Joely Allen, 131 YinD
Yá’át’ééh shí eí Joely Allen yinishyé. Ákót’éego Diné asdzáán nishłį (Hello, my name is Joely Allen and I am a Navajo woman.)
It’s nine days into Níłtch’its’ósí (November) and now going on 11 months of my Peace Corps service here in Thailand. Every day that passes this month all I can think is that, “It’s Native American Heritage month”. A coarse thought immediately follows this one, “Does that matter when there’s no one else here for you to celebrate with”. I’m a member of a Native American tribe in the Southwest United States; we are called Diné or Nabeeho’ (in Navajo this translates as “the people”). I am currently the only Peace Corps Thailand volunteer with Native American heritage. It is this side of my heritage that powers my soul every day. In tough times, I use corn pollen to pray for my safety; when I’m nervous, I wear turquoise to stand taller, to speak louder; when I prepare for the worst, I roll mountain tobacco and speak a short prayer to bless my mind and body. Working for Peace Corps is making me realize just how much my heritage matters, but also opens my eyes as to why it’s been so painful to be away from home. I know by writing this article I am opening up the conversation about my culture, my heritage, and where I come from to my fellow PCVs and to anyone else who wants to engage in that conversation. As fellow volunteers do so, I challenge people to remember that my ancestors are still the forgotten, the mistreated, the recovering, and the resilient. I will not apologize for speaking out about the pain and hardship; however, I will be grateful where misunderstandings and ignorance can be reconciled.
It’s not that far into the month, but my stomach yearns to eat a Navajo taco, a roast mutton, frybread, and heck most mornings, I wish for even a spam and potato burrito. My eyes are ever searching for online quotes, pictures, and people who might give me an ounce of familiarity, and my heart is cracked open by this feeling that only now I can name as being homesick. Back home, ceremonies continue, prayers are said, and medicine is being received, and yet here I am, on the other side on the world. Do I call home and try to absolve this feeling of emptiness, or do I power through the rest of the month hoping this moment will pass? The conversation immediately plays in my head; my mom will tell me to push through; my aunts will say they believe in me; and my grandpa, he will tell me a portion of our creation story I have yet to hear. Shí k’e (my family) cares for me in all the ways they know how, but I know we’re hitting the wall on advice they can give for my lifestyle here.
Should I call another volunteer? Immediately, my mind rejects this idea. As a result of my peers not having had enough exposure to Native Americans and a lack of a Native support group, I’m usually not on the radar for diversity issues. I fear trying to seek out this type of assistance will only make it harder. I’m not saying that my peers won’t hold space for my emotions and allow me to speak, but this is different from having a direct understanding of my grief while being able to share these wounds. The atrocities against Native Americans are vast and on-going; there is no single answer or way to apologize for the historical trauma now passed onto my generation. Speaking for myself, it’s a conversation that mostly ends with me trying to console the people who listen to my sadness and don’t know enough to understand why it happened and is continually perpetuated.
“I should be fine,” I reflect. I’ve been away from home a lot; I lived for long periods at a time with my grandparents, in boarding schools, not to mention, my life in college (including my study abroad Germany). Again I think, “I should be fine.” These experiences were surely enough for me to feel like I was independent and comfortable with living by myself. I came into my service feeling fully prepared to be alone for two years because in my mind I had already gone alone for several years. “I should be fine,” yet the reality is I wasn’t prepared to be the only Navajo, to feel disconnected from my peers because of the culture and life I treasure and love. I wasn’t prepared to see the image of my people reflected onto a society so different than my own, yet be unable to share with them the things most important to me. I wasn’t prepared for my primary job to be to teach my students the language of my ancestor’s aggressor, to teach them the American life, culture, and values that were forced upon my people. My being here is an opportunity for my students to gain fresh perspectives of the world and forge ahead in their education, but I can’t help but cringe to think my community will remember me as the American instead of the Native American, the Navajo.
Grappling with the aspects of my work here in Thailand has become an everyday battle. There are moments when I have to reconsider what this job means to my students, to me, and to the indigenous people I call my brothers and sisters. This year, I’ve been able to have a deeper reflection on how unbelievably grateful I am to be Diné, to have this opportunity to be working in another country, and I’m starting to understand the pain and loneliness that has come from being so far away from home. After writing all this, I feel raw, and more confused about my place in Peace Corps. Every day, indigneous women continue to go missing, oil pipelines built across Native American reservations rupture and poison the water, the education system fails our youth, and these only add to a list of ongoing transgressions committed against indigenous peoples. Somehow, I have been instilled with the teachings and traditional ways of a beautiful culture; I have been granted a voice in this world where most speak their whole life without being heard, and I have been given the opportunity to bond with people so different than myself. Yet, the thing I fear most is living my whole life feeling sad the world will develop without every truly appreciating who we were: the ancient, the indigenous, the aboriginal. Will my descendants be as proud as I am to call myself Diné?