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A Memorial for the Warrior Spirit: Building a future

By Oliver Baahozho Whaley

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, March 9 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Photo by Bret Webster titled 'Navajo Skies.'

Bret Webster, Deseret News Archives

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History is multi-perspective. That is why I'm passionate about Utah SJR1, a joint resolution that calls on the federal government to create a museum recognizing wrongs committed against American Indians. Such a museum will complement the existing National Museum of the American Indian that is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

I don’t believe that constructing a new museum will fix the tough issues that indigenous communities face, but I do believe it’s time America recognizes and faces a dark part of its history. That history should be told from the right perspective.

As a child in grade school, I learned from textbooks that the Navajos were hunters, gatherers and farmers.

I never shared this perspective. I always saw and felt otherwise.

My mother was raised in what many would deem as the worst of circumstances, but in soaring to the heights of success, she has been more than just a mere survivor. She is a warrior.

I myself have also garnered strength from my Navajo heritage. I believe it’s a warrior-spirit that motivates me to achieve success. I have earned a bachelor’s degree, soon an MPA degree, and have been accepted into law school.

In reading Raymond Friday Locke’s “Book of the Navajo,” a very detailed account of the Navajo people, one will learn that the Navajos were indeed great warriors, referred to by the Hopis as the “Skull Crushers.” One will also learn about a warrior society that was self-reliant, strong and courageous.

If one were to keep reading, one would learn about the U.S. invasion of Navajo life, when Navajos were rounded up and confined on their present day reservation. One would learn about how Navajo children were taken from their homes to attend boarding schools, and how those same children were, in the name of assimilation, punished for speaking Navajo and taught to forget their cultural traditions.

Locke’s book details an account of a Navajo man who came to complain to local U.S. government officials about his daughter who had just returned home from boarding school. “She walks around with her head down and won’t look another person in the eye as if she is ashamed of who she is,” the man says. “A Navajo can look any man in the eye, what have you done to her?”

Like a disease, a cycle of dependency now pervades Navajo culture. It destroys individuals and families alike. My mother’s grandfather, my great-grandfather, was an alcoholic. My mother’s father, my grandfather, was an alcoholic. Today, many of my mother’s siblings also struggle with alcoholism.

I bring this up not to demand restitution of past injustices, but simply as a call to recognize the inter-generational trauma that these historical events created and their effect on following generations. SJR1 is the right step for government to take to promote healing.

The rest is — and should be — left to ourselves.

Indian reservations today are often seen as areas of mockery and repugnance, but to us they have become sacred dwellings that represent strength, family, culture, tradition and refuge. I believe, as the famous Navajo Headman Manuelito told his children, education is the ladder we must climb. For that to happen, acclimation to the rest of the world is necessary, but it can be done while still maintaining a distinct self-identity and embracing the inherent warrior qualities of our ancestors.

I know the day will come when indigenous nations will push the bounds of tribal sovereignty and climb atop the ladder of self-reliance once again. But it will only happen as we break free from government servitude and take destiny into our own hands.

Oliver Baahozho Whaley is a Navajo from the small Indian reservation town of Kayenta, AZ. He is getting an MPA from Southern Utah University and is interning with Alliance for a Better Utah. He has been accepted to the BYU Law School for fall 2014.

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