The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Nádleehí: One Who Changes

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We used to have monsters roaming our lands. In multiple stories, each monster was laid to rest by Naayéé’ Neizgháni and Tóbájíshchíní. As children, in place of those stories, we learned about the itsy-bitsy spider. We pretended to be the big bad wolf because he was powerful—we didn’t learn the importance of Na’ashjéii Asdzáá. We weren’t given the teachings of Mą’íí. All we knew was Na’ashjéii Asdzáá played Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web, and Mą’íí, we watched as a Looney Tune. Ayóo diigis.

Diné people have been fighting the ecological destructions of sacred lands for many, many years.

In stories, the land is what provides us with beauty. Hózhó. The land feeds nourishes us, but I fear it is being scraped away by our own people. As Indigenous peoples, we forget reciprocity should be taking place. As Indigenous peoples enter this neocolonial era, we must engage with the colonial mindset: capitalism, growth, globalizing, money, hunger, and consumption.

As children, as Indigenous children, this direction towards becoming America’s adopted children has forced many of us to forget. As descendants of those who walked in fear and in shame, by way of forced concentration camps, we remembered HózhóHózhó. Nahaasdlii’. As surviving descendants, we must recall their dissidence and relearn our stories as Diné.

As Indigenous children of America, we must remember who we were/are.

In September, I traveled to North Dakota. I was quickly reminded of my skin color. Upon entering a Taco John’s, after gathering supplies in Mandan, a white man with a darkened mustache looked at me as if I were alien to his native country. This uncomfortable feeling resurrected itself within me. After years of altering myself, I’ve realized that, in the eyes of this America, I am still a person of color. And although my ancestors are Indigenous to these lands, I am still treated as a visitor. After years of reshaping myself, transforming myself, teaching my vocal chords to trim the edges off each ridged vowel that escaped through guttural tones of my diaphragm, I felt exposed and unearthed.

For years, I have taught myself to hide from those who taught me how to hide, and to stay hidden as a Diné male. By learning this language to present my American-self, I feel I am living a lie. To those I stand before in Taco John’s, and across America, I will always be considered a person of color. And because I am not white, or part white, or 1/16th white, I will always have to defend myself for being a brown American, an Indigenous American.

My census number is not tattooed upon my arm; yet America’s history has tattooed me, laid scars upon my mind. It remains hidden inside me. My sister once said to me, “I remember Grandma saying before she passed away: Learn their language, yázhí. If you learn to act like them and speak like them, they will accept you.”

My dad shared with me a story of his childhood. He used to hitchhike because he didn’t own a car. At sixteen, he lived with his parents in Shiprock, and hitchhiking twenty-six miles east and twenty-six miles west was his way of traveling. Back then, he said, there were no streetlamps or porch lights or heavy traffic like there is today, just darkness. One night, he said, I was picked up by a group of white boys. I know they were having a good time, he said. I could sense it on them. They drove me away from the main road and into the night. We were in Kirtland. That’s where the car stopped. He shifted in his seat. All the boys got out and one opened the trunk. In what little light I could see, I watched that one pull out a tire iron. I didn’t know what to do and so I opened the door. His voice strengthened. I was an athlete then, so I ran. I ran so hard. I could hear their voices chase me, but they never caught up. I ran in zigzags, hearing rocks fall around me.

I went to school at Kirtland Central High. Its banner continues to wave: Home of the Broncos. When I was a student, from 1990–1994, I watched many of my friends excel in athletics and academics while I grieved the loss of my brother with alcohol. My best friend and I drank late into the night and consoled one another while we looked for answers. He, too, recently lost a brother. We drove north through Farmington in search of a dwelling known as Witches’ Circle. We were intrigued by its association to darkness and its connection to satanic rituals. Between the walls of Chokecherry Canyon, carved by the ghosts of Glade Wash, we scoured the area for its ceremonial grounds—never finding its location. I’m grateful.

