Unless people ask me, I don’t usually share that I grew up on the Navajo reservation. I’m more apt to say that I’m from a small New Mexican town. Maybe that’s a personal narrative that needs to change. This article is about growing up on the Navajo reservation from my unique perspective.
When individuals find out that I grew up on the reservation, they always ask, what was it like? My usual response is, It’s all I knew so it was normal to me. It’s so much to explain in one conversation because I would basically be telling my childhood story.
My family is from the Mexican Springs and Tohatchi area of New Mexico. These communities or towns are part of a cluster of Navajo reservation communities approximately 20-25 miles north of Gallup, NM. Gallup is considered a border town and is not on the reservation.
Gallup houses the main Indian Health Service hospital for the region, so I was born there in 1984. My mom was sixteen years old and my dad was nineteen.
I was raised on the Navajo reservation in Mexican Springs until I was approximately 12 to 13 years old. At that point, my life took many turns, including boarding school in Pennsylvania, college in California, and eventually law school.
I consider the reservation my home. Currently, I live in the Albuquerque area and still go back to the house I was raised in for family functions and events.
So, here is my story of growing up on the Navajo reservation.
Remoteness and life on the Navajo reservation
As a child, growing up on the Navajo reservation is the only life I knew, so I normalized many aspects of rural reservation life. It was only upon moving away from the reservation that I saw things in a different light.
As far as being rural and remote, I do consider my family’s situation more fortunate than other families who lived deeper on the reservation.
I grew up in a house with running water, sewage, and electricity. It was not the modular housing built by the Navajo Housing Authority but a separate, unique home built by my great-grandfather.
Since Gallup was and still is the border town hub for that area, we would travel the half hour to Gallup for all of our needs, including medical, groceries, restaurants, and shopping.
I never found it odd or different that we had to travel an hour round trip for groceries. Honestly, that’s not bad for a rural community. As a kid, I often skipped out on these trips to stay at home and play.
Neighbors and community
So, growing up on the Navajo reservation, we did not live in a typical neighborhood. I find that this is one factor that sets me apart from individuals who grew up in cities or towns with neighborhoods.
If you haven’t lived a rural life for a long period of time, it can be hard to understand the mindset and lifestyle.
I often have to explain that my closest neighbor was a quarter mile away and they were family members. Beyond that, there was a cluster of other neighbors (also family) that lived half a mile away over the hill. Beyond that, we were miles away from other homes.
My childhood was spent running around outside with my cousin and using the land and nature as our play area. We also spent a lot of time with animals, including cats, dogs, hens and roosters, sheep, horses, and cows.
There were never issues with safety or danger as we lived remotely enough that hardly any outside traffic came through the area.
One of the biggest things that was hard to understand and accept as different when I moved off the reservation was the multi-generational, multi-household aspect of Navajo life.
Growing up on the Navajo reservation, I lived in a house with my grandparents, my mom’s two sisters, and their children. I considered all of them my immediate family. It’s very common that first cousins are referred to as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ because Navajo families are very close.
Looking back, a part of the multi-household tradition had to do with various socioeconomic factors at the time. For the most part, a lot of people in my community lived in poverty and relied on governmental assistance.
Many teenagers in high school were getting pregnant and unable to go out on their own to support their children, thus creating multi-generational, multi-household families.
My mom and her sister were teenagers when they started having kids, so my cousin and I were primarily raised by our grandparents early on in life.
The way Navajos think about extended family is very different than mainstream society. If my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents are my immediate family, then who is my extended family?
The answer is almost everyone in the community that I grew up in, even if the connection goes back a few generations. It wasn’t uncommon for my mom or grandma to tell me that so-and-so person is my cousin when I’ve never met this person in my life.
Even today, my mom will talk about her cousin or uncle and not denote that they are distantly related because there is a sense of kinship. When a cousin is actually a first blood cousin, my mom says my real, real cousin. It’s funny and can be confusing for non-Navajos.
As a result, growing up, I knew that it was unwise to even think about dating anyone in the surrounding towns because it was possible that there was some sort of familial or clan relation.
The clan system was given to the Dine’ by the Holy People, primarily Changing Woman. (Source) Each Navajo person will have four clans, from the mother, the father, the maternal grandfather, and the paternal grandfather.
Since Navajos primarily uphold matriarchal beliefs, one’s most immediate clan is the mother’s clan. If a Navajo has children, this is the primary clan that is passed down.
Growing up on the Navajo reservation, I was taught that my clans identify my Navajo lineage and let others know if we’re related by clan. I have memories as early as preschool where we were required to introduce ourselves with clans.
It’s also frowned upon to date or marry anyone with the same clan, even though you may not be related by blood. For Navajos, the clan system is akin to being blood-related.
