How To Travel Across The Grand Canyon And Navajo Nation Respectfully

The cold morning air brushes across my bare face as the door creeks open. I keep my eyes closed, but I am listening. I hear my grandpa walking outside. It is early dawn before the sunrise. As he collects a small bundle of wood from a neat stack against the side of the hogan, I hear him praying in Diné (Navajo) to the East. He is thankful for the new day that has been brought upon us by Creator.

After he splits the wood into small slivers, he places them atop carefully ruffled cedar bark that he has made into a bird’s nest of tinder. The tinder is quickly engulfed in flame as he sparks it. The slow, but rhythmic crackling of the wood and the smell of the fresh cedar fill the octagon home.

He sets a kettle atop the fireplace. It’s a small metal potbelly stove at the center of the home. Patiently he awaits his cowboy coffee to come to a boil. My grandma is also up, fixing her clothes and now her hair. All is quiet apart from the fire still crackling, warming the crisp air. “Nídiidááh” (get up) my grandma calls out to me tenderly.

Navajo-Goldtooth Begay
My grandfather, Goldtooth Begay

 

Yá’át’ééh  Shik’éí dóó shiDiné’é Shí éí Ashkii łigai

Hello, friends & relatives I am Alexander Piechowski-Begay (Boy White)

Nanishtezhi tahbahaa nishłį́. Bééshbich’ah’I báshíshchíín. Kinłichii’nii dashicheii. bilagáana dashinali. Lókʼaahnteel déé’ naashá.Ákót’éego diné nishłį

I am Zuni-Waters Edge Clan. German. Red House Clan. Polish. This is who I am, and where I am from. In this way, I am a Diné (Navajo) Male. 

Navajo Nation

I was born and raised on the Diné (Navajo) nation, the biggest of the reserves of all the tribes. I just want to make clear that it is not a bragging right. We are, but stewards of the land. The entire construct of private land ownership is invalid.

The Navajo Nation covers an area that spans close to 17,550,000 acres. The majority of that land lies in the northeast corner of Arizona but finds its way creeping into four states, most recently recognized in Colorado. Yes, having to buy back your own sacred homelands for 23 million dollars is a very perplexing issue.

Navajo-Peaceful protector
Bears Ears, Utah has deep roots of Navajo inhabitants and is important to Navajo Nation.

Now imagine you’re out in the hot arid Arizona desert. On your hip is a flask filled with water. As you slowly sip, the water leaves a distinct sweet taste that lingers as it quenches your thirst. Relief. Now continue on with your journey, walking miles, navigating canyons and difficult terrain. Reflect on the simple necessity of water and its ability to sustain life. Think back and remember that sweet mineral taste you found so comforting. Well what if I told you that sweet taste is not so sweet. In fact, it’s one of the deadliest materials known to man. Yes, you’re drinking trace amounts of uranium.

From 1960-80, the United States was in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Nearly 30 million tons of uranium was extracted from Navajo lands using Navajo people, right next to where Navajo people lived, worked, and drank water. In 1970, 1,000 tons of solid radioactive waste and 93 million gallons of acidic radioactive solution flowed into Navajo Nations rivers in the Church Rock uranium mill spill. While the mines are no longer there, the radiation remains not only in our soil, but lives in our bodies in the form of cancer. Presently, the uranium waste at these sites still exist and the attempt to clean it up attacks the land, even the Grand Canyon.

Navajo-Kayaking
Lake Abiquiu, New Mexico. Tewa lands.

But even before uranium, there was gold. Gold has been mined from Navajo Nation since the 1920s. In 2015, contractors accidentally released three million gallons of mine wastewater that included metals such as lead and arsenic. The Gold King Mine waste water spill turned the entire river yellow from oxidation of heavy metals. The EPA knew of the blowout and did not warn anyone. In addition, they have taken responsibility, but refuse to pay for any damages on the grounds of sovereign immunity of the Navajo lands.

But what if I also told you that you should be grateful to refill your flask because in order to fill it, you had to travel several miles to a windmill. These windmills that were put in place because the once naturally flowing springs have since gone dry. These springs that once were sacred and used for feeding our farms, our families, and our livestock, have now been destroyed by coal companies who use the precious water to transport coal.

Navajo-hiking
Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. Tewa lands.

