Greetings from Window Rock, Arizona—the governmental center of the Navajo Nation. The reservation is huge here—almost the size of West Virginia (!). And frankly: it's been a bit of a tough week (the end of the week being markedly better than the beginning of the week).
I came into Arizona from Utah and once I entered the Navajo reservation, my cell phone service was rather nonexistent for a couple hours (luckily here in Window Rock, it is working okay). Driving around that night, I started to slightly panic when I realized that my GPS had stopped working—I wasn't entirely sure if I was heading in the right direction. I was nervous of being lost because the reservation is so huge (there are clusters of town-like centers like Window Rock), but most of the reservation on is beautiful, sprawling Southwest desert land:
But I had an idea: I would take a snapshot of the directions on my browser whenever I had a glimmer of service. It involved a lot of fake outs, but eventually I was able to pull over under a measly bar of service, take the snapshot of the directions and be on my way. Whew! Otherwise, I would have truly been lost—no stoplights, no streetlights, no idea of where I was.
Then, I headed to the trailer where I was supposed to stay in Fort Defiance, about 6 miles away from the legal office in Window Rock. I wish I had taken a photo of it, but I thought I was going to be staying longer (I only stayed there a night). The trailer was completely cleaned out, with only a lamp, mattress, and box spring. "It'll do!" I told myself. As I was falling asleep that night, I did hear weird noises—pattering around and scraping.
Turns out that there was a mice infestation in the trailer and I needed to relocate! So, off I went to make my temporary home at the DNA Legal Office—and as you know, I am no stranger to crashing out at the office.
Lots of curveballs thrown in during those first few days. The kicker was that there were two heavy snows within the last handful of days—I had left northern Montana trying to get to a warmer climate so that my car would be better equipped to handle the roads. Ahh, life is certainly what happens when we are making other plans...
And this is my first experience living on the reservation—when I was working with the Blackfeet tribe, I was living in Cut Bank—a border town on the eastern side. This time I am living in Window Rock on the res. I'm very glad to be here.
One of my first days working here, in addition to all of the logistical snafus mentioned above, I spent a good chunk of the day at the Navajo judiciary. That day, in and out of the building, I encountered rather intense interrogation about my racial background and it left me feeling drained, poked, and prodded at. I received questions such as:
"Are you Navajo?"
"Are you white?"
"Is your mother English?"
"What are you?"
"I would have never guessed that you were half Oriental. (<cringe>) I thought you were white."
Similar to my experience on the Blackfeet res, there doesn't appear to be many people who identify as Asian here.
And since this is a good forum for me to expand upon my lens when I discuss these issues, here goes—this has been weighing on me these last handful of days and I want to share. First, I share these experiences because I think after going through what can be a difficult/marginalizing/draining experience due to race or other -isms—or other social systems/structures/customs, etc.—it alleviates my sense of being spotlighted/alone.
Also, I do not share these stories to elicit anyone's sympathy—I do not want it. Instead, I want your fierce allyship: creating space for others' emotional energy, listening, acting in solidarity, etc. I am proud of who I am, where I come from, and of my identities. Also, there is the full recognition on my part that my feelings coexist with racial/systemic issues and -isms that are going on/off the reservation, cultural norms, and so on. It's alllll existing together—not an either/or type of situation.
I will go all in, and I bring the following up in the spirit of constructive dialogue since these perspectives will continue to be shared throughout the duration of this project. So, when I had posted the above story on social media, some comments were made that were surely well-intended but were either along the lines of:
1) explaining to me why they thought the situation occurred (I was there myself and understand the general structural/systemic dynamics at play, so no need to go into explanation mode—it's actually quite condescending);
2) suggesting a different way for me to look at it/how I should feel or look at the situation (my feelings are mine & mine alone) and/or
3) comments that felt more sympathetic as opposed to being rooted in allyship.
It's also a good reminder for all of us to check our privilege.
One of my social justice comrades and friends once remarked that privilege is like a blind spot—and it can come up even in the most well-intended of conversations/places. We all have varying forms of privilege.
It's important to me that I have conversations with allies about my perspective to create space for further understanding, which is what I tried to do here with a few folks. Although it was admittedly more tiring to do, I'm glad I did because I wholeheartedly feel that direct communication is the cornerstone to building change & understanding. And both parties need to be able to meet halfway.
And thank you to those who responded with love and open space from some of these constructive conversations. To illustrate the need to sometimes be checked, I'll vulnerably share a story of my own where I made an unintentional mistake and gratefully had someone check me on it:
During a recent job I held, I had said something to the effect of "yes, let's have a pow-wow on it"—completely oblivious that using the word "pow-wow" could be construed as offensive (even typing this out now, I am cringing). My co-worker gently pulled me aside and told me that this particular use of the word could be deemed offensive as it is a sacred gathering. It didn't occur to me that I was appropriating the use of that word when I had said it.
In that instant moment right after, I felt embarrassed/my defense mechanism kicking in but I was able to take a step back and check myself. I knew this co-worker had nothing but good intentions and she had worked with indigenous communities for a long time. I felt embarrassed at my ignorance, but we all make mistakes—and I learned something because she checked me on my use on that word. Without it, I wouldn't have thought to change that behavior and risk unintentionally offending someone.
So—thank you for reading the above discussion on this and for supporting & trusting me. As I make my way across the country during the rest of 2016, I think it's important to articulate what lens I am sharing these experiences through. I want to do all I can to deepen as much understanding as possible about where I'm coming from and foster fierce allyship with you all—while taking further action towards issues that are facing our impacted communities.
Otherwise, the last few days have been much better than the first few days of the week. I am really enjoying my coworkers at DNA Legal Services, where I am working in Window Rock—and I had some really nice exchanges at the laundromat across the street on Sunday. It's the main place where a number of people who live on this part of the reservation do their laundry. I learned a lot about living on the res, how the Bureau of Indian Affairs interacts with the tribe here, the nearby Hopi tribe, and much more. One of my new friends told me she might come to visit me at the legal office this week—I really hope she does.
And I am getting ready for a pro se (self-representation) clinic tomorrow for clients coming in who need help on various legal issues. So, I will sign off here for tonight—a sincere thank you for the space to boldly, vulnerably, and fiercely share—I am so looking forward to this upcoming year where we are going to build this change together! Much love to you all and holding you all in my thoughts.