Not Columbus’ “Discovery”
Navajo women in traditional dress. Photo by Sam Lowe
About a month ago, I was given the honor of co-teaching a class at the University of Pennsylvania as a guest lecturer of Andy Lamas Ph.D. and with Anthony Montiero, Ph.D.
The class, on “Liberation and Ownership” is an exciting look at the concepts of racial, gender identity, and class through a critical and radical lens. It is a profound experience to teach and learn in the shadows of these two brilliant scholars.
A few weeks back, Dr. Lamas asked me to share a story about my Navajo grandparents as a lead-in to a guest lecture by Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz who just published the “The Indigenous People’s History of the United States.”
Check out the book trailer here-
I rarely talk about this part of my life, and it was not easy to do.
However, as Dr. Dubar-Ortiz declares, in order to transform our society into a more just one, a society that lives up to the values that we claim, we have to dispel the lies that we have all comfortably accepted.
Acknowledging that our nation was built on slavery, genocide, and land theft makes many people – specifically many white people – uncomfortable. It also makes many non-white people uncomfortable.
It makes me uncomfortable.
One dismisses these perspectives as “revisionist history,” as if all histories must not be “revised” when new information is gathered.
I get no righteous joy out of the fact that my indigenous roots, family, and culture have almost vanished from the earth.
In class, I shared the following remembrance of my Grandma and Grandpa. I share it with you as well, my reader, on this Columbus Day, not to honor one man’s “discovery,” but to honor my ancestors and the historic resistance of a people.
The Navajo Way
When I was a kid, we would occasionally visit my grandmother and grandfather on the reservation. I remember driving for hours and hours through dusty desert. My brother David and I would be playing games with my mom, hanging over the front seat of the Ford Granada as we traveled for miles and laughed while my dad drove in silence.
We would arrive in the tiny village of Greasewood, Arizona, usually at dusk. We lived in Grants, New Mexico, which was also a small town that now, somehow, seemed huge in comparison. Greasewood claimed perhaps a couple hundred people. It may as well have been on another planet.
Once the sun had set, the desert would turn freezing cold. The sky would explode with a million stars and the village would be almost completely dark and silent.
You could hear a distant neighbor’s TV from blocks away.
In Grants, due to the abundance of street lights and video games, my brother and I could keep playing with friends often until 9 pm if our parents let us, which they often did, since most of the families on my block knew each other.
In Greasewood, though, it was dark and quiet and the children were all indoors.
At the foot of the bed where my parents slept, my brother and I shivered in sleeping bags, scared to death by the sound of coyotes howling somewhere off in the distance.
During the days, though, we would run around and play with other kids. The whole desert was our playground. We would run from house to house with a pack of little boys and girls, our light brown faces smiled among the Navajo kids with straight black hair and rich brown complexions.
The town was small and strange. It was like an outpost only partially completed. I recall many houses that lacked windows and doors. Navajo rugs hung by nails over door frames.
Unlike back in Grants, we didn’t have Nintendos to play with out there. Instead we chased lambs around, sometimes straight though a family’s home, dozens of us storming past the blankets in the front and out the open back door, hopping over piles of fire wood, all of us screaming and laughing.
My Grandmother Elizabeth and Grandpa Mercede were as strange to me as this town in the middle of nowhere.
They would talk to each other in Diné, their native language that sounds swishy and like the words bounce off the back of their throats.
Grandma was always boisterous with a huge laugh. My mother was like her, always playing mischievous games with the world. They would laugh at each other, and at punch-lines that no one else could understand. Grandma was what my 7 Indian aunts used to call “Res to the max.” They would laugh (lovingly) behind her back.
My aunts were city Navajos who lived in Albuquerque. I would think of their words when we would visit. I wasn’t sure what they meant by the slight they muttered, just that it was some sort of joke about my grandparents.