In 1974, three Navajo men were found gruesomely mutilated north of Farmington, in Chokecherry Canyon. The boys who committed this crime were sent to a boys’ reformatory school in Springer, New Mexico. The outrage of the sentence forced the Navajo community to gather in mourning. The American Indian Movement came to Farmington to aid the Coalition for Navajo Liberation in their fight for justice. Peaceful protestors flooded Main Street. Peaceful protestors sat inside restaurants that refused to serve the Navajo. Peaceful protests pushed for equality in 1974. Farmington became known in the national media as the Selma of the Southwest territory, a flashpoint for the Indigenous civil rights movement. Our contributions to the movement were never mentioned in our history books or our classrooms. It was never brought to our attention, as children.

Kirtland, New Mexico is a small farm town that lies just west of Farmington. It is a Mormon community, sprinkled with Catholics and other denominations of Christians. It is also lined and decorated by the exterior of the Navajo reservation.

As a fifteen-year-old, I once heard the term “rolling” from a friend, who jokingly mentioned it to me at the Shiprock Fair. It made no sense to me, but I laughed anyway­­—because everyone laughed at the comment. We never committed such acts: beating drunk Indians.

Not long ago, I listened to stories of high school classmates “rolling” drunken Navajos in our community. It was brought to my attention, again, that these stories were true. A classmate confirmed the actions of these boys, who performed their rite of passage as bílagáanas. Disgust overcame me when I thought about the good Mormon boys of Kirtland: Home of the Broncos.

I worked as a server at the Outback Steakhouse in Farmington during my twenties. I was one of two Navajos who worked as servers. It was here I quickly learned that Navajos did not know how to tip. The owner informed me: Navajos order their meat well-done. We call that Shiprock Well. In Albuquerque, they call it Zia-burned. That’s how they eat it, burned.

When my trainer showed me around the restaurant. I was told: Because of them, we can’t stab the bread like we would at other Outbacks. Because of them, we deliver it to their tables in hopes it doesn’t fall off the breadboard. If you stab it and they see it, they won’t eat it. It’s weird. I admit, at first, I went along with my workmates who made fun of my kin by clan.

Bloomin’ onions and cheese fries were taken off tickets to compensate for a table of nine who did not tip upon leaving. I wanted to be accepted by my Farmington friends because they were beautiful, and they were white and blonde with blue eyes. But I was reminded, when I went out to eat, that I was/am labeled as a non-tipper for being Navajo. It became apparent that I was no different than my people. I needed to re-teach myself and retrain my thinking, by learning from personal experiences and accounts. I began by asking Mom questions.

Ahwééhish ła’nááná?” I said to those visiting Outback for the first time.

Aóó! Ahwééh ła’nisin, yázh.” The grandmas smiled big, extending their cups.

“How do you know our language?” they asked.

Diné nishłį,” I responded.

“Oh,” they exhaled with an elongated vowel. Navajos began leaving with a smile and so did I, because Mom helped release a dormant language hidden inside me.

It’s been twenty-two years since high school. It’s been fifty-seven years since my dad ran away from those kids with the tire iron and forty-two years since the killings of the three Navajo men in Chokecherry Canyon. It’s been sixteen years since Robert Fry’s conviction for multiple slayings in Farmington, and fifteen years since the death of Fred Martinez, Jr. who was labeled different; ten years since the shooting of Clint John at Wal-Mart. Six years since the branding of a mentally disabled Navajo man. Six months since the shooting of Loreal Tsingine.

Recently, it’s been reported police shootings occur at a higher rate among Indigenous Americans and go unnoticed by mainstream media and America.

I was once pulled over for a dysfunctional license plate light in Farmington. We had just left the bar and I had one beer. My nervousness showed because, three weeks earlier, I was arrested on my birthday for drinking and driving in Durango, Colorado. The police officer smelled booze in the cab of my truck and questioned me, but my passenger, who was/is a beautiful white girl, looked into his flashlight. We both worked at the fitness center he visited. He noticed her, but not me. He let us go that night. His reasoning: Get her home safely.

I tell you, I am not innocent. My life is no different than others who struggle with vices.

My partner was severely discriminated against as a child. Growing up, he knew he was gay at a young age and turned to friends who accepted him wholly. He tells me they used to sneak out of their homes and venture towards the Hide and Seek or the Annex, where kids like him could be themselves. Dressed in black and fashioned as Goth, friendships reigned as family.