These are just a few of the many issues facing our land. But again, its about Hózhó (balance, harmony). Taking the bitter with the sweet, the Navajo Nation is home to some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes in the world such as Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, Canyon De Chelly, Antelope Canyon, Shiprock, and Windowrock, the capitol of the Navajo Nation. My advice is when you’re traveling, take the time to understand whose land you’re currently on. Many of these sites are easily identifiable as they have played the backdrop to countless Western movies. Never mind that Hollywood perpetrates the narrative of Native people as savages while filming in these iconic locations.

Growing Up As A White-Passing Native American

I had a very interesting childhood, of which I did not know was interesting at the time. To begin, my physical features quickly became a telling card on how I learned. Growing up half Diné (Navajo) and half White, I quickly learned of my Whiteness. Unlike my brother and sister, I was born with light skin.

My earliest memories of how the world viewed me versus how they saw my very brown siblings and my beautiful mother was traveling with my family during our annual road trip to the vast buffalo grasses of South Dakota for ceremony during the summer. I remember a time when we stopped on our way at a particular hotel, my mom was told there was no vacancy. Yet, when my dad entered separately a few minutes later, accommodations were quickly made.

Navajo-woman
Shima (mother).

My siblings always had more attention focused on them and I realized the power in invisibility my Whiteness granted me outside of my community. One particular occasion I have burned into my memory is when my brother, cousin and I were looking at a small display with the words “Mexican Jumping Beans”. It was a case with tiny rocks jumping up and down. The display case all of a sudden toppled over. No one had touched the case. Crashing down, the store owner came over and looked directly at my cousin and brother. He said some of the harshest words, many of which I’ve blocked out. The negative energy still lingered with me like a faint pungent odor.

I didn’t understand how invisible I had become because back home I was often teased for my light complexion. I was one of the very few white people in a predominately brown area. The only other light-skinned people were the kids of teachers or hospital workers who were usually only there to get up to $40,000 of their loan repaid after only a two-year service commitment and did not care about the general well-being of the indigenous population they were serving. The lack of service is detrimental to generations of Native peoples. I’m not saying it is always the case but I’ve had more bad experiences than good.

My mom would also often get stopped and asked if I was adopted. Funny enough, I would surprise the ladies at the swap meets (flea market) when I would quickly hit them with Dikwii (how much?). Usually resulting in a discount, especially if we were the same clan.

Navajo-Hat
Sandia Mountains, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sacred place to the Sandia Pueblo.

But taking the bitter with the sweet, I remember the times I was called Ashkii ligaii, the direct translation being boy white. This name was not given to me by way of ceremony, but rather it was one of the purest connections I shared with my grandma. See, my grandma lived in a small hogan (traditional Diné dwelling) along with my grandpa in Jádító (Antelope Springs), Arizona. I would spend my summers here. Or really anytime we had a break from school. My days were spent with no running water or electricity. Those hot summers consisted of chopping wood, hauling water, herding sheep, and connecting with the land. And each time my grandma would see me at the end of the work day, she would call to me, Shiałchíní, Shiawéé’ shi Ashkii łigai. My child, my baby, my boy white.

In her eyes, I was different. But not in the ways I had been so often teased. No. I was special. The amount of sheer love she radiated always subdued any feeling of uncertainty I had of who or what I was.

Navajo-Navajo lands
Jádító (Antelope Springs), Arizona. Navajo Nation.

Speaking Diné (Navajo)

I find the English language often very limiting to be able to express the overwhelming feelings I often contend with. My grandparents didn’t speak any English, which is not uncommon for their generation. My mother also grew up speaking Diné (Navajo) as a primary language. She passed the language on most notably to my older brother who had complete fluency as a young boy. English however, has seeped into almost every facet of my life.

I’m a product of colonization. By sixth grade when the yearly fluency test came around, the years of speaking Diné (Navajo) less and less took its toll. I couldn’t pass the Diné (Navajo) speakers fluency test. Still, to this day, I struggle with pronunciation and simple sentence structure. Having to explain you understand more than you speak is often tiring as are my efforts of trying to reestablish my own language.

Navajo-Protect the sacred

There were many times in which I would attempt a word or saying and have been laughed at in my face by acquaintances & sometimes relatives. This is very discouraging for anyone. I would often not speak for fear of being judged. Even as I write this I have fears of what my community will say. Because when we do get that platform to speak, as a Native person, we are often judged both by the Native and non-Native community.

