‘Pack your bags.’
This has been a heck of a year – understatement of all time.
That was back in December. I had the opportunity to serve the citizens of Navajo Nation in a real and meaningful way.
I have seen a lot as a respiratory therapist in a global pandemic. Grief, relief, joy and everything in between.
I have been back home for some time now. Writing about my experiences while respecting the privacy of others and respecting another culture is no easy feat.
In The Beginning…
When I landed in New Mexico I didn’t know exactly where I would end up. Eventually we made our way to Gallup, New Mexico – a small town on the edge of both the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation, and Zuni Nation.
We were briefed before we landed. The highlights included:
- cultural norms
- cultural taboos
- every family has lost at least one family member to Covid
- 30% of homes do not have running water
- 30% of homes to not have electricity
Living in the area gave me insight that I couldn’t have otherwise learned from a textbook or a formal briefing. This experience has been valuable to me, a peek into another culture as an outsider. The pandemic restrictions didn’t allow me to immerse myself so I took every opportunity to observe what I could and to ask as many questions as was polite and feasible.
The pride in the Native American culture and history is very real but fragile. With each generation, less children are learning the language and the old ways. The culture and language is being kept alive by the most devoted through pow wow’s, social media (see a list below), traditional elders and self-study.
I also learned some subtleties that made an impression on me. First, the Navajo and Zuni have incredible mental strength yet show a stoic face. Except for subdued laughter, it was difficult to read emotion in the locals. Their expressions and gestures have a quiet elegance and don’t necessarily reveal true feelings. Making continuous eye contact while talking is not the norm either. In fact, it’s intimidating.
Second, the cuisine is traditional, with few ingredients, simple to make and delicious in its simplicity and reverence for lamb. Sheep were obtained by the Native American’s through the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century. This animal has been a source of fiber for weaving and meat for sustenance. Sheep is sacred to the culture and is revered in the cuisine. A menu at Diné Grill, for example, reveals sandwich and soup options. No need to ask if they are made with chicken, pork or beef. It is all lamb.
Diné (pronounced din-ay) is Navajo for Navajo people, literally meaning ‘The People’. It doesn’t mean ‘to eat’,
Third, the challenges Native Americans face on a daily and generational basis is extremely complex. Negatively affected by conquests, colonialism, racism and a new federal government, generations of natives have been severely oppressed. Efforts to eradicate the language, culture and even their revered food sources, have left a demoralized and disadvantaged culture that was here long before outsiders discovered this beautiful paradise.
Am I completely enlightened and an expert on how to solve ‘The Indian Problem’? No, I still consider myself under-educated on our own history and can never see clearly through the native lens, a lens I am not privy to.
Fortunately, Native Americans are paving the way for unity and justice. The next generation of leadership will be the beacon to the future generations.
Food For Love is a new annual concert given online the day before Valentines Day to raise money for New Mexico’s food pantries. The Community Pantry is the local food pantry for Gallup. The need is great, consider supporting these two amazing organizations.
"Those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs."
- Frank Harte
REAL LIFE VS. ONLINE LIFE
I was fortunate to have accommodations with a kitchen. I love playing with food and exploring local cuisine. What this looked like in a hotel room was sourcing local ingredients to make local recipes. A Gallup co-worker invited me into two Facebook groups for New Mexican cuisine where I could soak up the local culinary culture and dive right in. I learned to make Green Chile Stew, a New Mexican favorite.
When I wasn’t working in the local hospital, I kept myself busy with two of my favorite hobbies, cooking and taking pictures. We had a Morale Welfare Recreation team that also kept us busy when we weren’t busy so that we wouldn’t feel isolated while we were isolated, a tall feat.
The Most Patriotic small Town In America
Gallup has one of the highest number of veterans per capita, making it the self-proclaimed, Most Patriotic Small Town in America.
Native American Culture
Below are some links to social media and websites I found helpful in my quest to learn more.
PATRICK IS NAVAJO – A lighthearted and entertaining way to learn more about Navajo and non-Navajo.
THE NAVAJO NATION IN 9 MINUTES – A very quick glimpse.
CANYON DE CHELLY – A sacred place.
HOOP DANCE CREATIVE – A traditional dance that tells stories through dance and hoops.
NEW MEXICO TRUE – New Mexico in pictures.
NAVAJO MEME STASH – An entertaining way to immerse yourself.
NATIVE AMERICANS PROUD – A different perspective than you are probably used to.
Gallup, New Mexico is off of the Historic Route 66 which was commissioned in 1926 into the Interstate Highway System. Originally running from Santa Monica California to Chicago, Illinois, this route is a virtual time-capsule of kitschy Americana.
ANTHONY’S A TASTE OF THE SOUTHWEST – CLASSIC New Mexican FARE.
DINE GRILL – TRADITIONAL NAVAJO FARE.