Grandma was very traditional. She wore 3 or 4 layers of Navajo dresses. They were beautiful, rich blues, and reds, a velvet dress on top of a satin one, on top of royal velvet cascades of fabric. She wrapped her wrists in silver and turquoise. She had a belt of leather, beads of bone and coral. Grandma’s thick, black braid went all the way down her back.
Grandpa was quiet. He didn’t speak much English. He always wore a black Stetson Cowboy hat and a thick leather belt with a big silver and turquoise buckle. Grandpa was skinny and bowlegged. He used to put us on his knee and bounce us up and down. He would have us pretend that we were riding a pony.
After a few days we would go back to Grants. I would smell like mutton, the greasy meat of the full grown sheep, for days after we returned.
We wouldn’t hear from my grandparents after we came back. They had no phone and the rare phone call from them from a gas station pay phone usually signaled bad things.
But once in a while, every summer or two, they would…just appear.
I remember how exciting it was to wake up and find their black and silver Ford F-150 parked in front of our house.
I remember my father waking me up and telling me to go and wake up my grandparents.
David and I would run out and open up the camper shell on the truck to find them sleeping in the back of the pickup, on top of layer and layers of blankets, holding each other in the cold New Mexico mornings.
One time, David and I opened the camper to find Grandma cuddling a small lamb. The young ewe woke before she did, swinging up her furry little head before my grandmother moved to the joyful shrieks of my brother and me.
We played with the little creature for a few days before Dad and Grandpa strung her up by her back legs on the clothesline post and slit her throat.
I was saddened by the slaughter, but I had also been taught that it was natural. Grandma prayed and thanked the small sheep, thanking her for her life and her sacrifice. She burned sage and rubbed the smoke into the ewe’s wool, calming her before her death.
Later, when it was time to go, my parents enacted the faux drama of begging them to stay inside with for us for a few days.
Grandma would always claim that they were on their way somewhere else to visit one of our other relations somewhere in the sprawling desert or in the city.
Nevertheless, they would always move inside with us and stay for a few days, until they ultimately departed.
My Grandma’s ways were a mystery to me.
She called her wanderings: “going the Navajo way.”
In hindsight, 30 years later, I realize it was probably because she and my grandfather were suffering hard times.
When they got low on food or money, they would take their last resources and head out on the road, boarding with us, my aunts and uncles, or with some friends off in the distance, real or invented.
Nonetheless, in her mind, my grandmother was doing as our ancestors had for thousands of years before: moving, following the resources as the seasons changed and fortunes went dim.
Whether she was chasing the herds, free beneath the bright blue skies, or whether she and Grandpa were running from poverty and hunger with their belongings tied up in shopping bags, eating cold vegetables out of tin cans, is a difference that now pains me to distinguish.
They would stay for just a few days.
Grandma. in her other-worldly ways, would wake up before the dawn and wander the alleyways of our town picking up junk. She would erect a pile of little things that she hoped to sell in a corner of our backyard: hubcaps, aluminum cans, bottles that she thought looked pretty or useful.
Then, one day, we would wake up and she would be gone.
Disappeared. Kind of like the Navajo to most of us today.
She lived the Navajo way.
In our modern context, that means that she lived on “The Res.” One with her people, strong in her traditions, but in utter poverty.
Or, she would wander, feeling a connection to our ancestors, an alien in the white man’s world, out of context. Living in spiritual death.
The same dilemma for what is left of traditional indigenous people this nation.
Still, I look back and admire that she had within her, to her last breath, the desire to resist. to exist outside of the place that our society had prescribed for her.
She could not be held back by the parcels. She would not be forgotten. She wandered freely.
Looking back, I learned from her that I should never be proscribed a role or resigned to disappear. I stand with others who refuse to be ignored. “Columbus Day” is a day to condemn the dehumanization of other people. It is a day to celebrate those who demand freedom and a dignified life.
To me, this is the true meaning of this day.
WATCH: John Oliver Asks, “Columbus Day, How Is That Still A Thing?”