Once, in tenth grade, a young Navajo enrolled into our high school. Word buzzed around the halls about the new kid, who displayed himself much differently than the others who attended. His hair was long in the front and parted to the side—almost like a skater’s cut—short above the ears and bleached to a dusty blonde color. I noticed him that morning. His body was much thinner than mine. He wore mustard-colored pants, and, as he placed each step forward, he walked as if he belonged on a catwalk. Later that afternoon I watched some athletes gather around him to taunt him and follow him down the hall. His walk was quick and huddled. I don’t know what was said between him and the group of guys, but I witnessed his mom, inside the office, checking him out of school that same day he enrolled. I never got his name.

After a long day driving of driving through Colorado, Wyoming, and the Black Hills, I arrived at Sacred Stone camp. It was one in the morning when I unraveled my tent without much sound. Trying to remain quiet, I dared not make noise to rouse my neighbors from deep slumber. Sleep followed me into the tent, where I lay inside my sleeping bag, listening to the nearby cows. As morning arrived, the shrill cry of a baby woke me. Not knowing what to expect, I peered my head outside of the tent, only to be greeted by morning light and greenness and the neighboring people who watched their two-year old son shoot baskets on a portable basketball goal. As I emerged into the day, I acquainted myself quickly. Not knowing where to go, I began wandering. I found myself in the company of an old classmate from the Institute of American Indian Arts. It was he who showed me around the campgrounds of Sacred Stone. He also introduced me to the matriarch who ran the encampment like an orchestrator, who used her hands to move people like music notes, as lively as the popping fire.

I unloaded my car, which was packed with cans of food and piles of wood. I was stacking them as the other vehicles began to arrive. With the help of the Indigenous students of Colorado College, we finished quickly, and were rewarded with food prepared by the matriarch’s ensemble.

Muddied and wet with moisture, I stood in awe of the sight around me. The Missouri River made no noise. There was silent movement happening below; I could feel its energy press against the banks of my chest in small lapses. Hózhó. Growing up in the desert, you don’t see this much green. You don’t experience moss or grass or even trees, just dirt, dry sand. In viewing the landscape of this country, I can sense why the Sioux and Lakota and Dakota and Nakota are fighting hard to save what sacred land and water is left. But no one speaks of the man-camps assembled around these industrial sites. The murdered and missing Indigenous females, multi-spirited, and LGBTQQIA, who have been afflicted by trafficking and rape, who were assaulted and tortured, who continue to go unnoticed in mainstream media. Since the ’80s, the Indigenous communities of Canada and the Northern United States have been stepping forward, bringing awareness to those unaccounted for in death.

Throughout the years, I have traveled from Santa Fe to Farmington, Colorado Springs to Farmington, Colorado Springs to Santa Fe to Farmington. I have watched the development of fracking sites assemble themselves with each visit—fires flickering well into the night, licking the darkness like candles on a cake. It is said, in the ’50s and ’60s, Farmington was known as “The Energy Capital of the West.” Many people migrated from the Oklahoma and West Texas territories to build their futures. Racial bigotry followed them as well.

I see parallel events described by those who experienced racism in 1974 Farmington: people being asked to leave restaurants because of their skin tone, peaceful protests gathered in oppressed communities, brute force by county and state police, aimless community leaders, enraged border towns, no media attention. Facebook has been my media outlet for Standing Rock. In 1974, there was no Internet, were no cellphone cameras, was no live Facebook feeds for the Navajo, no attention.

I like to read Craigslist ads wherever I go: M4M Casual Encounters and Men Seeking Men.

self described – m4m (40)

white trash and/or redneck is what he called himself. I don’t mind and I don’t judge so let do it again or any others here. We met at Home Depot the other day, I can’t stop thinking about all the oil, gas, lubricant, engine grease smells on you hands. your cock was amazing 9″thick. ready to fuck again in the truck. anybody send stats and picture
FYI: whites only.

lybrook/counselor oilfield workers or any hot guys – m4m (Counselor)

