By: Kianna Joe
Tribal affiliation: Navajo
Groggily I start to wake up. The smell of cedar and smoke covers my senses. The cold air coming through space at the bottom of the tipi washes over my face. I hear the drum, gourd and my father’s voice. My Nálí hastiin blows into the whistle outside the tipi. After the fourth one, I roll over and sit up. My tsiiyééł looks more like a ball of yarn, my moccasins slowly unwraps, and my jewelry leaves an imprint on my red face. My mom pulls me close into her lap and tells me to start singing with her. I think to myself, I don’t know the songs, so I opt to play with the sand. The last time I could breathe happily.
The next time I heard these songs, they were mourning the loss of my father. Rather than playing with sand or being held by my mom, I slept in my family’s van with my crying sisters. I heard the faint chants, I saw the outlines of my family praying inside the tipi. The glow of the fire continued to radiate throughout the night. I looked up into the sky and saw the smoke turn into the stars. I let a tear slip and quickly fell back to sleep.
He told me, “Shiyázhí, learn these songs. Shiyázhí, pray for yourself. Shiyázhí, be ready for your kinaaldá. Shiyázhí, ‘ayóó ‘áníínísh’ní.” I tried. I cried singing his songs, I cried praying to Diyin Dine’é. I cried as the time of my kinaaldá came and passed. I cried feeling no love for myself. Heartache dissolved the love he gave and the warmth I had. Gone were the days I could freely run into the field at my Nálí man’s house. Gone were the days I could hear him singing. Gone were the days that I could run to him and cry. The day I wanted him more than anything was when I was told I shouldn’t have said anything. I should’ve stayed quiet. The day the friends who I thought were there for me turned to the people I hated the most.
A long time ago, “way go back,” Navajo families were ripped apart. The children were forced to travel hundreds of miles away to boarding schools. Parents left not knowing whether their children were alive or not. These children are being abused into staying silent. They love that. They will give you opportunities for staying quiet. They say you can attend the greatest college in the country by keeping your mouth shut. They all of a sudden have connections for “American Indian” students since you didn’t say anything. That silence holds decades of trauma. It holds an Indigenous student being called a “Bloody Indian,” having their hair cut, being mocked by her class and getting called a squ*w. That silence came at a cost for Indigenous students a century ago, and it continues today.
I yelled at everyone. I pulled my hair so hard, I started crying from the pain instead. I scratched my legs yelling I wasn’t pretty. In high school, the scratching, crying and self-hate turned into panic attacks. They turned into several nights at the hospital. They turned to keeping my feelings to myself. When my dad sang and held meetings, he always talked about the bad and ugly “things.” He would pause the drum, the gourd and the praying. Nothing but the cracking in the fire and night animals could be heard. He would say in Diné bizaad, “Nothing comes easy. Everything has a cost; sometimes those things have a really ugly cost. You might not be sick physically, but you are sick in the heart and mind. Tonight I pray for your heart to be healthy again.” The many nights I cried, screamed and panicked, I remembered all the ugly that came with death, colonial society and history, not just in my family but my community. When my sister took me to my first therapy appointment, I sobbed out the words, “I want to love myself.” I cried for the rest of the session explaining how I hate that I hate my work and who I am.
I want to see my work and love it. I want to see my face and body and love it. The hate crept up on me in every activity I did. No matter how far I got into my mental health journey, I felt like I was running in circles. Every time I thought I was tough enough, a new obstacle appeared and I would cry again. But what I didn’t see was every time I encountered the obstacle I had overcome previously, I wasn’t affected like I used to be. I didn’t curl into myself and hurt, I took that challenge and continued to walk forward. When my dad prayed for me to heal my heart, a part of that prayer was for me to realize how beautiful my strength is. To see how strong I am.
At my happiest moments, I laid in it. I soaked up every memory, the songs that played during the moment, the smells, the “vibe.” I held onto it and I made the effort to feel that happy again. Two years ago, I hid in the shadows of my own reflection. I ran away from warmth and love. I tore myself down and apart for the sake of other people. Today as I am mid-way through the second semester of my sophomore year at ASU, I found out that I actually do like to be hugged, I am not my dad, I am allowed to be sad, I can be mad, I have a voice that is valued, I know my work is good because it makes me smile, it makes want to rewatch or re-read over and over again.
Trauma is exhausting. It’s ugly and it’s painful. When you think you’re done, you find a new memory that hurts. There is beauty behind resiliency. Being able to come back with a healthier mindset and loving yourself completely is beautiful.
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