A Call to Action by Diné Women Activists

Larry Emerson

Shouldn't we Diné older folks be saddened that our precious youth and grandchildren are now driven to “protest” regarding our collective need to honor and protect our sacred land, air, water, plants, animals, and, therefore, ourselves?

Shouldn't we perhaps be ashamed or embarrassed to see our children and grandchildren resort to such actions? What does this reveal about Diné culture that is supposed to nurture disciplined and healthy intergenerational relationships?

One Diné youth activist says our relationship to seventh generation principles of sustainability has been disrupted as shown by broken youth and elder relationships. It is heartbreaking, she says, to witness and feel the brokenness because we aren’t carrying on the strength and discipline of our tradition.

Another Diné activist writes: “I am thinking about the devastating effects of how the elders and my generation (I'm getting to elder stage) keep wringing our hands and moaning about language and cultural loss, blaming our young for it while averting our gaze regarding the consequences of colonialism.”

Diné youth struggle to contend with a legacy of tribal political corruption, the pain and irony of cultural contradiction, and an apparent future of more plundered land, water and air.

I recently witnessed six Diné young women openly grieve devastation caused by unabashed hydraulic fracturing in eastern Dinétah (northwestern New Mexico.) They connect this colonized and commodified practice with sexual violence against sacred feminine bodies that includes our mother earth. They observe a general breakdown of our Diné kinship system originally gifted by a Diné female holy person.

We don’t associate hydraulic fracturing with cultural fracture, but we should. Why is it that we are surprised at hydraulic fracturing in and around Diné country – literally in our yards – while our families live in isolation and separation? Why do we no longer see this as we raise our families and seem to forget to value intergenerational k’é (kinship) relations? What accounts for our silence and delayed reaction? Does our manifestation of unresolved guilt, sorrow, shame, anger or loss contribute to our cultural paralysis?

From a Diné youth activist lens, hydraulic fracturing is simultaneously a fracturing of our k’é and hózhó knowledge and practice. Hydraulic fracturing is yet another example of a deep assault on our being, our souls, our clan system and is a severing of our sacred relationship to our earth mother. This ought to be painful for all Diné. Why don’t we seem to feel the pain?

Diné youth activists are now seizing the moment to demand the right to healthy Diné identities and ethical, sacred ecological lifestyles, to speak the Diné language, to fully understand Diné traditional knowledge, to demand social and environmental justice that also embraces mother earth rights and to practice k'é or compassionate, interdependent kinship and community. They seek healthy relations not only with other humans but also with our beautiful earth and sky relatives.

They demand healing, decolonization, transformation, mobilization and practice.

I’ve heard youth activists wonder why we older folks hide our stories. Why we appear silenced, often unable to show our emotions, unwilling to teach our language, to help them practice our culture or why we criticize them for not speaking our language.

Shouldn't us older folks be feeling, caring for and affirming the hurt, anger and pain youth carry? Diné youth vision is not limited to hurt and pain either – they carry the love, integrity and respect for all living beings and understand our inherent rights to exist in harmony and balance.

Isn't it unfortunate that to demand a chance for peace, justice and happiness that Diné youth should have to call us, Indigenous and settlers alike, on our own colonized and contradictory political and economic behavior?
I am inspired by my conversations with Diné activists Kim Smith, Tom Greyeyes, Dana Eldridge, Orion Yazzie, Laura Red Elk, Whisper Light, Kim Howe and Heather Bowie, and I want to share a call to action from our young Dine’ women:

“Colonization and oppression affect old and young in almost identical ways. If not tended to, we wind up perpetuating almost identical oppression.

Let’s be conscious, knowledgeable, and empathetic to the youth struggle.

The hoghan is the place to restore compassion and love for each other.

We want a safe and sacred space for intergenerational conversation.

Please invite us to share our stories with you.

Don’t criticize us for not knowing our culture and language. It hurts. When this happens, a place to restore our language and culture becomes elusive. We feel thwarted before we even start.

When elders scold us for not knowing our culture or language, discouraged, we tend to reject the very things we want to know.

We project our pain and anger on each other because of unresolved historic, intergenerational trauma. We both need to stop this.

