Naat’aanii

By Kentaro Herder 

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I have a favorite place. A place where I breathe in all that is beautiful, magnificent, and golden. The air is crisp. Calmly, my lungs expand with the morning breeze that picks up the red sand. Quietly, I can feel blood coursing through my body as I watch the veins of my hometown, Kayenta, and the surrounding creeks awake from night’s rest. Gently, my heartbeat enters. Ba bum. Ba bum. Ba bum. Harmoniously, my heartbeat becomes perfectly in tune with the earth.

I am behind grandmother’s trailer, atop the high monuments. When I am here, the mixture of orange and yellow from the morning horizon paint the rocks red. I am thrown into nostalgia thinking about mornings with grandmother. I close my eyes.

Thud! Thud! Thud! I awoke to grandmother weaving her Navajo rug stitching the perfect weft. I sit down to watch her weave, beautifully and artistically. Under her breath, she sings in Navajo. To me, I was comfortable with the tone of the language. I grew along side it. I heard it in my mother’s womb. I heard my parents and grandma speak it every day. But still, to me, it was foreign. My native tongue was foreign to me. I only knew English. She only knew Navajo. Our communication was limited to hand gestures and two word phrases.

Another morning, she realized I was waiting for the school bus and next to her rug designs, she traced the letter “a” on the Navajo Times newspaper. Grandma could not write or read in English, so I decided to teach her. As I did, my mind triggered. Our difference in comprehending new knowledge in the world became a boundary. It was then; I realized not only me, but most Native Americans are exposed to the world differently, on and off the reservation. To only know our native tongue creates a barrier and we feel we cannot go beyond the reservation lines. We Native Americans are confined.

Atop the rocks, two worlds unveiled themselves. One world is my reservation. The other world is off the reservation. In the world of my reservation, things are much simpler. I have what we call a “jaan” accent. A “jaan” accent can be compared to what the other world may refer to as broken English. In the other world, I am forced to become knowledgeable about reading and writing. Transitioning in between these two worlds is difficult for most of my native people. There are only a select few who are naat’aaniis (warriors) or as the other world would say, “intellectually capable,” of being able to expand beyond the barriers of our reservation lines. Hence, Native Americans strengthen the relationship with our land we were given rather than to seek knowledge in the other world.

Native Americans have an unexplainable tie into the land we inhabit. We have our own sense of land ownership. We grew up there. We learned everything on that land the government set aside for us. We feel one with the earth, and when we die, we feel as if we are only returning what belonged to Mother Earth in the first place. To move off the land, and go into the second world, results in a broken relationship with our identity. We cannot spiritually and physically coincide.

Then that is when the second world enters our lives. With westernized civilization, we are expected to learn a trade. To pursue something that will only help us survive in the second world. We are not taught to expand our knowledge. The second world decides to reject our philosophy of life and decide we are unable to embody the intellectual caliber of a genius. It is just unheard of. It is expected we limit ourselves and go no further than our reservation lines. Except, it is on these very rocks behind my grandmother’s trailer, I am able to bring tradition and new knowledge together.

Bringing tradition and new knowledge for Native Americans is difficult. To do so, we become artists. We express our deep connection with the senses and physical world. It is through art that we are set free. There are no boundaries to how we perceive things and express it. Except for most of my people, it is difficult to even dive into the territory of another world.

I remember in high school. If I was given a writing assignment, I would panic. I realized the power a blank sheet of paper had over me. Trust me, there is nothing more intimidating than a blank sheet of paper. I would sit and try to write with sweaty palms throughout my high school career. It was not until my senior year, I asked myself why am I doing this? I have come to the answer it is to corroborate my self-discovery. Up to that moment, I was just a Navajo who was perceived to not pursue something in the second world. However, I needed to adapt and I knew the second world would have to merge with me.

Which lead to my conclusion of what writing should be. I discovered voice needs to strong. With my love/hate relationship with writing, I realize voice comes from life’s inspirations. In this spirit, when I hike the red rocks behind grandma’s trailer, I know I am free. Free to write anything that comes to my mind. There, a blank sheet of paper is far from intimidating. There, I am a writer.

Writing for me, is a little bit of my own creation. Just as a painter uses the strokes of a brush on canvas, writing is my art. Just as grandma weaves her rug, my words are intertwined to stitch the perfect paragraph. Just as a Navajo has an underlying relationship with the land, my thoughts have an underlying relationship with the keyboard. My own creation is truly a reflection of me. Only me.

Shi éí Kentaro Herder yinishyé. ‘Ádóone’é nishłínígíí ‘éí Honágháanii nishłį. Lók’aa’dine’é ‘éí báshíshchíín. Tł’iziłání ‘éí dashicheii nááná Deeshchii’nii ‘éí dashinálí.

My name is Kentaro Herder. I am of the One Who Walks Around clan, born for the Reed People clan. My maternal grandfather is of the Many Goats clan and my paternal grandfather is of the Start of the Red Streak People clan. I am a Navajo living in two worlds, each with its own spirit. In the first, I am an artist. In the second, I am a writer. I am a naat’aanii.

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3 comments

  1. / This is the fulfillment of many Prayers & Prophecies
    So Grateful I have lived to experience his Growth
    He is ALwayZ in my heart & prayers
    and Nobody pays me to say it~I do it for the LOVE of
    dis our Sacred lands, our Sacred Beings, Seen & Unseen

  2. A very nice reflection both on what it is like for an Indigenous person living in two worlds to make them work together, and for a writer to free that which resides within. Thank you for sharing.

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