I often feel stuck between the two worlds from which I cannot escape. The way Diné (Navajo) is set up would best be described as poetic and maybe even in how my English comes across. Who knows? English isn’t my first language. We have a type of flow, like the sacred waters rushing down a mountain gorge. The onomatopoeia of the rain drops hitting softly on rooftops. This descriptive imagery is how we speak in Navajo. I write poetry to try to get my two conflicting worlds in sync–if even for a moment–and provide a balance for my being.

I also have to deal with “compliments” of being well spoken. Well spoken for what? My age? My background? But then I get hit with the harsh duality when my fellow Diné (Navajo) accuse me of not sounding like I’m from the rez (reservation). The constant code switching becomes a norm.

Shi?

who am I?

am I something ?

am I nothing?

Am I both?

I am everything

to no one

but myself.

I am me.

I am…

Shi.

Aside from poetry, I express myself through humor. Making light of daily situations we face on the rez is a form of resistance many indigenous people use. You might find yourself at the butt of a joke. Please don’t be offended easily.

Navajo-Tibet,jpg
Tibet

Traveling To Navajo Nation

How You Can Expect To Be Treated Traveling Through Navajo Nation

I grew up very close to my family, and learning the notion of Ke’, which is the teaching of kinship. This is why I included my clans to begin with. This is very important for a person traveling across the reservation as it is used to make relations. In this system, my aunts and uncles act as mothers and fathers as well. This notion of community creates many mentors and caretakers so my upbringing was rich in knowing I always had someone to go to if need be.

The teaching of Ke’ is one of non-discrimination, including gender, sexuality, and race. These concepts only came in with forced assimilation, and thus is not true form of what it is to be Diné (Navajo). I once met a nomad man who was living on the streets in Ashland, Oregon. I befriended him and went around town with him as we collected cans for recycling. It made me really proud when he said he traveled to my reservation, cold and hungry, and was approached by a few Navajo guys at a gas station. They had instructed him to walk over to the next hill where he would find fire and food. He followed their instructions and found himself helping with the fire at an all-night ceremony. He said his middle class family abandoned him, but he felt like family when he was with our people. He told me of how he longed to travel back and was amazed how people who had little often gave him the most.

Navajo-Tibet Landscape with Alex
Tibet

Gender Roles In Navajo Nation

Speaking to gender, the other key dynamic in Navajo culture is being a matrilineal society. Traditionally when a man marries, he travels to where his wife’s family is originally from. The women own the homestead. While traveling, I learned this is not always the case. I offended a woman once when I explained that Navajo women tend to the household. I meant it with no disrespect because my mom always said if she ever got tired of my dad, she can just put his stuff outside and he’ll have to just pack up and leave.

The women are not being told they need to stay in the kitchen or tend to the home. They are the caretakers just like men are the caretakers of the land. Maybe on the surface it may look like this conflicts with modern feminism, however the men know our women are completely capable of taking care of themselves fully. I think of my mother and sisters and how they seamlessly blend what would be male gender roles. Men are just additions.

By the way Begay and Yazzie are common last names. When the U.S. government came in and started a registry, they failed to do a detailed job. What Begay and Yazzie mean are “his/her son” so it is just the introduction of a name. However, we’re not all related so no we do not know your friends, sorry. Actually, we might, the Native community is small. Ask us anyway.

Navajo-Speak Truth
Blanding, Utah has significant ties to Navajo Nation.

Distrust of Outsiders in Navajo Nation

You may come across notions of distrust of outsiders, including other neighboring tribes. This came with a long history of dishonesty by the U.S government. Many indigenous people were nomadic. This lifestyle was put to an end when the U.S. government along with enlisted tribes like the Ute, death marched the Navajo for 300 miles, not telling them where they were going, why or how long it would take. The attempted ethnic cleansing of the Navajo by the U.S. government was successful in the murder of 25,000 Navajo via homicide, starvation, disease, freezing, and physical exhaustion. But the attempt to kill us all was unsuccessful and we were marched back to the reservations. Our people were then told that if we exited the boundaries, we would be considered enemies of the state, hostile to the U.S. government, and would be shot and killed. But that was just one form of oppression we faced.

Navajo-Standing Rock Protector
Standing Rock, North Dakota. Lands of the Lakota.

