives.

COVID-19 for many of us is a prolonged trauma that has tested our mettle, our faith, our abilities to sink, swim, or shine.

My experiences at NNWO during 9/11 prepared me in ways I never imagined. I only hope that one day I can look back with the same gratitude for the way Window Rock supported us, our colleagues embraced each other, and how the Navajo people who knew how NNWO stepped up in a time of crisis to bring order to chaos recognized our efforts.

On this day, I look back with sadness at lives lost, wistfulness of a time I was able to fly to Window Rock to attend Council sessions and interface with president’s office staff and division directors – and meet people all over the Navajo Nation.

Just as I did back then, I hold their lives and those of my new NNWO colleagues in prayer – and know that this too shall pass and leave us stronger and more grateful.

Today I honor Navajo people in service to our nation as a result of 9/11 and send my heartfelt wishes to all of us who lived through it.

As we say about our flags: Long may you wave.


Maxine Hillary is deputy director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office.


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