Reconciling the past, real conflicts of an Urban Indian

I often feel that I’m stuck between two worlds and two juxtaposing parts of myself. In my heart, I am a kid from the Navajo reservation. In my daily and present life, I am a woman that has built a career as an attorney in a larger city away from the reservation. Reconciling the past is not easy.

In order to build my career and live the life I’m in today, I’ve had to sacrifice a lot with my family, my culture, and the reservation life I grew up in. At fourteen years old, I moved across the country to go to a private boarding school in Pennsylvania. This was monumental for me.

Although I would go back to the reservation for some of my breaks, I could tell that I was already changing and slowly losing touch with my reservation life, my relatives, and my culture. This was exacerbated even more when I moved across the country again to California for my undergraduate years.

While I obtained a wonderful, top-notch education in California, I was also introduced to sex, marijuana, drinking, and partying in large cities. I’m not proud that I was lured into that world of negative choices and negative consequences, but that’s what happened. Reconciling the past and moving beyond it requires the utmost honesty.

Living in two worlds

I am reminded every single day of who I am and where I come from. When I look in the mirror, I see a Navajo woman. I’m learning to love the Navajo woman I see in the mirror and to accept her for all that she is.

To live in two worlds is to have constant heartache. I am here, but should I be there? But when I am there at home, I no longer have that connection, that spark. Where should I be?

I don’t like having a title, but if I were to have one, it would be ‘Urban Indian.” The accepted definition of an Urban Indian is a tribal member living off federally recognized tribal lands in urban areas. (Source)

I conquered urban city life and got a mainstream education, to the detriment of losing my tribal culture. But did I ever really make that choice? Or was it made for me? I’m at a place where I feel like a foreigner in both worlds. I’m not truly at ease with any of my surroundings, no matter where I go. Or is this unease really within myself?

In thinking about and reconciling the past, I realized that I’ve been dealing with and shouldering a lot more than I ever realized.

Cultural expectations

reconciling the past

Sometimes I think that I am a black sheep. When I was growing up, I remember despising the Navajo cultural expectations. I wasn’t one to be told what to do, even if I knew it was the right thing to do. Later on in life, as I became an adult, cultural expectations continued to haunt me.

The Navajo culture is a very strong matriarchal one. Grandmothers and mothers reign supreme, even when a child grows up and starts to have a family of their own.

As I was maturing and living life off the reservation and away from my culture, I couldn’t help but start to adopt other values and systems of belief. Needless to say, these clashed greatly with my Navajo traditions and what my family expected of me.

Living with others’ expectations is hard, especially when it originates in cultural beliefs and values. It’s not just one person that you have to consider. It’s living with the expectations of Navajo parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, distant relatives, or any other Navajo who may recognize you as kin.

I am a black sheep. I still don’t like being told what to do as an adult. When Navajo matriarchal figures tell me what to do or what I should be doing, I sometimes scorn, I sometimes resent, I sometimes disagree. 

Do you have the right to pick and choose parts of your culture and what you’re going to believe and not believe? These are the tumults of an Urban Indian.

Living with cultural regret and shame

Unfortunately, in order to succeed and maintain my career as an attorney, I gave up parts of my culture along the way. Did it have to be that way? Is it possible to have both?

When I look at my life’s path in relation to my family, I can see that my journey was influenced by decisions made long before I was born. I look at my great-grandmother’s life in relation to mine. She was born in 1921 and went to an Indian boarding school off the reservation. Whether or not that was her choice, she eventually decided to value education, a career, and hard work.

The decision to choose and uphold those values trickled down through the generations and influenced me on the path to becoming an attorney.

Somewhere along that generational familial path, there was a decision not to teach the next generation the Navajo language. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision or if it was something that just happened, but my mother and her sisters don’t speak fluent Navajo. Consequently, I did not grow up speaking Navajo and do not know the language.

The elements of cultural regret and shame come with the burden of feeling like I should know more or I should have done more to increase my cultural knowledge. These feelings became more pronounced when I had my daughter.

As a parent, it becomes my responsibility to teach my children about who they are, where they come from, and the world around them. How do I do that when I don’t know the full story? When you are an Urban Indian, cultural regret and shame are real.

Reconciling the past

I wanted to write a post about the internal conflicts of an Urban Indian because I know how heavy these conflicts can weigh on one’s sense of self and well-being.

My husband and I had a small BBQ over the summer and we invited some close friends and my siblings. One of my brothers can be really insensitive and has this entitlement to say whatever he wants without thinking it through. 

During our meal, we were talking about certain taboos of the Navajo culture. Mid-conversation, my brother suddenly shifts the subject to how upset he is with me for not teaching my daughter how to speak Navajo. It wasn’t lost on him or me that we grew up not speaking Navajo and he was well aware that I don’t speak it now.

So, I don’t know if he did it to embarrass me or to get a reaction out of me. I’m not a therapist at all, but could he have been projecting his own cultural regret and shame? Yes, it would be wonderful if we all spoke Navajo, but the decision to learn or not to learn the language as children was made for us.

In reconciling the past, we make attempts to resolve all of the internal conflicts within us. The conflicts of an Urban Indian can be pretty heavy. A great way to start is to have the awareness that there is a conflict in the first place.

When things are bothering me, I usually write about it, like I am doing in this post. Other times, I will meditate, ponder, and work through my feelings. It might also be a good idea to talk to someone about it. Thank you for reading.

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