Distrust Amongst Natives in Navajo Nation

Colonialism has also pitted natives against each other. For example, there is often tension between urban versus rez natives. Some think growing up on the rez (or vice versa) makes one somehow superior. However, it is not anyone’s fault for not growing up in their community, especially considering the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 moved a lot of reservation natives to cities.

Another example of pitting Natives against each other is the argument between fluent and non-fluent speakers. I found myself sitting in a lecture with a former Navajo Nation president who started campaigning against non-fluent Navajo speakers. Using language as a divider between our people was disheartening as that same rhetoric was used against us when Natives were forcibly put into English boarding schools and told they were less than human because they didn’t speak the language (English). This matter is very complex considering indigenous children were kidnapped and put into placement programs operated by the LDS Mormon church from its inception in the 1950’s til as recent as 1996.

Through these acts of forced assimilation, many lost their teachings and foundations after being displaced from the land in which we originated. Thus, these arguments are rooted in colonization and I do not support the ideology behind judging those who had no choice in the matter to be considered any different. At the end of the day, the same resilient blood flows in our veins. I acknowledge my own heritage of being mixed with White, a purity some will argue is tainted. However I’m Diné (Navajo) by my own right in the way I carry myself in my culture.

Navajo-hogan-kauai

Trash in Navajo Nation

When you travel along the reservation, I’ve gotten comments from non-Natives about the amount of trash along our reservation. This is a complex issue that I feel I should explain. The effects of globalization and colonization are ever present and far reaching. Thinking back to the time of my grandparents, the Nation as a whole was completely self-sufficient and all products made were biodegradable and sustainable. With present-day disposable culture, it didn’t take long for products to infiltrate into this system and quickly inundate the lands with waste that no longer decomposed. The people had no plans in place to counter act this phenomenon. Waste management wasn’t an issue before, but it is now. Training and infrastructure are necessary to reverse the effects of the invasiveness of plastic and other non-compostable products.

Housing In Navajo Nation

The Diné people have a traditional octagonal home called a hogan from the Navajo word hogaan meaning home. There is a deficit of adequate housing on reservations. Many go without water and electricity like my grandma. A family bigger than mine can be confined to an area as big as a living room. There are many factors at play hindering my people from obtaining adequate housing. One huge factor included the Bennett land freeze.

This simple questioning of the stratification is what led me to want to pursue a degree in environmental studies, sustainability and landscape architecture. It was my way of trying to bring the housing crisis, not to an end but a revolution. I want to bring, not only my tribe, but all indigenous tribes into the current age, while staying true to our teachings. A merging of our two worlds.

Navajo-Building

Cultural appropriation & appreciating of Navajo culture

At the age of 20, I was traveling in northern California when I saw a girl wearing a distinct hairstyle. The hairstyle of my people. I was excited and went to talk to her to make relations. So I asked her, in Navajo, her clans. She blankly stared at for me for a second and asked me what I was saying. So I apologized and asked her in English, “Do you know your clans?” Confused again, she said she didn’t know what I was talking about. I was just as confused. So I asked her where she got her hairstyle from, which she replied that after a trip to Navajo Nation she found a Youtube tutorial on how to do her hair like ours. This counterfeit replica of my people made me feel robbed of connection to my culture. What’s the big deal right? It’s just a hairstyle. But it is so much more than just a hairstyle. When we as Diné (Navajo) people had our culture stripped away from us by force and not allowed to have even our traditional hairstyle, this hairstyle carries the great weight of history. Hair is sacred to Diné (Navajo), and is only cut in times of mourning. Our hair represents our knowledge & wisdom.

Navajo-lightskin
Occupied lands of Tongva, otherwise known as Los Angeles

There is a fine line in appreciating and appropriating my culture, and I understand how complex it can get. First off, buying Native American “inspired” anything is contributing to the problem. These shops that are selling cheap imitations of Native American art (think dream catcher trinkets) is literally robbing Native American artists who depend on selling their traditional items as a way of living. I fall under that category and many of my family members find their livelihood in this market. My mediums are quite extensive since I am constantly looking for ways to connect to my culture. I am a second-generation silversmith and potter, but I also do leatherwork and beadwork. My contemporary art forms include videography, photography, and sound recoding. So buy directly from the artist if you can. This way you can hear our story and build a relationship with the artist. When I make a custom commission piece I’m thinking of the human buying it. Each piece I make is made with great intention and the Navajo believe it is a form of protection.