Sup fellas discreet guy her for the upcoming holiday week looking for and fellas that need a hot release or maybe more verse guy here 24 ddf HIV negative 165lbs medium build 7.5 uncut thick looking to suck rim lick touch whatever you like I’ll do love sucking a man t upo completion hmu now pics and number for fast responses age and race doesn’t matter can’t travel so car play is fine make me beg for that daddy cock

Home Depot – m4m 26 (Durango)

Looking for construction workers,oil fields guys,country boys who maybe want their dick sucked or fuck a nice ass dl Bttm here looking for fun .. seen lots of hot guys at home depot one one of u maybe horny enough
Put type of underwear u got on now in subject so I know your real

Honestly, I read these posts to gain an understanding of a lifestyle I knew nothing about. Growing up in Farmington, I had no idea of the pickup parks that existed; nor did I know of the cruising grounds within city limits. I read these posts because I’m fascinated by male fantasy. Sometimes, I wonder how many people will disappear or be beaten or experience hurt by involving themselves with posts like these? I wonder how many people will answer these ads? Man-camps exist near every industry site.

In August, I was asked if I was afraid.

Afraid of what, I said.

Afraid of being you? he asked.

What do you mean?

Are you afraid of being a gay male after the shooting in Florida?

By this time, we were descending the 14,000 feet peak of Mount Shavano. The wind blew harshly, forcing clouds to scrape the peaks around us, pushing smoke that smoldered east through Hayden Pass.

Yeah, I am afraid, I said. In the eyes of America, I am a brown, gay man. People of color are being shot by those who swear to protect them. Yes, I am afraid.

I stopped on the rocky path. The wind pushed against our backs. A few weeks ago, I said, I sat at an intersection while the light was red and watched a black man put gas into his car while his child walked freely. I watched him dig into his pocket and hand a dollar to the white man who wore shabby clothes. They shook hands. I cried at that intersection, I said. Not because of the moment. I cried for the world. People are being shot because they’re different. I am a brown, gay man, who works behind a counter of a college coffee shop, who is a fag and is afraid to speak up. In the eyes of America, I am different.

I am a brown, gay male who worries for my marriage, my health care benefits, my nieces and nephews’ futures, the extraction of my people, Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous health care, the land, the land, the land. Are you afraid? Yes, I am still afraid. I am now afraid for you and what lies ahead for each of us.

I am scared. I will continue to be scared. I am scared that, one day, I will not be able to run as fast as my dad who eluded rocks and a tire iron.

I was once asked, why are Navajos overweight and unhealthy?

I cringed when a friend cupped my chest with her hands and said how much she loves tits. The memory of her arms wrapped around me can still be felt.

At twenty-three, Mom’s diabetes began eating her. At twenty-three, I began to run and noticed a change—I lost forty pounds, stopped drinking soda, and began watching what I ate. I redefined the mythic Indian by reshaping the mythic Indian’s flat ass. I began to learn more about the culture of the mythic Indian—why weight and body and acceptance was/is an issue. I began to learn about my health and about the history of my people, and learned to love myself through the encouragement of my family—I began to want to inspire. Seventeen years later, I am still running—in zigzags and sometimes circles—through words that reflect the experiences of my life and those around me. I’ve been with my partner for ten years, and he still loves me. I have friends who love me.

Diné nishłį. I can’t change who I am or where I come from, but…

I want to continue slaying monsters with knowledge. I want to continue running, to orchestrate the world with my hands. I want to catwalk fiercely. As a forty year-old male, my transformation is not complete. I’m not sure it’ll ever be complete, but I’ll keep running.

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Photographs provided courtesy of author.


Byron F. Aspaas creates stories using images of landscape, which are etched upon white space with words of experience. Aspaas, who is Diné, has earned his BFA and MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts. His ambition is to incorporate writing towards teaching and becoming a storyteller by influencing readers along this literary journey. His work is scattered through journals and anthologies; among them are RedInk, Yellow Medicine Review, 200 New Mexico Poems, Weber: The Contemporary West, As/Us: A Space for Women of the World, Semicolon, The Denver Quarterly, and International Writing Program Collections. He is Red Running into the Water; born for the Bitter Water People. He resides with his partner, Seth Browder, his three cats, and four puppies in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he is working on his memoir. More from this author →