Four Generation of Navajo Women

A Presentation of Issues in Bi-cultural Conflict and Understanding, Education, Development, and Values across Four Generations

The Navajo people are the largest group of Native Americans in the U.S. with the largest reservation in terms of land size. The reservation (called the Navajo Nation) now enjoys a high degree of sovereignty and is located in northeastern Arizona and flows over into Utah and New Mexico on a land mass almost the size of New England. Their traditional culture is strongly matrilineal and matriarchic in a way seldom seen in other cultures. For example, some of the women who visited Brandeis enjoy a high degree of respect in their communities, not only because of their professional careers but more so because they are women of seniority in their clan. The grandmothers are treated in their society with approximately the same respect that we treat the president of our university or a prominent religious leader. The culture is also a strongly collectivist culture in comparison to the European American, individualist culture. Their pattern of child rearing and education (when it has been controlled by the Navajos themselves) is based on a system of respect for everyone and everything that focuses on the importance of finding and then showing the importance of everyone. There are many implications of this system that was discussed, including the clashes and syntheses that have been experienced as Navajos have negotiated a life in both traditional Navajo culture and European American culture. In a presentation open to the entire Brandeis community, the group presented a panel discussion of their experiences and addressed some of these issues, followed by a question and answer period. By describing their own upbringing, the changes that have ensued over the generations, and their own educational histories, they addressed complex issues of fairness and practice in American education, as well as treatment of minority cultures, particularly Native American peoples. They talked in some classes and to student or faculty groups. In addition, they displayed some of their art and demonstrated Navajo rug weaving.

Here is a more detailed description of the participants:

1. Grandmother Dorothy Walker has the experience of a traditional Navajo education and speaks little English (and thus needed a translator). However, unlike most of her 80-something peers, she somehow escaped the boarding schools as a girl and grew up traditionally in remote hogans. She now has risen to the esteemed status of a Singer (or medicine woman), and her seniority in the Tangled People Clan means that she is consulted by hundreds of people regarding important life decisions. She is also an esteemed Navajo weaver. But as a young mother she had to watch her daughters of 5 and 7 years (Mae and Angie) forcibly hauled off in a cattle truck from their traditional childhood in Sand Springs, AZ, to a U.S. government boarding school that had cultural genocide as one of its primary curricular goals (with the intention of effectively educating young Navajos). The girls' names—Mae and Angie—were in fact assigned to them at the boarding school, and they were not allowed to speak their native language or participate in any native cultural practices or ceremonies.

2. Mae Peshlakai (whose professional life revolves around cultural practices, commerce and education for the Navajo Nation) and Angie Maloney (who earned an advanced degree and is a Navajo Nation environmental safety officer and has worked with the CDC on disease epidemics) truly have feet in both traditional and mainstream American cultures. They are weavers (in fact, Mae is a renowned master weaver having had rugs placed in the Smithsonian, the Heard, and other museums); they still maintain sheep herds; and yet they have professional careers. Mae's husband, James, who will also be our guest at Brandeis, has also been deeply involved with Navajo education and is a Navajo Singer. James and Mae are also accomplished jewelry makers. They sent their own children to conventional western schools—some quite far away from the Reservation.

3. Mae's daughter, Tina Peshlakai, now in her 30s, finished college, served in the military in Desert Storm and then acquired an advanced degree. She is director of Native Americans for Community Action in Flagstaff, placing tribal people in jobs or educational programs.

4. Tina's daughter, Shelby Peshlakai, 14 years old, is an outstanding student who has just begun attending a private high school in Colorado on a scholarship. She recently completed her traditional puberty rite, which is a joyous family celebration in traditional Navajo culture. For a young teenager, she is quite articulate.

Across these generations there have been accommodation to and then mastery of western education, and for each generation there has been a parallel education, provided by Navajo elders, in the practices and knowledge of Navajo culture. At no point in any generation has there been western schooling that has integrated or respected their indigenous American culture or practices. The divide continues today, even in schools deep within the Reservation. This tension leads to the Navajo language attrition that can be found across these generations--a loss of the Code Talker language recently celebrated as central to winning WWII in the Pacific. This cultural tension continues to lead to academic frustration and problems for most Navajo children, and, yet, we have here in this family, women who have found ways to rise above these problems and choose careers that are involved in solving them.