You can find Navajo artists on the side of natural attractions with tables set up. I highly recommend stopping. Or go where the locals go, like swap meets. When I want something authentic, I shop where the people shop. You can tell if it is a Native American artist if they put their name or maker’s mark on their art.

Navajo-Silversmithing

If you find yourself in an actual shop, ask the people carrying the merchandise: Who made it? Their tribe? Are they local? How is it benefiting them? This is a really good way to ally yourself because very few shops treat indigenous artists with common human decency. The amount of disrespect we receive is appalling. I actually recommend not shopping at shops at all because we are given a small fraction of what the shops will actually sell the object for. I’m not even talking about fair wholesale value. The more a shop charges the less we get paid.

I remember entering a trading post with my brother-in-law who is a very accomplished silversmith. I’ve often worked alongside him and seen the amount of work he pours into each piece. Yet when we entered several shops, his work was criticized for being poor quality only for them to offer him an extremely disrespectful price for the jewelry. So it’s not that they didn’t want it, they just didn’t want to pay for it. They make us feel as if we should be appreciative someone even wants our work. Some shops won’t even look at our pieces. For example, one particular shop insisted they only sold the best turquoise jewelry, implying that the turquoise jewelry we had were low quality. At which time I presented my piece of jewelry with a high grade turquoise from a reputable source and proceeded to ask to see some of her turquoise jewelry. The shop owner got flustered, because she knew her turquoise was lower than our standard. She just couldn’t say she did not want OUR turquoise jewelry. We walked out.

Navajo-Silversmith

There is a general idea of what most people picture Natives to look like due to Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayals. However, this is a very problematic view of us indigenous people. For starters we are not all running around in war bonnets and neither should you. We don’t all live in tipis, although I wouldn’t mind that life. Honestly, if I had a dollar for every time I was traveling and have been asked: “do you still live in tipis” I might actually be able afford one. It’s so ironic thinking about how Native Americans were being ripped out of them while I was at Standing Rock and charged with trespassing while at the same time, non-Natives are setting them up in their backyards as a cool hang out spot.

If your intention is to honor Native American artists, here are some questions that are in alignment with coming in contact with Native items.

  • Is a Native person profiting off of it?
  • Are Native people selling them?
  • Do you know the intended purpose of the item?

If the answer is no to any of the above, I strongly insist you reconsider your purchase.

Navajo-Jewelry

Traveling While Navajo

Being Called An Indian

When I’m traveling near or far I’ve been blessed with many teachable moments. Like many teaching positions it doesn’t pay well, but at times it can be very rewarding. These moments usually come through the form of being asked “Wow, you make Indian jewelry?”

I know most times the I-word doesn’t come from a place of malice or ill intent. Most times it appears out of the wild place called ignorance. I can empathize with your thoughts. I was taught the same lessons in elementary school. The complete erasure of who I was fundamentally, physically, historically, and theoretically. You know the same old standardized lesson plans.

I remember going home telling my parents about Thanksgiving and Pilgrims and us Indians and how I drew turkeys with my tiny hand. Then having the true history and the unwinding of misinformation slowly unwoven, like a web of deceit. Yes, now you see why I may have a knack for academia. I literally got schooled twice a day, sometimes more depending if I stopped at the basketball court or not on my way home.

Navajo-Tibet Boy
Connecting with the kids of Tibet. (This photo was taken with parental permission.)

See, when the pilgrims sat down with the savage Indians that Columbus talked about thinking he was in India long ago. That word stuck. Indian. Even just writing it makes me feel a bit of disgust. For a non-Native to use the word Indian you can start to see the history behind it that implicitly carries negative connotation. The tricky part is, as a Native, there are instances in which we will collectively use the word. Many times referring to ourselves, or just speaking in general terms e.g. this is Indian country, or Indian tacos. (Actually they’re Navajo tacos. not Indian tacos, no debate, okay sorry personal tangent, I’ll stop confusing you even more.) But it’s simple. We get to say it and probably you shouldn’t. Unless it’s the actual name of thing. However, I actively make it a point not to use it in my vocabulary. I prefer the terms indigenous or Native American.

