SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2014       Personal Memory Ethnographies


Two Worlds

Cameron Arizona
                      on the Navajo ReservationMy parents are both Native American.  Both were raised on the Navajo Reservation and have seen and experienced a significant amount of change and adapted well.  Both my parents later in life appreciated their humble beginnings but were happy about their decision to broaden their perspective to move off the reservation.  I was born in Arizona and because of complications I was an only child till my teenage years when my parents adopted my little sister.  My parents continue to teach me about my culture and we all spoke Navajo in the household as much as English.  We have always had a running joke called “Try to guess what I am”.  I am Navajo but everything about my physical features is far from a traditional “Navajo”.  I have been mistaken for all types of Asian background, Polynesian and Hispanic.  My demeanor too is far from the traditional “Navajo”; my father stressed the talent of speaking in public and learning to feel comfortable out of my comfort zone. 

I knew at a young age that I was different from the normal because my classmates were very clear on letting me know that I was different.  I think I was called every Asian slang and negative connotation reference.  Then in the 10th grade it clicked.  After talking to my mom about the teasing she suggested correcting them.  So I proudly stood tall and declared who I really am; I am American Indian, Navajo!  I hoped the new information would have some kind of inspirational insight on my classmates and the teasing would stop.  No, it just got worse!  Now instead of slanting their eyes and pointing they cupped their hands around their mouths and made Indian chants while running in circles.  I Learned a valuable lesson that day.  No matter what, I was not white and I would not fit in that “normal” circle. 

I usually spent summers on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona helping my grandparents with the sheep, cows, and horses.  I looked forward to being out there without some of the luxuries of urban life.  No running water, electricity, or even a bed.  Here I thought I could be the “real me”.  That idea was short lived because even here with my people I still was the outsider.  I didn’t look like them I didn’t talk like them.  I still was teased for looking Asian and even after I tried to explain that I am Navajo they still didn’t believe me. I learned another life lesson.  At that moment I had my first taste of feeling alone.  Just like my parents I learned to adapt as well.   I can see why my parents felt it was so important for me to be there on the reservation and to embrace my culture.  My parent’s upbringing was as hard and harsh as the Navajo land.  They seem to have a “sink or swim” teaching philosophy.  In fact it is common in our family to take a young toddler and drop them in a deep snow and watch him or her struggle thru the snow to get to the parents.  I am told that I passed the test and there is a sense of fatherly pride when my Dad tell this story but now everyone on the rez would agree that I passed the test of being Navajo, including one of my cousins.

The morning starts with my grandmother pulling off my covers and telling me in Navajo, “Little Yazzie, Get up don’t let the sun catch you sleeping!”  I sit up and put on my too-tight shoes passed down from my two older brothers.  I asked for new shoes but my Dad just took his knife and cut slits on the side of the shoes and starts teasing me that I have big feet.  I slept in the same jeans that I wore yesterday, also passed down the great Yazzie lineage.  I tighten my belt as tight as I can get to keep my pants from falling off.  I pour water in a pail from our 50 gallon water container because we have no running water and no electricity.  I stand outside by the front door; it faces east like most homes on the reservation it’s still dark outside maybe around 4:30 or 5:00 am, but who needs a watch on the reservation, the rez is the place where time stands still.

            We start walking down to the sheep corral.  I have walked this quarter mile path so many times I could do it in my sleep.  I see my grandma in her traditional Navajo dress that goes all the way down to her white running shoes.  She is wearing a long sleeve shirt that goes to her wrist.  Her long hair is nicely tucked into a tight bun with a handkerchief to keep it nice and neat.  She is wearing her turquoise squash blossom necklace and her turquoise bracelet.  I always wonder why she gets so dressed up for the stupid sheep.  On the way to the sheep corral she tells me that later that afternoon we are going to stop by the Begays, some of her grandchildren were going to be there.  She talked the whole walk about how they are doing something with their lives, going to school, getting a good job, maybe they will become even the Navajo Tribal President someday.  That started a rant about my family we needed to stop being lazy, stop wasting money on silly things, and I need to hang around better friends. 

We start heading to their place and I can already see that the Begays are there with their shiny new car.  I see one of the grandkids sitting outside listening to his Walkman.  He has the new Nike shoes with brand name clothes.  He looks Chinese!  I ask my grandma if he is Navajo and she tells me to go talk to him.   I start talking to him in Navajo and realized that this kid doesn’t even know Navajo.  This kid sounds like a bilagáana (white person).  He comes down for the summer and he thinks he is Indian.

The distance between Phoenix and Cameron is just over 200 miles but they seems worlds apart.  Going to the rez meant I entered a foreign land where people speak a different language and little boys and girls at the trading post are familiar with White people asking to take their picture for a piece of candy.  Once I traveled to a secluded Hogan that was surrounded by trucks, not sure what was going on I was quiet and very cautious.  As we approached I could hear the familiar traditional singing and the smell of mutton in the air and a very concerned face on the children.  I soon saw 20 men just wearing shorts covered in mud and they were running around grabbing people.  They were taking them to a mud pit and covering them in mud.  I was terrified!  I saw kids being grabbed and they were kicking, screaming, and yelling for their parents but the parents just laughed.  I later found out it was a game, but that was the reservation.  They were a group of people trying to hold on to their culture and the ultimate struggle of trying to pass it down to the next generation. 

The Navajo people are filled with a rich history and have endured struggles.  Before my incident the Vietnam War was just ending and race is a subject that was being scrutinized.  As a nation there was change in the air and this sparked a change in the Navajo nation as well.  Navajo Nation elected its first president.   College graduates started to come back to the reservation or were able to help families back on the reservation.  Navajo engineers, doctors, and lawyers started to be an example to the youth on the reservation.  There were some who felt that the Navajo who had left the reservation lost who they were and replaced it with Whiteness.  My father is an aeronautical engineer who worked in the space program and he felt the stares and heard the whispers about how he was no longer Indian.  He knew that I too would someday feel this sting of our own people looking at us like we don’t belong. 

Little Yazzie and I were the same, both youth entering a new and uncharted territory.  I was staring at young boy and his history and culture that I wanted to connect with.  Little Yazzie was staring at a young boy that he wanted to learn to be like, without losing his culture.  I learned about 10 years ago that Little Yazzie killed himself.  Sadly many youth on the reservation and urban Indians find themselves on this path of drugs and alcohol trying to live in two worlds.  I remember my grandfather who was a medicine man would give a special blessing and that afternoon going to the doctors.  The ability to balance and adapt in these two worlds can be invaluable.  It is amazing to think how much has changed only one generation later.  My father tells me stories that when he was little he remembers sitting in the back of their wagon going to the trading post.  He was told to stay hidden on top of the hill about a mile away while his parents went and traded goods.  My mother was part of an Indian placement program that was sponsored by a religious groups trying to help Native Americans adapt to white America society.  A lot has changed so quickly that many Navajos got lost in the transition between two worlds but there some that have adapted and still are able to remember their Navajo roots. 

 Photo: Cameron Arizona on the Navajo Reservation

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