Colonial history is very small compared to the thousands of years of Diné resilience.

We want to see elders heal to be role models who confront the perpetrators in our lives.

We want to see elders tell their stories, to be vulnerable, to “get it out” and not hold it in. This becomes our healing process. When we don’t hear elders’ stories, we inherit the silence.

We pray for our elders not to fear what needs to be seen. We don’t want to see elders inventing reasons not to see themselves or to fear the pain. Everything we want is on the other side of fear.

Elder men need to care for younger men, too. We women sometimes tire of taking care of ourselves, while men do not seem to do the same.

Without healing, solutions obscure themselves. Healing leads to solutions. Neither youth nor elders can do this alone. We need each other.

Just as youth need to hold each other accountable for their actions, so do elders.”

Diné k’é practices are the ideal because they hold us together unconditionally through compassionate reciprocity. We look out for each other beyond the lure of money, power, control and corruption.

Let’s revitalize the matrilineal side of our culture. Diné men should not blindly follow a colonialized, Western patriarchal system. Such men cannot defend the hoghan. “

So, as a Diné grandpa, I ask you to love and support our young people, especially our young women, in their quest for Diné/Indigenous-style equity and justice that is rooted in our understanding of Changing Woman who helped

Diné understand themselves as good, disciplined, nurturing and strong protectors.

Conversations with Diné activists Kim Smith, Tom Greyeyes, Dana Eldridge, Orion Yazzie, Laura Red Elk, Whisper Light, Kim Howe and Heather Bowie inspired this article.

Larry Emerson is Tsénahabiłnii, Tó’aheidlíínii, Hoghanłání (paternal grandparents) and Kii’yaa’áanii (maternal grandparents. Emerson is a farmer, artist, educator, activist and scholar, living in the Tsédaak’áán community near Shiprock, Diné Nation (New Mexico).


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tmsyr11's picture
Its been 17-18 years since the last incident in Navajo, i.e. aka Rocky Ridge, for giving a message of hope that Navajo matters are getting better. For one i can understand as 'parent', how i would rather resort to a bit of an isolation approach than to confront head-on the progressivm bit being projected by the younger audience, i.e six navajo women. I don't take the "progress" lightly anymore considering what Navajo i have left anymore to give up in exchange for the 'new flavor of the month' brought on by "progress". Sadly, the messages are mixed coming from the 'colonialist' society of the United States. On one hand, Navajo progressivists can claim independence from colonialism yet on the same hand take up causes and movements being fought on and reported on the nightly TV and cable news. Quite clearly and adament, the 'news' is intent on making the other political parties look bad while other other party is portrayed as the good guys - woolly white, pure, with the breath of a baby. This too me is a mixed message. I won't even bother to state the socialital upheavals currently plagueing the entire nation. As it stands, the only people i can really trust anymore are direct family, extended families, and maybe the outlying community particularly in the remote Navajolands. Everybody has a role = i don't criticize the younger crowd who want to make a difference, but yet i hope they continue to be cautionous in jumping on the bandwagon with both feet. I once asked -a "person"- (local and regionally in the area) for all their talk and promotion on inclusiveness and equality when was the last time they've invited or even allowed (symbolically) a indian into their home to maybe gather water or at least use the garden hose outside to fill their water barrels so they could take home to cook and wash with. They relayed the question to somebody else as in not THEIR responsibility. When was the last time you've allowed an indian to list his grievances or even understand his view of the world going back to as far 1600s. They weren't concerned of the past one hundred years but in going ahead (i guess progress is the key here). Does an indian use the backdoor and can he come into the backyard in your home -like the person allows his friends/benefactors/dependents? Or does the Indian have to use the front door, knocking and taking his shoes off before entering? These are simple questions to test the level of trust and honesty and truthfulness of the bandwagon and their wagon masters who provide the supply and resources. Not all colonialism was bad and navajo history shows there were true pioneers into the southwest with the intentions of good and building for a future. The sixty years (3 generations) of Navajo spirit and ingeniuty has apparantly ran its course and these past 20 years has taken off -went of the charts. Now where the Navajo people go is only of matter of trusting but verifying the message being provided. For the next 20, we need another message of hope….