While traveling, in order to make connection with the people of the area, ask them what they call themselves. Especially people with indigenous decent typically having their own identifying names. I’m Diné, I prefer this. But also accept the common name Navajo.

Navajo-Guitar

Kaua’i Hawai’i

The sadness of the land was palpable with each step I took. The pain seeped in. Feeling the push and pull of the tides, the ocean waves beckoned me to be close, mourning for those who were no longer here. Kneeling at the oceans edge, the waves came crashing in one after another with building swells in between. The sand is warm beneath my feet, my hair salt blown from the ocean mist.

Walking the green grass, pushing though the thick vines, past the pretty flowers. The tingling sensation still hasn’t subsided from my hands, rendering them numb and unable to do work. Still limping from my motorcycle accident, I strolled across the ten acres of traditional Hawaiian farmland, harvesting all the land has to offer. I startled the bunnies as I walk by their pen. Their job is to eat and be happy to reclaim the ‘āina (land). Somewhere behind the tall grass a rooster crows, the sun is bearing down more intense than I’m used to. I returned home with a wheelbarrow full of fresh greens, papaya, star fruit, tangerines, avocados, guava and a variety of flowers for the dinner table. I found a peaceful existence here on a land so vastly different than my own.

Navajo-Kauai

My trip to Kauai’i took many different turns. I came to the ‘āina expecting to jump into work. However, to my dismay, my hands had become unexplainably numb upon landing. I came to the island not knowing what to expect. It was my first time flying over the ocean. I prayed for safe passage across her vastness. I was scared. Once I landed, I was overcome with emotion. I felt paralyzed and just like my hands, a bit numb. I couldn’t explain what I felt. It wasn’t until I talk story with my friend Kona that he confirmed the sadness I felt was coming from the stolen land, all the pain from it being bound and conquered. This sadness I was all too familiar with back home.

Kona is my brother whom I share a birthdate with. When we would meet, we would touch foreheads and exchange breath, our life force. He told me stories of the abuse of the land which was a direct attack on his culture. So we are not brothers by blood, but by shared experiences. He was in the same sense a lot like me as a White-passing kanaka. Not quite fitting into one category or another, I felt this at my being. He also showed love and compassion for both sides of his heritage.

Navajo-kona&I
Kona and I.

I spent most of my days searching the sand for tiny kahelelani shells, “the pathway to god” as it was told to me. The ocean was kind to me. Kona was familiar with her ways. We would kneel and pray before we entered. He taught me how to first float and be one with my surrounding. Then he taught me to swim. I had expressed my deep desire to be able to surf, not in an attempt to conquer the water but to be present with the waves. Being thrashed around by the giant waves, I learned more of my own humility. Being washed and ‘full on pearl’ beneath the water, I was washed clean. I found clarity.

Paddling out on a ten-foot tanker, I pushed past the crashing waves, the salty water ever present in my mouth. As the water splashed along the side of the surfboard, I kept my guide set in my gaze. “When I paddle, you paddle,” he called out. The rip tide did most of the hard work as it pulled me far out into the ocean. Queued up ready to cut into the next set of waves, we waited, then the hand signal was drawn. I pushed my way into the bowl of the anticipating wave set. The giant wave behind me was roaring like a lion, deafening like a freight train at my back. With every ounce of my arm strength, I pulled the water beneath me. The thrust of the water upwelling, pushing me to weightlessness, I sprung my legs forward. The center of balance was a small window between sheer exhilaration and frightening danger. I was surfing, feeling like Eddy, I too would go.

Navajo-Medicinal-Herbs-2399539984-1533181453510.jpg
Hawaiian traditional medicine.

The week I arrived I learned of the many who were claimed by the ocean never to walk this earth again. Turns out my arms not working properly was the ‘āina protecting me so that I didn’t face the same fate. I learned of aloha, a theology much like ke’. To him I was considered little brother and in the same way a kama’aina (child of the land).

The ‘āina is always calling me back to her. Her beauty is not only surface but also deep at her roots in the smiling faces and howzzit I encountered every day. The banter of the Hawaiians reminded me much of the banter like ours back home. I have a deep profound respect for the land and those who reside in Kaua’i. The notion of where you stay? I know where I stay in recognition of paying respects to the land you’re on.

