Image: Navajo Woman Weaving, Navajo Reservation, Arizona 1985. Sue Bennett, Photographer
I walked into my living room a while back and saw my nephew’s sons (whom I call grandsons and they call me grandma) using my late mother’s Navajo spindle and batten as swords, chasing and chasing each other around the room. I stopped them both and said, “These were your Grandma Daisy’s weaving tools, and now they are mine to take care of. They are not swords but are tools for weaving rugs.” I brought out several rugs that their great-grandmother had woven and showed them how the tools were utilized in the weaving process. And now, on occasion, I will hear them tell their cousins, “These were Grandma Daisy’s but now they are Grandma Brenda’s. She is supposed to take care of them.” A small, and to some, a trivial moment, but to me it is a strand tightened between generations that offers a brief glimpse into responsibility.
This story holds many meanings for me. I was freely given my mother’s weaving tools. I didn’t steal, break promises, fight, or argue to obtain them. They were gifted to me. I am not the owner. I am the caretaker. Because there is no shame in how I received these tools, I can tell my grandchildren the truth of how they came to be my responsibility without hedging or covering up. But if by chance, I did obtain them by force or manipulation, as often happens in the world, would it be my duty to tell the truth? And if I didn’t tell them the truth, would one of my siblings tell them the truth?
And so on this day, October 12, which is traditionally recognized as Columbus Day and used to celebrate his “discovery” of America, I want to issue an invitation that is more in line with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which many states and cities, including Salt Lake, choose to celebrate. I ask that we look back and consider simple truths that clarify who are the stewards of the land on which we work, build, and play. How can we assume our stewardships in a more respectful and careful manner?
Here are three simple truth-tellings that I hope our children understand about the lands we occupy:
- Recognize what is truth and what is myth about Christopher Columbus. For a variety of social and political reasons, we have honored a man who for some symbolizes exploration and honor, yet for others represents colonial oppression and genocide. I ask, how can a land inhabited by 90-112 million people be “discovered?” And if discovery is only valid when done by a European, then Lief Erikson beat him to North America by 500 years. For Indigenous people, celebrating Columbus is akin to celebrating the Trail of Tears or the Long Walk, two tragic events in Native American history where our lands were forcibly taken from us.
- Understand that the concept of land “ownership” is a white construct, not an Indigenous one. The land in Utah was occupied by a variety of Native peoples, most of whom were nomadic which caused further confusion about land ownership. For example, the Utes spent summers in the mountains, where water and food were plentiful, then wintered by rivers in Provo and Duchesne. So a settler might find their winter camp unoccupied, erroneously assume no one lived there, and move into the camp. Native people saw the land as a gift that gave them life; they in turn tended the land, building a symbiotic relationship that continued with their posterity. Just as I am the steward of my mother’s weaving tools and will one day pass them to my daughter, so too the land was gifted to the next generation.
- Know that the lands that supports your home, work, church, and schools were once under the care and stewardship of one or more of Utah’s 8 recognized tribes: Confederated Tribes of Goshute, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation, Skull Valley Band of Goshute, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Navajo Nation.
Reflect on these truths and consider: how can you honor the land on which you reside? How can you be a good steward of the beautiful state in which you live? What can you give back to the land that has so freely offered its blessings to you?
To pay this respect, and bring awareness to the history, many people have begun offering a verbal or written “Land Acknowledgement.” This simple yet profound act asks each of us to recognize previous stewards of the land on which we now reside and provides an opportunity to teach our children to honor the sacred nature of the land. The National Museum of the American Indian uses this phrasing:
“We gratefully acknowledge the Native peoples on whose ancestral homelands we gather, as well as the diverse and vibrant Native communities who make their home here today.”
A white colleague of mine has this at the end of his emails: “BYU sits on the traditional homelands of the Ute, Paiute and Shoshone peoples.” Every time we communicate via email, I feel seen. I urge you to try some version of honoring the land and it’s preceding inhabitants in whatever way feels authentic.
I ask you to explore the truths presented here, and see how you can be part of a conversation that does not deny the lived experience of millions of Native people. Take a moment to google your location and learn the name of the tribe(s) who originally inhabited the land where you live. And think of my grandsons. Ignorance can be a weapon, but by giving information and sharing the stories, we move towards respect and reconciliation.
Brenda Beyal, a Navajo/Diné wife, mother, and teacher, resides in Mapleton, Utah. She leads the Native American Curriculum Initiative for the BYU ARTS Partnership, established in partnership with the Utah Division of Arts and Museums. The Initiative centers on the Native voice to develop culturally responsive professional development with supporting materials and resources including a series of lesson plans that bear the seal of collaborating Utah Native American tribes.
Heather Sundahl is a freelance writer and editor who works for the BYU ARTS Partnership, the Utah Women & Leadership Project, and Mormon Women for Ethical Government, bringing diverse experience and perspectives to educational conversations. Recently moved from Boston, she lives in Provo, Utah with her husband, children, and cats.