Journey to the Four Corners with Bioneers Indigeneity Program,
DAY 5, INTERCULTURAL GATHERING
Alexis Bunten, Bioneers Indigeneity Program
This blog series is to share our week-long journey to the Four Corners region to experience first-hand amazing work undertaken by our partners with from the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Conversations Group, and inspired by our collective efforts to protect the Rights of Nature.
Anything said in this blog series reflects my personal interpretations of the 2017 Kinship Journey to the Four Corners, and does not reflect Bioneers Collective Heritage Institute, or the opinions of the wonderful people I traveled with.
I started feeling the “kinship” aspect of the trip by Day 3, when we all shared the beautiful Native foods meal catered by the brilliant Somana Tootsie. (Read all about Day 1 and Day 2 and Day 4 here.) There was just something about sharing the four corners experience together with other open-hearted people that ignited a subtle shift. People who had once been strangers now began to feel like a beloved auntie, uncle, brother or sister.
A concept widely taught in the social sciences is “liminality” or the idea of that special space outside of regular everyday experience. Popularized by Victor Turner, the experience of liminality is central to human existence. We wouldn’t be able to exist without it. Our souls would wither and die away, and life would be pointless. We achieve liminality through ritual. The opening of the ceremony, with the intent, words and actions we bring to it takes us into and back out of that liminal space, that is both physical and metaphysical.
By Day 5, we were fully into the liminality of the Kinship journey. Together, we witnessed the birthplace of the Hopi at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We set foot in the cliff dwellings of the ancestors whose dry farming techniques and prayers were still being kept alive to this day by Rosemary Williams, who shared her precious corn pollen with us, the essence of plateau life, used in ceremony and prayer. We experienced the warmth of Ruby’s Hopi hearth, in the home she inherited from her grandmother. By being on the land together, with the right attitude, we were embraced by our hosts, all members of the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Conversations Group.
CPIC and Bioneers Indigeneity co-sponsored a workshop to share a little more about how we translate the lessons of Navajo and Hopi, our homelands, and the ancestral territories of the Ohlone whose land Bioneers San Francisco headquarters are based. The purpose of the workshop was to showcase the amazing things that can happen when we come together in intertribal, and intercultural gatherings like those hosted by CPIC and the annual Bioneers Conference.
I opened up the workshop with a presentation about the Native Youth Leadership Program (NYLP) that I manage for Bioneers. When I joined the Bioneers team, the NYLP was in its 5th year, and had grown from a cohort of 4 Native youth participants to the largest Native youth contingency to ever participate in Bioneers as well as the most comprehensive programming by and for Native youth. With direction from Cara Romero and help from my two amazing interns, we provided 115 youth representing 44 tribes with cultural arts and programming to support cultural expression and empowerment. Among those were a group who drove all the way from Arizona and camped nearby the conference for the second year in a row, the Rez Refuge group led by Alvin Dahozy.
After the excitement of the annual Bioneers conference began to dissipate, we searched for a way to keep the lessons we learned at the Bioneers Indigenous forum alive for our youth through year-round curriculum, and the Intercultural Conversations project was born. Inspired by a non-Native Bioneer who told us that learning about traditional ecological knowledge and social justice issues in Indian Country opened her eyes to new ways to fight for human rights and a sustainable healthy planet, we invited two Native and two non-Native youth groups to engaged in monthly conversations around the critical issues presented in the Bioneers Indigenous Forum throughout the spring of 2017. The youth would come together in person at the Fall 2017 Bioneers Conference. Alvin Dahozy and Rez Refuge were invited to be one of those groups. The Navajo youth were a bit quiet at first, but we acknowledged that they were following a cultural protocol to listen before talking as a sign of respect. But, when invited to speak in the talking circle format, the Rez Refuge youth shared profound observations.
We all learned so much from the Rez Refuge youth, and I enjoyed collaborating with Alvin, so I followed by intuition and invited him to join our Kinship trip for the weekend. After I presented by Native youth programming, I pulled Alvin aside and whispered in his ear, “do you think you can say a few words about what you do at Rez Refuge and how you came to join us at Bioneers?” Alvin was up for the challenge, (when you come from an oral culture, you learn to do a lot of public storytelling). Alvin shared how Rez Refuge really has become a place of regeneration for Navajo youth disconnected from the traditional way of life.
