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Native Currents

Weaving my Navajo history

I take pride in my Navajo culture, and I choose to rediscover the fading footprints of generations before me. A big part of reconnecting with my heritage is listening to family members share stories from the past. My Navajo grandmother, Susie Yazzie, has told me how hard it was to live on the reservation when she was young. Every morning she had to go out with her brother, and eventually by herself, to herd sheep. She did not attend the first grade until she was the age of 14.

I was 7 years old when I started to learn the importance of my culture. My grandmother decided to teach me how to weave. I felt honored weaving the wool string in and out of the loom. I felt empowered because weaving was a tradition that was passed down by generations of Navajo women. The first of these women was called Spider Woman. She is said to have taught the Navajo people how to weave rugs. This tradition was passed down to me through my great-great-grandmother, Addie Kayonnie Begay; my great-aunt, Alice Sangster; and my grandmother. Before I learned to weave, I did not feel like a Native American.

Today, I am proud that I have this connection through my Ttsohnii (Big Water) clan. However, our family tradition could have easily been broken due to events beyond our control.

My great-grandfather, Knox Yazzie, married my great-grandmother, Opal Begay; together, they had five children, including my grandmother. In December of 1944, he had to enlist to fight for the United States in World War II. When he returned, the only job that he could get was working on the railroad. My great-grandmother died of tuberculosis in 1947. Because he had to travel all the time, my great-grandfather could not support five children without his wife. So he divided his children among his wife's sisters. My grandmother went to live with her aunt.

As my grandmother grew older, she had to choose between staying on the reservation and attending boarding school. Following her dreams, she chose education rather than continuing a life herding sheep. She went to boarding school in Riverside, Calif. Then she went to work in Albuquerque, N.M., and Oakland, Calif. She eventually got married and had my mother. However, my grandmother never taught my mother to weave, because she was so busy working and because she had not yet mastered the art of weaving herself.

Although my grandmother left the reservation as a young woman, she still carried her Navajo traditions with her. Later in life, she reconnected with her family back in Arizona. There, she relearned the art of weaving from her aunt Alice. That is how she was able to teach me when I was a young girl.

Today, she continues to talk to me about the Navajo ways, ceremonies and blessings, including the walk of beauty, when a girl becomes a young lady. She talks about the sacred animals and why we should avoid some of them, such as snakes and lizards. My grandmother also tells me about the ''Horn Lady,'' our Hopi ancestor who wore her hair in twin buns that looked like horns. My grandmother might think that all she is doing is reminiscing about her past and that I am not listening well, but hearing what my grandmother has to say has helped to reconnect me with my heritage.

Wars, diseases and the establishment of boarding schools forced my ancestors to make difficult choices. These events divided our families and nearly broke the circle of our tradition. Faced with limited opportunities, my grandmother made decisions that had big impacts on my future. If my grandmother had never returned to Arizona, then I probably would have never learned the Navajo art of weaving. An important part of my circle would have been broken. But she did reconnect with that tradition, and then she chose to pass it on to me.

We can all choose to discover what has happened in our families' past. If we take time to acknowledge these histories, it will help us to learn and understand more about ourselves. It will also give us a sense of what all Native Americans have experienced. Through this knowledge, we can proudly respect and maintain our cultural identities.

Learning how to weave has helped to reconstruct the breaks in my family's history. All Native Americans share a history of being separated from our lands, families and traditions; however, we have the power to reconnect missing parts of the circle. We are all like strands of wool, but we are all not necessarily woven. If we rediscover how history connects us, then we can weave ourselves into a beautiful pattern, just like a Navajo rug.

Kristina L. Adelzadeh is a member of the Totsohnii (Big Water) clan of the Navajo Nation. She was a grade 10 student at Inderkum High School in Sacramento when she entered the second annual Reconnecting the Circle National High School Essay Contest. She was among 10 students awarded a $2,500 prize.