I am not a historian, I am more of a storyteller. I would like to share a land story which is unique to me and my family. Each Navajo is unique and the Navajo tribes have different beliefs and customs from other Indigenous tribes.
I am from the Many Goat clan born for the Coyote Pass People. My maternal grandfather’s clan is Bitterwater, and my paternal grandfather’s clan is Towering House. This is how I’m a Navajo woman. When I share my love for the land with others, I want to create a seed inside anyone to be able to see the land in a different light. I want them to see earth as a personage and not property. I’m sharing how we can view the earth, in contrast to what we’ve been taught to think about land.
Navajo people have emergence stories, creation stories. The Navajo legends say we came from a black world. Trials happened and we had to leave that world and move up to the next world, and the next and the next. The very last world is called the glittering world. That’s the world we live in now. The Grand Canyon is where Navajo and many other tribes believe they emerged from — which is why the Colorado River is so sacred.
When I share these emergence stories, I imagine it as we are climbing out of the canyon. When I think of this beautiful story while hiking in a canyon, it gives me a sense of reverence. And when I hike with others this story sets the vibes of, We’re on a journey together, a journey back in time.
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I adventure mostly in my ancestral lands from the Grand Canyon to Lake Powell. When I hike these areas, I feel like I’m walking in my own backyard. It is home. It’s that safe. It’s that familiar. I’m connected to the land on another level.
Whenever I start to feel separated from the land or that feeling of connection starts to dissipate, it’s as easy as looking down at my skin and seeing that I’m the same color as that red sand. There’s this physical connection that automatically brings me back to being grounded and remembering, “This is where you’re from. This is where you belong.” There’s always that sense of home.
When I became a mom, I started to think, “What am I gonna teach my kids? How would I teach them our culture? Our ways of life?” Especially today, as we’re surrounded by so many distractions—how do I combine those two worlds together?
On a rim-to-rim backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon I realized: my ancestors are freaking amazing. This land is very difficult to survive on—but they learned to navigate it, even without the means that exist today. I imagine doing a hike without all the gear I have now and then on top of that, with an entire family in tow. It made me think how strong they were. Going out in nature and experiencing that for myself felt almost like walking in their shoes.
Around 1864, Major General James H. Carleton ordered Christopher (Kit) Carson to force thousands of Navajo to move from their homelands and walk 300 miles, all the way east to New Mexico and Fort Sumner. This is called The Long Walk.
My Masani, maternal grandma, is from the Western Agency of the Navajo Reservation. She would proudly say that her family and her people—her immediate relatives—did not do the Long Walk. It was assumed that all Navajos went on the Long Walk but my grandma would say in Navajo, “Nope, not my people. We were too clever or quick.”
Northern Arizona, the western agency of the Navajo Nation, has canyons. Many canyons that are just like Canyonlands National Park. My Masani said when Navajo families heard, “white people are coming,” they would run and hide in the canyons. And that’s how her people never went on the Long Walk. My uncle shared that Navajo families would alert each other about white people coming from the boarding school and kids would hide in the canyons from being taken to boarding school. These canyons provided safety.
I read about some families that had escaped and hid from the Long Walk, but not a lot. Before the Long Walk, the Navajo were offered sheep and horses and other goods. They became dependent on the government. Then the military killed off their food sources and burned all their homes. The families that went into hiding had nothing. They either starved or froze. But my Masani’s story is that they persevered. They used the land to their advantage. The land was a blessing. They stayed there and lived.
I’ve hiked in the Northern Arizona canyons quite a bit and some of them require canyoneering equipment. Canyoneering is one of my favorite things to do. I’ve never been afraid of heights, which makes me wonder if you can pass down traits through generations. I’m not afraid to go down a canyon. Maybe that was one of my ancestors’ traits too. Maybe that is one of the reasons they survived.
In My Element
Living in Arizona the summer hiking news is pretty intense. “It’s 100 degrees. Excessive heat warning. Don’t go outside or you’re gonna die. The Grand Canyon news says, ‘Do not attempt this trail, you’re gonna die.’ Or, Escalante in Southern Utah, ‘Do not attempt to go down the canyon if you don’t know what you’re doing, you will die.’ It is true that if you go unprepared you could be in danger.
But because of the land, Navajo people are tough. There’s actually a quote I heard on the reservation: be as tough as the land you came from. The places other people consider “dangerous” are where my people thrived and called home.
Hiking is cathartic because it’s not only healing, it makes you grow. I hike with other Natives, especially my sisters and family. We’re so caught up in life that we don’t often unpack what it’s like being Native American in this time. Or being Native on Native land that’s been renamed as a national park. Think about it: I have to pay a fee to enter my ancestral lands. We could talk about it but we often avoid it because we’re tired of the hurt, the tragic history, the generational trauma. We’re trying to thrive in a tough world.
A lot of times, when I go outside I am going to have fun and to celebrate a hike with summit beers. But the best hiking trips are when it’s mixed—I can live in my trauma and process our existence here on occupied land that was once ours and enjoy the beauty. I can also get a freaking good workout. I can have a good time with friends or family.
I love to hike with my sisters because we have fun but also get to bounce our feelings off each other about hiking, outdoors and being a Navajo woman. We get to talk about the things we usually avoid and we get to do that in an open welcoming place.
I feel in my element when I’m backpacking. I especially felt in my element on a backpacking trip on the North Rainbow Bridge trail, a trail on the Navajo Nation. Technically, when you go backpacking, you have a lot missing. You don’t have a house. You don’t have all your stuff. You don’t have internet access. You’re missing all these things that the world says you need—and maybe you think you need.
I know I’m in my element because I’ll step out there and I am content. I’m whole—with nothing more than with a backpack, red rocks and a blue sky. It’s so weird how you can be whole with nothing. I had my kids with me, my husband, my sister and her kids. It was the most fulfilling adventure I’d ever done because I had every part of me there. So much beauty and love was with me there. It was just paradise.
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