Navajo, Blackfeet, Shoshone-Bannock
My grandma gave me the middle name Nezbah which means “she who brings happiness” and boy, has my name been put to the test lately. For the past year and a half, I have had the privilege of living in Tamaki Makarau, Aotearoa (Auckland) New Zealand.
I came to Aotearoa to pursue a master’s degree in human rights in February of 2020, just as the world began to see signs of an emerging virus, COVID-19.
I prepared for my international departure as I had many times before. I gathered with my family to be sent off in a good way with their blessing. I remember confidently reassuring my family, “it’s only for a few months and I’ll be back by December or maybe January of 2021 at the latest,” completely unaware of the changes that were soon to come worldwide.
Upon landing in Aotearoa, I got myself settled into my new home and familiarized myself with my new environment. One of the first things I do when I arrive somewhere new is check out my surroundings. My grandma always tells me, in Navajo, to stay aware of my environment. Within two weeks, I began to feel comfortable and make friends with my new flatmates. Our building was comprised of young Indigenous women who identified as Māori, Cook Island, Niuean, Malaysian, Iranian.
We were all seemingly setting into a new school year and weekly family dinners with kapa haka practice when we were suddenly propelled into our first national alert level 4 lockdown.
The first lockdown was incredibly challenging. I was adjusting to life as a graduate student, the usual bouts of homesickness and the added uncertainty and stress of living during a global pandemic. I was ready to throw in the towel and go home but my non-refundable school fees had other plans. So, I decided to recommit to completing my program and stay put until I finished, a decision that was made mainly out of stubbornness.
A main factor for me in pursuing a graduate program in Aotearoa was the possibility to connect with other Indigenous students. I was so excited and it was a bit of a letdown when my program decided to transition online. Looking back, I’m glad we did because not only did it keep us and everyone in our “bubble” safe but, it oddly provided an opportunity for my cohort to form a united front when we confronted issues within our program.
While adjusting to my new online graduate program, I was also adjusting to life in level 4. It was a little eerie being in the city center during the first lockdown. We went from having bumper-to-bumper traffic outside my front door every day from 3-7 pm to see less than 20 cars a day.
In level 4, there is only access to essentials such as grocery stores, hospitals and pharmacies with no restaurant delivery or take out.
We stayed at level 4 for a few weeks. During that time, I had to ask myself how I was going to maintain a level of personal happiness. I was already fairly active prior to lockdown but, during lockdown, I began to use my runs as a way of reconnecting with myself and my surroundings. The place I would run to is a mount called Mt Eden or in te reo Māori is Maungawhau.
While the convenience aspect of Mt. Eden being so close to my house was the initial reason I would go, I was also drawn to it because of the serenity and calmness it provided me. I would run to the top then go to my usual spot that looks over the western side of the city. I would stay for as long as I needed in order to gather my thoughts and ground myself then go home feeling refreshed. Later I found out that traditionally, the Iwi (tribe) that traditionally resided in this part of the city used it as a place to gather, think and pray.
I believe that my choosing to continually go to Mt Eden wasn’t just by sheer convenience. It’s a firm example of Indigenous peoples' inherent relationship and connections to lands and the power of place.
It was the energy I felt when I would go there that led me to continually return. I have come to realize that the longer that I am away from home and my family, the more I tend to rely on the teachings that have been passed down to me from my mom and grandma. Recalling those teachings and using them as an adult helps me feel connected not only to my family but to my ancestors.
If this past year and a half has taught me anything, it is the importance of defining and finding happiness for myself. As we’ve moved down levels and had almost returned to a semi-normal pre-COVID lifestyle with zero community cases, I found myself filling my time in different ways.
I spent summer days at local beaches and a day trip to Cathedral cove. I had the opportunity to bungee jump then explore the South Island on an amazing helicopter ride with a glacier landing and a rainy cruise through Milford Sound with thousands of waterfalls throughout. Always remembering to start aware of my surroundings and thankful for the opportunity to be here.
Even with the bouts of loneliness and homesickness, it has been such an amazing experience living in and exploring Aotearoa. I do find myself coming back to the question of “how can I bring myself happiness” especially as we have recently been placed again under national alert level 4 with the reemergence of the Delta Variant of Covid.
We aren't sure how long we will stay at this alert level and I’m not entirely sure how long I’ll stay in New Zealand. As of now, I will continue to find ways to create happiness and remain thankful I am safe, cared for and I have all my immediate needs met. We are a little over two weeks in and I plan to survive this lockdown as I have before by leaning on the teachings from my grandparents that they learned from their grandparents and that is to stay active and pray while remembering to stay aware and thankful for everything I have.
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