Young Navajo Complete 225-Mile “Journey for Existence”
By Lyla June Johnston
On February 1st 2015, the walkers of Nihígaal Bee Iina (pronounced ni-hi-gahl beh ee-nah, meaning “Our Journey for Existence”) completed their quest to walk over 200 miles in the name of their children, land and ancestors. The walk was in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of The Long Walk, whereby over 9,500 Diné (Navajo) were marched at gunpoint for hundreds of miles into Bosque Redondo—a concentration camp where they would stay for four years. Only 7,304 survived the internment to return back to Diné Tah, the original Navajo homeland. In addition to honoring the resilience of their ancestors, the walkers also set out to raise awareness about issues surrounding oil and gas extraction in Diné Tah. Ultimately, the group walked the entire span from Dził Naa’oodiłii (Huerfano Mounatin) to Tsoodził (Mount Taylor) in 26 days, a total of 225 miles.
“It was awesome to be walking up that mountain, carrying those prayers, to feel the stillness of Tsoodził and just for that day it was really calm, sunny, bright,” commented Kooper Curley, one of about 70 walkers who joined for all or part of the journey.
“My favorite part of the journey was when I saw that picture of Tsoodził. It really brought tears to my eyes and made me think, ‘They did it. They did it,” said Libby Williams, an elder Diné woman who assisted the walkers on their journey.
“They kept singing that song, ‘Sheenaashaa,’” stated Enoch Endwarrior, of Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I’ve always heard that song but I never knew what it meant. I learned that this is the song the ones who survived Hwééldi [“The Place of Suffering,” or Bosque Redondo] sang when they burst into joy, relieved to leave that place and go back within the four sacred mountains. To see the peak reminded me of my great-great-great-great grandmother. She was just a little girl during the round up, during Hwééldi. It was a family of five and only two survived—my grandma and her sister. I will never know the true degree of that suffering but it was such an overwhelming feeling of joy just to see the peak of Tsoodził. Just to know that she stuck it out, she survived, she endured, just for me to see that.”
According to the walkers, their journey leading up to Tsoodził was full of sobering experiences. Along the way they spoke with children in Lybrook, NM whose schools had been shut down due to water contamination from surrounding oil wells. At another point they walked along miles of idle cars that were held up due to a gas tank explosion. One local resident they encountered experienced a murder in their family, incensed by lumps of money offered by the oil industry. One young woman they met reported that she could no longer run alone in the evenings because of the countless oil and gas workers that pepper the land.
Cheyenne Antonio, a young woman from Torreon, NM—the heart of the Dine hydraulic fracturing industry—joined the walkers after they visited her community. “It felt good to finally have people come and really talk about how the violence has gone up. It’s hardly ever discussed and it needs to be discussed. There’s so much violence among our children, our women. Once that oil money comes in there is a whole new person in front of you. Money is controlling them. And that’s new in my life, dealing with greed.”
“This is about addressing the issues with fracking, coal mining and the gas extraction around the four corners that NASA can see from space,” says Leslynn Begay of Flagstaff, AZ. “When people see the walkers they become interested, they ask questions and they become more aware.”
Seeing a great herd of walkers along the road laid the foundation for many discussions and conversations with local residents, according to the walkers. “Someone was always pulling over asking, ‘What are you guys walking for?’ Even a Peabody employee pulled over and said, ‘I work at the coal mine, but it’s just a job and I support you guys.’ Things like that put everything into perspective. That these workers, they’re not just people, they’re family,” stated Curley.
Despite the continuous hardship they encountered through the oil and gas corridor of Dine Tah, the walkers indicated that each day ended with a note of hope.
According to Kim Smith of St. Michaels, Arizona, “The plight of the people was the most memorable thing throughout the journey. Really seeing how poor our people were and how beaten down. But the most beautiful part was when we told them about our prayer walk, that we didn’t have to accept that the only jobs for us are in oil fields and coal mines. It gave them a pep in their step. That’s what leadership does. And it was a group of people that did that. It wasn’t just one person, one savior that came in to give people that hope. It was a group of young people.”
Another young female organizer, Amber Hood, stated, “I had an elder tell me the other day that through these walks we are breathing life back into Hozhó [inner/outer balance]and I think he is absolutely correct. I realized about a third through the walk that this is bigger than fracking, this is bigger than the energy sector, it’s bigger than resource extraction and corrupt tribal government. It’s truly a journey back to our original selves where with every walk, hopefully every year that we do it, we are becoming more fluent in our language, we learn more stories about our land and our ancestors. On the next walk I want to focus on bringing in our traditional herbology to the walkers.”