As Alvin told the story of Rez Refuge in the Gathering Workshop that morning, we were all profoundly moved by how this humble but mighty organization started with an abandoned old house to now serve as a hub for safe and healthy, culture-promoting activities. In addition to providing youth with a place to hang out, do homework, and get away from negative influences. More recently, Rez Refuge has established a garden the youth tend, and takes its members on week-long back country back packing trips. Alvin also talked about how impactful Bioneers has been for his youth, who become exposed to new ideas they want to take back home to the reservation with them, who get to put their feet in the ocean for the first time, and most importantly, who come to realize how important their culture back at home is for them.
Don’t believe me? Check out this amazing testimonial from Josiah Hubbard, a Rez Refuge youth who joined us at Bioneers last year.
We passed the talking stick to Deon Ben, our host with CPIC to lead the rest of the morning’s presentation, and to begin to share with us the direction of the CPIC’s gathering process for restoring and revitalizing the Four Corners region through the power of intertribal collaboration. “Deon reminded us of the four intertwined foci of the CPIC gatherings, 1. Language and Culture, 2. Water, 3. Health, and 4. Sacred Sites. The partnership that Bioneers has made with CPIC leading up to this juncture, has brought us down a shared path,” Deon explained, “a corn pollen path that we are on right now.” More things were said that I cannot blog about for cultural sensitivity reasons.
Each of the CPIC Gathering members spoke about their efforts towards these goals, and how they came to the gathering, sharing cultural lessons as they spoke. In her soft spoken, but strong way, Carletta Toulousi talked about her Havasupai community’s determination to stay in their village a the bottom of the Grand Canyon, while fighting mining and other dangerous encroachment. Despite all obstacles, she was determined to earn her college degree so she could fight for her tribe’s rights to safe, clean water in their ancestral homeland.
Edward Willie told the story of how he was brought up by his grandfather the old way, in the traditional Hogan, kept home to learn the traditional teachings, while his siblings went to American school. Though he experienced debilitating shame for being an “uneducated” Indian living in the old ways as a young boy, this valuable training served as the foundation for Edward’s scholarly and TEK-based environmental pursuits as an adult. Just like Carletta told us, Edward is ready to fight the system while empowering the Navajo people through his brilliant PhD work exploring how the teachings embedded in Navajo sand paintings can be used to heal Mother Earth today.
Sunny Dooley explained why she gave up her fancy job and cushy life over twenty years ago to go back to living in a Hogan, with no electricity or running water, on her family’s homeland to become a full time culture-bearer through storytelling, hinting at delights to come later in the kinship journey. “Who is brave enough to do that?” I thought to myself. I knew deep down that Sunny was keeping those stories for the sake of all humanity.
The whole group was ready to receive what they heard that morning. The message came through. We can work on our own, following the teachings that have been passed on to each of us in different ways. But, when we put together the knowledge and experience of Alvin, Carletta, Edward, Sunny, and the other gathering members not present in the room that morning, incredible things can be accomplished.
After the workshop, we had a free afternoon. One group went in a van led by Indigeneity Program Director, Cara Romero, back to the Hopi Mesas to see social dances, which are the only Hopi dances open to the public. They had an incredible experience witnessing how the dance brings the rain back to the Meas, and came back late that night with Ruby. Another group took a hike up Oak Creek with me.
Before traveling to Northern Arizona myself, I had the impression that the state was hot and desert-like. I had no idea that Sedona is like an oasis, fed by Oak Creek, who offers year round water and awesome swimming holes throughout Sedona.
Oak Creek Trail is particularly stunning. A riparion meadow flanked by massive sheer red rock cliffs gives way to a narrow canyon trail that criss-crosses the river for ten miles in and back. Sometimes the trail follows the middle of a narrow canyon, bringing to mind images of the canyons leading to Petra or the “classic four corners” experience. Other times, the trail veers away from the creek to meander alongside pine forests, and a rich fern underbrush that reminded me of my more northern upbringing. Butterflies are everywhere, fluttering about like living flowers. In addition to butterflies, I spotted a hawk, a snake, crows, and several types of songbirds.
A few of our group stayed back and relaxed at our hotel. Most of us gathered back together that evening for a lovely, relaxed, no-agenda dinner with local friends joining us. The conversation was a great end to a wonderful day.