Patty Talahongva
Indian Country Today

When my mom turned 81 a few years ago, to celebrate, I signed her up for her first 5k.

She was eager to participate for a few reasons, it was a race to honor military veterans and her brothers had each served in different branches of the military, plus she was always admiring my finisher medals I showed her after my races. I figured she needed to earn her own medal!

That fact that she didn’t call me crazy for suggesting she complete a 5k to celebrate her birthday, sums up my mom. She’s always up for an adventure. She is my biggest supporter, and she knows what hard work it takes to accomplish your goals.

I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to share my mom, Nan Talahongva, with you and show you the shining example she’s set for me.

My mom was eight years old when she was forced to go to school and that meant she had to learn how to speak English. Hopi is my mom's first language. It was a horrible experience learning English and one that would impact her life in so many ways.

She was raised by her maternal grandparents until she was forced to go to a boarding school. After their deaths she chose to spend her summers in California working for rich White families in Brentwood. This was a program set up through the boarding school. Native students went to live and work with wealthy families who paid them to cook, clean and watch their children. She did that and on her days off she shopped at the upscale department store of Bullock’s, and enjoyed the beach.

After graduating from high school she got a job at the Grand Canyon cleaning hotel rooms. There, she met my father who was part of the Hopi dance group that danced for tourists in front of the Hopi House.

They married and had six children. She read to us kids all the time. I learned to love books and enjoyed the adventures inside.

That love of reading led me to enjoy writing. Eventually I became a journalist working in both print then television and radio.

She was an excellent potter, she’s now retired, and taught us how to make our own clay, a grueling process. Once the clay was baked in the sun, we took it inside and made Hopi pottery in a corner of our living room. There are a lot of steps to making clay and pottery, she’s going to tell me I’ve oversimplified this part. She’s correct.

We sold just about every piece of pottery and with the money she bought us school supplies, clothes and hamburgers from McDonald’s.

My mother is also a rabid Scrabble player. She loves to play, but watch out, as she always finds a way to score on the triple point squares or use all of her letters to score bonus points. She beats me on a regular basis but will always offer to look at my letters to help me find a word to play! I may be a journalist, but she’s the real word warrior.

It’s our custom to tell Hopi stories in the winter. Since my mother was raised by her grandparents, she knows many old stories and songs. Some of my favorite memories are of us sitting around the table with a pile of pinon nuts, coffee and kool-aid to eat as we listened to her.

When we went home to our reservation for ceremonies she would go find a family of tourists and bring them into our home for a meal. Back then there were no restaurants, plus it’s the Hopi way to feed your guests. If we were traveling she would pack bologna, bread, mustard, lettuce and chips, and we would eat our lunch at a rest stop. Even then, she would offer a sandwich to other people also taking a break from driving.

When I was in elementary school my mom started working as a teacher’s aide. She had a special ability to relate to the “troubled kids” and was assigned to help tutor them. She has told me she related to them because she too struggled with learning. She loved her job and enjoyed seeing those students blossom with her personal attention.

My father died after my freshman year of high school and my mom made the remarkable decision to go back to college. Prior to that she had briefly attended Haskell, now Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.

In my junior year of high school my mother enrolled at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. She was in her early 40s and a single mother with three kids still in elementary school, the rest of us were a little older and a little more independent.

Ironically, my mom decided to major in English. She became an English teacher. She had the support of the teachers she worked with who told her she had what it takes to be a great educator.

Another ironic twist, she needed tutoring and was assigned a young man from Japan to help her with her English classes. Norito became a part of our family as we all laughed at the oddity of a Japanese student teaching a Hopi the intricacies of the English language.

Years later she traveled to Japan twice to visit Norito and his family. She even toyed with the idea of moving to Japan to teach English.

My mother graduated from college with a dual degree in English and Art History. She went home to help her people, like so many Native college students are encouraged to do. She taught Hopis, Navajos, and Apaches and students from other tribes throughout her career.

In an effort to continue to better herself, my mom decided to get her master’s degree. That journey took her overseas to Oxford University for two summers where she thrived, and enjoyed High Tea in the afternoons.

She made the most of those trips by also visiting Italy and Ireland.

My mom made friends with one of the chefs at the dorm where she stayed and told him of her plan to make Indian tacos for her classmates. He allowed her to use the kitchen to cook and marveled at the fact that she used her hands as measuring cups. Oh, she also brought her own ingredients to make the dough. I wish I had a photo of her as the chef insisted she wear a chef’s hat while frying the dough.

Also during her master’s program, when my mom studied at Ball State University in Indiana, she came home with t-shirts that read, “Ball U!”

I’ve sat with her in our village and watched as former students came up and thanked her for teaching them. They tell her what and how they’re doing. I’m amazed at how she can remember them after all these years.

She’s shared funny stories about various students and some heartbreaking stories too. She relates to so many of them.

With the absence of our father, she took on that role as well. Years ago we started sending her cards on both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day because she was both to us children.

She is the matriarch of our family. The mother of six, grandmother to ten and great-grandmother to 11. We all go about our day with the constant prayers she says for us, to do our best, be good people and sit up straight.

She’s now retired and, before the pandemic, was still winning Scrabble games at the senior center. She once complained that some women would cry when she beat them. I cautioned her to play nice because I didn’t want her to get kicked out of the senior center! We laughed.

This Mother’s Day we’re going to make her breakfast and maybe play some Scrabble. Happy Mother’s Day, mom! 

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