Throughout the interview process with the walkers, this was a recurring theme: that the solution to the ailments of Dine people is not necessarily fighting what they don’t want, but embodying what they do want and returning to their traditional way of life.
“When we were at Tsoodził today, I felt this surge of overwhelming positivity,” said Dana Eldridge, one of several core organizers of the walk. “We saw a lot of really bad, terrible things on our journey. Things that hurt physically, emotionally and mentally. But this journey has shown me that Nihima Nahasdzáán [Mother Earth] really does have the power to heal. Being outside, walking outside it really does uplift you. Going up the mountain today, that’s all I felt. I wasn’t thinking about the negativity. I wasn’t thinking about how awful all this destruction is. I was just thinking about how beautiful everything is and how thankful and happy I am that I got to experience this.”
“I believe that In our original condition we were people of hope,” said Hood. “That is being restored. A year ago, even though we were working very hard to understand what’s going on and work with community, it felt very hopeless. I’ve felt a certain type of emotional paralysis. And this walk, it gives me hope now. I really believe that things are going to get better now. I really believe that we are restoring our lives, our original state of being. With every walk I see that beauty being further and further compounded, if you will.”
According to organizers, this walk will be the first of four major journeys to each of the four sacred moutains of the Diné (Tsoodził, Doo’ko’o’slííd, Dibe Nistáá and Tsisnajini). Through this first walk, organizers reported to have gained a great deal of useful experience for the journeys ahead.
“I’m really excited about [the next walk], knowing that we were capable of it, knowing that it’s not going to be a horrific failure,” says Eldridge. “I really believe that all we need to do is be with the earth after this. This is just the beginning of a whole awakening.”
As the journey began with a focus on women’s leadership and women’s healing, interviewees also ended with this message for their movement.
“I am honored and proud to walk side by side with these true naataanii [leaders], our women, selfless Diné women. This is a walk of healing for our land, our people, our women, our relationships, our mother, in faith to truly restore hozhó. It’s so old it’s new. This is the medicine that is needed and only women can bring it. To see the way our communities live is sobering; fracking, toxic water spills, pollution, tank explosions across the street from an elementary school. It’s time. Our elders need this. Mother Earth needs this. The five fingered nation needs this. It’s not just about Navajos, it’s about all people, all living things, all hands on deck. When women support each other, incredible things happen,” stated Smith.
Hood, a major advocate against the rape epidemics occurring in Indian Country, states, “We are saying no more of this connected violence. Our land is being violenced and that violence is reflected upon or bodies. Whether it’s through sexual abuse due to increased man camps, contamination of breast milk due to toxins, spontaneous miscarriages, children born with developmental delays, those are all ways that violence upon the land directly impacts native women’s bodies. We have to pull back the veil that leads us to believe that this is normal, that this is okay. They say for every one woman abused, we pray four come home and are restored and are healed. May as many women as possible walk with us and receive healing for whatever trauma they may carry, may they be restored simultaneously as our land heals because when we heal, our mother heals and when she heals, we heal.”
Eldridge ended her interview in gratitude: “Tsoodził is the same mountain our people saw when they were returning home from the concentration camp. When I saw it I was just thinking about how uplifted I feel and how positive I feel and how hopeful I feel. And that’s what it feels like to come home.”
The next journey is scheduled to begin on March 21st, spring equinox. For more information on Nihígaal Bee Iina, contact email@example.com. Some useful links are as follows: http://www.bosqueredondomemorial.com, https://www.facebook.com/walkforexistence, http://www.navajotimes.com/news/2014/0314/030614oil.php#.VNfNo0tHFBU
About Writing for Peace Young Adviser Lyla June Johnston
Lyla June Johnston is a 24 year-old poet, musician, anthropologist and human being, from Taos, New Mexico. Her passion for peace unfolds both outside of herself through community organizing and within herself through continual prayers to forgive and love a wounded world. After studying Human Ecology at Stanford University, Lyla founded Regeneration Festival, an annual celebration and honoring of children and young adults worldwide. She plans on attending Harvard Business School to obtain the platform she needs to disarm the private sector and repurpose the capitalist infrastructure for healing and social change. Her ancestors are Diné and Cheyenne and it is from this ancestral worldview that she derives her visions for helping to create a culture of peace and generosity. Learn more about Lyla’s work here.
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