As a Navajo born and raised on the reservation, I was particularly thrilled about the opportunity to study Georgia’s complex sociopolitical relationship with Native Americans in both a historical and modern context.
As soon as I received an acceptance letter from Humanity in Action (HIA) for the John Lewis Fellowship, I was overcome with excitement to explore Atlanta’s rich Civil Rights history through a series of lectures, excursions, and discussions with my socially conscious peers. As a Navajo born and raised on the reservation, I was particularly thrilled about the opportunity to study Georgia’s complex sociopolitical relationship with Native Americans in both a historical and modern context. Although Native American history was a small fragment in the larger Civil Rights discourse within the program, I’ve developed a wealth of knowledge that has helped me discover how I can implement restorative justice by using narratives as a means to reclaim Native American stories while fostering socioeconomic development. Over the past few weeks, I have been struggling with the idea of what restorative justice is and I’ve arrived at the conclusion that we as Indigenous people should not wait for the United States to acknowledge us and that we must restore justice on our own terms.
What first peaked my interest in using narratives was the reaction I felt after watching the documentary “The Canary Effect.” The film, which addresses a myriad of issues that continue to pervade the Native American community presents an image of Native Americans in a single facet: people dealing with alcoholism, poverty, and the lasting effects of the boarding school era. While this information is critical for people to know, this image is often the only one presented to the majority. As I began to think of an approach to give a more comprehensive overview of modern Native American life, I quickly thought of the “Under My Hood” spoken word event we attended the previous weekend. Inspired by the various stories, I was immediately drawn to this type of storytelling and hope to implement it within my own community–I want my peers and the general community to have the opportunity to hear multiple facets that make up the modern Native American experience and identity. From that night, I was able to come up with my own narrative that chronicles my journey as a Navajo woman using the “Under My Hood” format.
Under my hood is frustration
It is frustration that spans several generations
I carry the pain felt by my ancestors, for I continue to be told my culture is subpar and my history irrelevant. I am frustrated that my people are seen as relics of the past, as imaginary figures in headdresses and buckskin that only exist in western films and dusty textbooks. If only they knew, I tell myself. If only the world could see what I have been privileged to experience would they finally realize how entrenched we are in modern society while still maintaining our unique identities and culture. This frustration is often exacerbated by comments like “You don’t look Native American” or the idea that my education, perspective, and experiences somehow makes me different from other Native Americans. Under my hood is pride. It is pride in everything society tried to make me feel ashamed of. When I look at my hair, hair my people were forced to cut because it was seen as the mark of savagery, I don’t see shame but wisdom. I see the wisdom passed down from my mother and grandmother. I see my traditions, my history, language, and culture society has tried to erase but has failed to do because their greatest mistake is not realizing my people are indestructible. It is a future where my generation stands up and says, “We have had enough!” and we reclaim our own stories that have often been told for us instead of by us.
Finally, under my hood is hope. It is hope that I can use my education to empower my community, give a voice to the silenced, and use this gift to help my people break the chains of colonial oppression. As I continue to navigate this chaotic world I carry the hope that I will be able to successfully walk the tightrope between tradition and modernity, but I am not walking this path alone. I have my ancestors beside me, for I am their greatest dream.
In addition to live storytelling, the belief in the power of our own narratives continued to grow upon my visit to the Atlanta History Museum. I arrived eager to explore the section on Native Americans and Georgia, hoping to expand upon the knowledge I’d already acquired over the years. What I expected was a comprehensive overview of the relationship between local tribes and the U.S., but instead found a simplistic explanation to complex issues whose ramifications are still being felt today.
Let me be clear, while I felt the exhibit served as a good introduction to the complexity of U.S./Native American relations, it could have done more to offer the affected communities the opportunity to tell their history and present-day culture from a variety of perspectives and through various mediums.
I suspected this would be the case as soon as I walked into the room and immediately noticed the size of exhibit paled in comparison to other exhibits in the museum. To me, this was the first indication that the exhibit–like other similar attempts at retelling Native history–was something that could be neatly packaged and its complexity quickly absorbed in a matter of minutes. Let me be clear, while I felt the exhibit served as a good introduction to the complexity of U.S./Native American relations, it could have done more to offer the affected communities the opportunity to tell their history and present-day culture from a variety of perspectives and through various mediums. This painful, complicated history is not here for the U.S. to distort and present to the masses. By reclaiming our history and saying, “No, this is what happened” or “This is how I feel about _________,” we are actively fighting against the system that has tried to steal and repackage our narratives.
Finally, if we as Native Americans are going to break free from the shackles of colonialism, we need to focus on sustainable community development. This idea came to me through two events during the program. The first was during the Transformative Alliance presentation on the power of transit where I began to ask myself how I can address the needs of transportation within my own community and how we can use this as a tool to fight against poverty. To give a brief overview, there are still many families on the reservation who live in rural areas far from paved roads, including some who may live several hours from the nearest town, and might not always have access to reliable transportation. As a result this can reduce an individual’s ability to find a job, have access to food, water, and other basic necessities, and hinder the ability to participate in community events. In response to this hitch hiking has become common but is not always a safe or reliable option. Post-lecture, I began thinking about implementing a mass transit system within the community, but I question the feasibility of reaching everyone who could benefit from such as system due to how expansive the reservation is as well as the ability of those who live in isolated areas to have access to utilize a transportation system.
Even though I haven’t reached a solution, I realize that my generation must have this conversation with our community. Even by starting a dialogue, we are taking the first step in trying to empower our community to become more self-reliant.
By holding small, roundtable discussions on topics such as housing, education and youth, employment, transportation, and the elderly, I felt we were able to delve into issues we otherwise would not have been able to have in a larger setting.
The final excursion, which was the STAND UP meeting facilitated by Deborah Scott, showed me the power communities hold to dictate self-determination that many Native American communities continue to struggle with. By holding small, roundtable discussions on topics such as housing, education and youth, employment, transportation, and the elderly, I felt we were able to delve into issues we otherwise would not have been able to have in a larger setting. Through the exchange of ideas, we were able to address the issues the community felt was the most pressing and also discussed how we can hold elected officials accountable for their commitment to sustainable community development. I see this as another form of self-distributed restorative justice because outsiders have been telling Native communities what they need to improve their lives for decades without Native input. To this I say no more. The days of allowing someone who has never lived in our community–let alone visited it–dictate what is best for the people are gone. From here on, we will continue to realize self-determination on our own terms, and thus serve justice that is long overdue.