Standing Rock, North Dakota

Every time we came back from the front lines, the security at camp would halt us momentarily as they inspected us. “Welcome home” with a nod knowing that we were not entering with ill intent. ‘Welcome home’ he said and for many months it was just that. It was a point of gathering, driving down the row of all the different tribal nations’ flags. The notion of one mind, one heart, one prayer was prevalent. Many have tales of the traumatic experience we endured but this was also a place of many wonders. Ceremony in play, we lived in community, there was no money exchanged but it was filled with energy and love. All nations accepted.

Navajo-Standing Rock Flags

Early September 2016, after coming out of isolation from the outside world, living in New Mexico at the time running the outdoor adventures program for an education and retreat center, I saw posts showing my relatives of the North on horseback in an altercation with an armed police force. This was the start of a very real pull I felt in the molecules of my being. The water that I’m mostly made of calling me and telling me this is important. I felt a ferociousness, like a raging flash flood though the arroyos of a desert landscape. This was not my first round in the ring defending land or water.

Late October 2016, a tough day for many. Standing defiantly at the front lines, here come the Calvary with 15 ton armored vehicles. I see in the turrets nest a fully fitted sniper. Is this what my ancestors felt? I think to myself, they may have all the firepower, but they didn’t have what we had, spirit. Gathered together with my brothers and sisters singing the song of the people, we were on a different plane. As they advanced, we stood our ground. Their riot gear batons in hand, they demanded us to stand down, yet all we were armed with was prayer and good intention. We sang. As the flames grew higher my hands grew restless. I gripped my prayer banner tighter, now atop of a car. I prompted them if they were going to shoot someone, let it not be my brothers or sisters, but I. I stood unwavering and waited, fixated on my prayer. This day the line was never broken.

Navajo-Standing Rock

Photo caption “A Dakota Access Pipeline protester who used his Navajo name, Askii Ligaii, looks back as logs burn on the Morton County Road 134 bridge to hold back law enforcement on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, near Cannon Ball, N.D. Photo by Mike Nowatzki / Forum News Service”

Early January 2017, it’s nightfall. All is quiet aside from the howling wind and dampened fire as it tries desperately but fails to heat the massive room. As I sweep aside the blankets and head out of the giant hogan entrance, I inhale a thousand tiny razor blades that sting the inside of my lungs. It is below negative twenty, not to mention the wind that has my eyes squinting desperately. Why didn’t I bring my goggles? I sigh and think to myself how thankful I am to at least have my face mask. The moisture from my breath freezes almost instantly. Even with my layers, the wind finds the tiniest of holes to sneak into and say hello.

Another cold night on the plains of North Dakota. Off in the distance I see the giant floodlights assuring me of their occupancy. Doing a perimeter check around our camp, checking generator and gasoline, thinking of how just days ago, an unknown person stuffed a handkerchief into the nozzle of the gasoline container in an attempt to burn down our camp. Most likely an infiltrator, I think to myself. I wonder if they thought about all of us sleeping soundly inside. What if we didn’t get out in time? My train of thought ended and now is caught in awe as camp embers float out of the tops of chimneys like little fire flies twinkling brighter than the stars. Days ago we celebrated the New Year with fireworks. The firework explosions are a welcome relief as this time they’re not grenades or tear gas canisters being hurled at us. We sing songs of joy and enjoy each other’s presence, thankful for the New Year. We show them through it all that we are still here.

Navajo-Reservation

Tibet

The sharp cool air crept into my bedroll, breathing in through my nose, the air raw. Eyes closed yet the anticipation of the sunrise entices me, opening slowly to the light blue aurora before the daybreak. The birds chirping, beckoning me to get out of bed. Walking down the now familiar steps I enter a room with a stove at its center. I kneeled down. And just with muscle memory my hands begin to go to work. In the same fashion my grandpa created a timber bed, I followed in his footsteps as I have done many times before. The pieces of kindling and tinder make a foundation for my lit ember. A vigorous yet controlled breeze from my mouth turns the ember into roaring flames. As the fire crackles beneath, the kettle transforms into a chorus of scalding water rising. Undoubtedly the smell of the fire fills the room along with it the warmth. The stirring of bodies move among the room, but I’m focused at my present task. My breath is a bit more labored than usual. Maybe it is the 14,500-foot elevation, but I’m at home in this Tibetan room in the lower monastery. I’m home, so far from my home, nestled between snow-capped mountains. I am full with joy.