- Additional reading: 12 unique Navajo culture books for children
Growing up on the Navajo reservation, I attended the reservation public schools. The primary population of reservation schools was Navajo children.
I had some negative experiences attending a reservation public school. I was bullied at one point and other kids stole personal items from me. The school administration was not great at communicating with parents and I felt that I fended for myself as a young kid a lot.
There weren’t many opportunities at the reservation public schools for children who excelled in their studies. I could sense this as an elementary student when my teachers were constantly clamoring to find something for the ‘gifted students’ to do.
The lack of support and quality education prompted me to want to go to a different high school, even if it meant leaving the Navajo reservation.
Navajo culture is absolutely rich and unique in its beliefs, values, and traditions. I was only able to realize this when I moved off the reservation.
That’s because, if you live on the reservation, you are immersed in the culture, ways of life, ceremonies, and traditions. When I was growing up, our weekends were always filled with family and community activities.
- Related reading: A very special Navajo first laugh ceremony
Both of my grandmothers were heavily immersed in Navajo traditions, so it was common for us to go to all-night Navajo ceremonies, visit medicine men, and host our own ceremonies.
Our community often hosted events like cakewalks, dances, and bingo at the local chapter house. Everyone in the community would get together and partake in these events. They were always filled with fun, laughter, and family.
When someone in the town would pass away, we would all join at the chapter house to be together and help that particular family out with funeral needs or donations.
These events were all part of my childhood because I would go everywhere with my grandmother.
Church and colonialism
Growing up on the Navajo reservation, I was always aware of the line of churches available for Native people in Tohatchi, NM.
Tohatchi was the hub of the surrounding communities. All of the main elementary, middle and high schools were in Tohatchi. Naturally, all of the churches were there too.
I grew up going to the local Catholic church and even went to Tuesday catechism every week. I was baptized and had my First Holy Communion in the Catholic church.
Amidst practicing Catholicism, we also wholeheartedly practiced Navajo spiritual and religious traditions. I never got the sense that the Catholic church advocated that we stay away from Native practices, but again I was a kid at this time.
I remember being a little confused by the bifurcation of beliefs when I was in elementary school. Should I believe in the Catholic Church or my Native beliefs? How do they relate, if at all? I had to process this confusion and mixed feelings at a young age.
This is the way I eventually understood it from my grandma. Everything about Navajo life, beliefs, and traditions is who I am at the core of my being but going to church and listening to Catholic sermons is what we do.
Navajo families can pick the church they want to attend. There’s Mormon, Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic, etc. For me, attending the Catholic church was more of a pastime. I always knew and was aware that I had my Navajo beliefs and traditions too.
As an adult, I don’t practice Catholicism anymore. I don’t have any negative experiences or beliefs toward the religion; it’s just not who I am.
Thinking about race
Growing up on the Navajo reservation, life can be pretty insular. When everyone in your community is Navajo and the reservation provides all of your needs to a certain level, it’s easy not to think about the outside world.
As a child, I didn’t really think about life off of the reservation nor did I ponder about race. Groups as a whole tend to generalize their interactions with individuals of other races, whether it’s good or bad.
Growing up, there was never any type of outward hatred toward a particular race but there was always curiosity and wonder for any non-Native people, including bilagaanas (white people).
Experiencing culture shock
Moving from the Navajo reservation to New Jersey was the biggest culture shock I’ve ever experienced at thirteen years old. Everything, not just the people and schools, but the weather and topography, was different.
I was incredibly homesick and I missed my grandmother and my home. Before enrolling in a private boarding school in Pennsylvania, I spent one semester at a New Jersey middle school and that was torture.
When my teachers and other kids found out that I was a real Native American, there were neverending questions. People would tell me that I was the first Native American that they ever met.
This was the very first time in my life that I realized the entire Native American population was approximately 1% of the entire U.S. population. (Source) On the one hand, it made me feel unique but, on the other hand, it made me feel very small.
Culture shock feels like your entire world is turned upside down and you can’t make sense of a new culture and experience. I was also at a very impressionable age, so the shock was pretty deep.
During my first month of boarding school, which was another shock, I cried myself to sleep every single night. Homesickness is a big part of leaving the reservation and your people behind. It took me a while to get over it but I eventually made some great friends and had wonderful experiences.
Final thoughts on growing up on the Navajo reservation
Growing up on the Navajo reservation is always going to be part of my life experience. Where I’m from is a part of me and it will never leave me.
Today, I’m grateful for the experiences of growing up on the Navajo reservation. I am proud of where I come from.
My grandmother passed away in 2017 and when I think about my life with her, I can feel and touch the joy of our existence on the Navajo reservation. Those memories will stay with me forever.