Climb the ladder, get an education…. Then what?
The reservation will always be here.... But its people may not always be.
Go off and make us proud…. But, what if I want to make you proud right here at home?
These are all things I have been told time and time again as a scholar growing up on the Navajo Nation.
And, like every other Navajo child running through our chapter houses, I listened. I climbed that ladder tirelessly until I found myself at the top walking across the stage to retrieve my diploma at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.
And, yes, in my 22 years of life, the reservation has remained, but it is changing. Every day we are losing familiar faces, historical knowledge, and traditional ways of life. Furthermore, I believe it is safe to say that I have found great success in making my family and friends proud as they could share how their daughter, cousin, and former student was attending Duke University, volunteering in Peru, working in the United States Senate, and advocating for Indigenous people wherever she found herself. I realized very early on that my success is not my own, but shared amongst my entire community. Similarly, I have always felt an extra burden when faced with failure, because, likewise, it is not my own.
My curiosity to travel and to learn was born out of questioning my surroundings and my own circumstances. As I climbed the educational ladder, I found myself struggling with my intentions, and questioning my position and contribution to a system that was not designed for my success. What if I wanted to return to Dinétah? What if I wanted my people to see me every day instead of in newspapers and Facebook shares? What if being proud of me did not push me farther and farther away from Dinétah, but instead, it reeled me in close and guided me home.
I would sit in my classes daydreaming and longing for the day when I would return home to Monument Valley. What if I could use my skill set to improve policies that continue to hinder the progress and health of our community? If I was this educated, well-rounded, community-oriented person, why not try and keep me in our community?
I often wondered why we continue to send our brightest scholars away on a one-way ticket. Why do we teach our children that their talent is only deemed successful if manifested off the reservation? When I left for North Carolina, I was ecstatic to learn as much as I possibly could so that I may effectively reinvest myself back into my community. But, to my dismay, I was pushed farther away, benefiting communities that were not my own when I knew the dire circumstances back home that I would much rather dedicate my knowledge and skill to. Both ostracized and supported from afar, I walked in a world desperately trying to find a pathway home.
My turning point happened in the United States Senate. I tagged along with my then-boss, Senator Tom Udall, to a committee hearing at which he was testifying on legislation that hits home for my people, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). There were many Navajo people who made the trip to DC that day to advocate and raise awareness on the ways in which this issue continues to impact our people and our land. I felt at home seeing shi dine’e (my people) and hand shake after hand shake I felt myself longing for Dinétah more than ever. Every Navajo I spoke with that day shared with me how proud they were of me for representing our nation in the Senate.
One kind man even took a photo of me, telling me that he was so excited to show his daughter that he met a Navajo adzáán (woman) who works in the Senate, because, yes, it is possible. Of course, I felt a sense of pride and responsibility, but I also felt disconnected from my own people. What struck me the most was when I was asked by a timid elder, “shiyazhi, when are you coming home?”
When I was a little girl my sense of belonging was attributed to to the towering monuments, the hugs and whispers,” Yá'át'ééh shiyazhi'' by my relatives at the grocery store, and most of all; the feeling that is peace and balance in Dinétah. Home was the smell of sweet rain mixed with our red sand and the stories told over the open fire as shimasani made fry bread. I realized early on that home is not only a place, mine located in southeastern Utah, but home is a feeling. As I would learn when I began my educational journey; home is energy. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to invest all of my energy into my community. The question then was not if I wanted to go home, but how do I return to my nation?
In the midst of my senior year at Duke, I came across a new organization called Lead for America. I read that this organization sought to support recent college graduates in their journeys back to their communities to work in local government. An entire organization felt what I felt, the dire urgency to work with our communities. So, I applied.
In December of 2018, I sat on the floor of the San Diego Airport on my way home for winter break. I received a call notifying me that I was selected to be a part of the inaugural cohort of Lead for America Hometown Fellows. I saw myself walking down the dirt road to my house and this time, staying. Words cannot describe how I felt at that moment. This is my success. Not leaving home, not excelling in college, not the awards and recognitions, but taking all of my small wins and paving a pathway home. After crying in the surprisingly clean airport bathroom, I called shimá (my mother) and rejoiced in a moment we both feared would never come.
I am now six months into my fellowship in Monument Valley, Utah. Lead for America partnered with my local government, the Oljato Chapter of the Navajo Nation and created a position for me as a Policy Analyst and Project Consultant. Every day I have the opportunity to utilize my skill set to address some of the most pressing issues in our community. The feeling of waking up in Dinétah, and working with my community members, is uncanny.
My final question is, what is your idea of success? Redefining success meant untangling a childhood of insecurity and embracing my personal hopes of community development. I urge you to consider what is going to happen if we continue to leave home with the intention of staying away. We can end the stigma associated with returning to the reservation, and foster a new future where Native youth across the country leave home for college not burdened by the expectation that success means never returning, but instead, are excited to obtain the knowledge they can use to rebuild their community. In this future, the pathway back is just as important as the pathway out.
I would like to thank Lead for America for believing in me and uplifting my aspirations. I would also like to thank the Oljato Chapter of the Navajo Nation for their support in bringing me home. I am not only dedicated to my community, but I am committed to ensuring Native youth have the opportunity to return to their communities. I hope to work to build upon the momentum Lead for America has catalyzed, and help Native recent-college graduates on their journeys back to their communities. We are needed.
Shandiin Herrera is an enrolled citizen of the Navajo Nation, and a Lead for America Hometown Fellow working as a policy analyst and project consultant with the Oljato Chapter of the Navajo Nation. Shandiin is a graduate of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and the 2019 Terry Sanford Leadership Award winner.