Navajo-Tibet Mountains

I hear in the distance a distinct sound approaching. A slide shuffle of feet, slow and evenly-paced. The faint sound grows along with what sounds like mumbling. As the door creeks open, the mumbling sound is actually a carefully strung together mantra. Ani(Nun) Garchu, appears in the doorway, she is praying. Without missing a beat in a clockwise fashion she spins the cedar seed beads, dark in color and rounded by the years of prayer. I turn and greet her, Tashi delek, and warmly she smiles. Tashi delek she replies as she sits feet away, I place my head to her head, an energy exchange happens. I feel the spirit of my grandma, and we communicate beyond words. I am accepted, we are the people, we are human, we are one.

Navajo-Tibetan nun

My trip to Tibet took me across the world, but yet I was right at home. My days were spent learning the language and exploring their cultural practices and local cuisine. Dru (female yak) tea served hot in the nomad’s camp along with bread. I felt as though I was looking into my own people’s eyes with their warm greetings and generosity. I also saw the struggles we shared. The nomadic culture of the indigenous Tibetan people is currently under attack by the Chinese government. What has been happening to the them in the last 100 years like moving them into government supplied housing and abandoning their yak and culture in exchange for a ‘better’ lifestyle is eliminating their ability to be self-sustaining. The dependence on the government for assistance is a form of control over the Tibetan people. This exchange taught me a lot about my own culture and seeing a mirror of how important my language and long line of teaching is something to be valued.

Navajo-Tibet landscape

Forgiveness

To end, I want to express my deepest gratitude and acknowledge the many teachings that have been passed down to me. I know enough, to know nothing, and continue on my pursuit of knowledge. I pay respects to my many teachers in all the forms they have come forth. I shared, to the best of my ability, what I know and what has been taught to me. Forgive me for any shortcomings or overstepping. It was not my intention. I am coming to you from a place of humility and prosperity. I am very fortunate to have and to keep these memories alive. I pay respects to this quiet, but fulfilling way of life taught to me growing up a practice and a lifestyle – Hózhó (balance, harmony )- the way my grandparents lived and the way our ancestors lived since the beginning of time, immemorial.

May you all walk in beauty,

Ashkii łigai

Occupied lands of Tongva, otherwise known as Los Angeles

About The Author

Alexander Piechowski-Begay (Ashkii ligaii) is a Navajo artist specializing in silversmithing and pottery. He is the co-founder of the Sovereign Sounds Project, which teaches audio production and provides recording equipment to indigenous communities, enabling people to record their songs, their stories, and to archive and learn their languages. In addition, he is the productions assistant for Dancing Earth, an indigenous contemporary dance company. He also works with the Pureland Project and other organizations as a hired speaker. You can follow his work by clicking on the social media buttons below:

8 Comments

  1. Those of us who follow you on IG, can never, EVER forget Alex. We’ve continued to follow-up on him, from inception. Starting with your initial post entering him in the passport contest, then after when he got awarded the prize, then again when he was prepping for his trip to Tibet, etc, etc….plus, we never forget a pretty face 😉 Ha!

    I always read your posts, they are entertaining & informational, and this should go without saying, I love this one! The writing is sublime, and I really enjoyed reading it. The best part for me was is Alex’s cultural duality (*which in itself is an entire other topic to cover). Maybe because I find myself in a similar situation in my own life, who knows. Theres always the dread of “choosing” a side at family functions, the black side, or the Indian side (insert appropriate emoji)…Makes me think; must I always pick? Can’t I just be both or even none at all?

  2. Thank you so much for talking this story. You are an exceptional student and teacher. May you continue to write about your experiences and insights. You are needed!

  3. This was incredible and so informative to read. It honestly could have been a series on its own with how many stories he has to tell ❤️

  4. i was walking through native land in new mexico (pueblo) and arizona (navajo, hopi) and stopped under a bridge to rest in the shade and drink some water. after a little bit, some people came up to me and gave me some soup and bread. i will always be thankful for them and their gift of food.

  5. This was a superb read! I am German and have always had a deep love for indigenous people everywhere, ever since I was a child and didn’t even understand what that meant. I have cried many tears over the mistreatment and genocide of native people, not just here, but all over the planet. This article is so incredibly informative, because I know so little about native tribes, their customs and beliefs. Thank you so much.

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