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Honor, Heart, and Heritage

Intertwining Family and Time in Navajo Culture

A red rock canyon with a blue river at the bottom.

It was a dusty town, like the others I had driven past on my way through Nevada. There was a wide stretch of tan land—no gas stations, an occasional trailer, a tumbleweed or two. I would have driven through it just like every other—eyes on the road, mind focused on the comedy routine I was listening to—if not for a simple brown sign on the side of the road: Indian Reservation.

I observed the community from my passing vehicle. “Where are all the people?” I wondered. “Where are the gas stations, the schools, the stores?” I later learned, after looking at a map of my travels weeks afterward, that I had been driving through the Moapa River Indian Reservation, home of the Paiute Tribe.

I exited the boundaries of the reservation almost as soon as I had entered. It slowly shrank behind me on the road, as did its novelty. I continued and left the Native American reservation in the past, as I’m afraid much of the world has done. But, as Native American Shalynn Faye Tsosie says, “We’re still here.”

Tsosie is half Northern-Cheyenne through her father, but the culture that beats firmly within her is her mother’s tribe: Navajo. Her single mother raised Tsosie with the help of Tsosie’s grandmother’s uncle, a man from the Crow Tribe whom she lovingly calls Grandfather.

Family is one of the beautiful parts of Navajo culture—it is central to everything they do. In Navajo culture, when they meet someone for the first time, they introduce themselves through their family heritage, naming their ancestors and their clan. Growing up in this matriarchal society, Tsosie remembers the women in her family, the ones in charge of preserving the clan’s honor, telling her, “You carry our line with you, so you have a responsibility.” Tsosie, part of the Honágháahnii (One-Walks-Around) clan, carries this heritage proudly.

Smiling Navajo girl in traditional clothing.

“If I meet another Honágháahnii,” she says, “they’re my brother or sister, and I have to take care of them as such.” In the Navajo culture, family is not limited to a blood bond. It’s a bond of love and responsibility. “If I call you sister, you now have a responsibility,” says Tsosie, who has no blood brothers or sisters but claims five fellow Navajo as her siblings. “They call me their sister, . . . I go to Christmases with them, their children call me ‘auntie,’ I buy their kids gifts. I literally feel like they are my [siblings].” Tsosie even calls their mother “Mom,” and Tsosie’s own mother takes no offense. It is simply the Navajo way. She cheerily asks Tsosie, “Hey, how’s Mom?” whenever Tsosie returns home from spending time with her second family.

When it comes to family titles, Navajo culture places more importance on responsibility than on genealogy. For example, if Tsosie were to meet someone whose grandparent was part of the Honágháahnii clan, she explains, “That person is my grandchild, and I am responsible for taking care of and nurturing that person like they were my grandchild.”

The Navajo are also fiercely protective of the tourists who go to visit and learn about their culture. “As soon as you walk onto our reservation,” says Tsosie, “you are our responsibility.” The Navajo would never let anything bad happen to someone they’re sharing their land with. In the summer of 2021, a Californian dressed up in a bear costume to walk the country and raise awareness for mental health and other causes. When he crossed into the Navajo Nation, the tribe put together a group of people to walk with him, helping him avoid dangerous roads and organizing meals and lodging. The Navajo take care of their family, and their family is made up of anyone bound to them by love.

In line with their innate tie to family, the Navajo greatly value respect—respect for their elders, for the past, and for tradition. “There are some things that, to traditional Native Americans, are sacred,” Tsosie describes. “You can’t push new things like iPhones on an 80-year-old woman who literally grew up with nothing. And that’s okay. It’s okay if it doesn’t change. . . . Don’t try to push your ideas on something that’s special.” For the Navajo, the way they grew up is not only worth preserving but is also sacred.

And that’s something that those outside the culture often struggle to understand. Working in the tourism industry in Page, Arizona, as a boat captain on Lake Powell, Tsosie often hears shock and amazement from her tourist passengers when they see or hear about the Navajo’s chosen way of life. “What?! Why do they live like that?” and “Why don’t they just get electricity?” are frequent questions Tsosie fields.

Tsosie’s grandmother, who turned 101 in October 2021, still lives with sheep and livestock, like she did as a little girl. It’s not the cheapest way for Tsosie’s family to support their honored grandmother, but they do it because it makes her happy. Her grandmother’s way of life “doesn’t have to change,” explains Tsosie.

Tsosie's grandmother stands against a wall.

For outsiders, choosing tradition over convenience or frugality may look like an irrational choice. I am guilty of this assumption, as I wondered why the Paiute Tribe living in the Moapa River Indian Reservation didn’t seem to have many modern comforts. But in Tsosie’s experience, many of the Navajo choose to live in this way not necessarily from a lack of opportunity but more from a desire to simplify.

To this day, when Tsosie goes home to her reservation 10 minutes outside of Page, Arizona, and the power goes out, her grandmother lights a kerosene lamp and tells family stories. Tsosie’s grandmother is a pillar of strength—she gave birth in over-100-degree weather with only her 3-year-old child to help cut the umbilical cord. She later built a house (while tending her children) by watering and laying the sandstone that her husband cut and hauled to the site. “It’s nice to take a step back and remember where we came from,” says Tsosie, “because it reminds us how blessed we really are.”

But the Navajo don’t keep their way of life to themselves. With over four million visitors per year, the tiny town of Page has become quite the summer tourism hub. You can enjoy the views and the land while you’re there, but the real treasure of your trip comes from getting to know the Navajo culture.

“Navajo are very closed off,” admits Tsosie. “They won’t tell you anything if you don’t ask. . . . But if you genuinely care about learning the culture and learning it correctly, you can [say to] any Navajo, . . . ‘I don’t know anything about Navajo culture. Would you have anything to teach me?’ And I promise . . . they will talk your ear off. And they will love you for it if you are paying attention. Put your phone away, put everything away, and just sit there, and just simply listen, and they will tell you everything you want to know.”

The story of the Navajo is a story of true wealth. Through a vibrant past that races into the present, Tsosie’s Navajo culture has taught her how to “step back and be able to see the world and be able to choose what is important.” And that is a priceless heritage.

Blankets woven with Navajo patterns.

Note: While the term Native American, or sometimes American Indian, is often preferred over Indian, it is still far too broad of a term to convey the true identity of each different tribe. Each tribe, and even each clan within those tribes, has a different culture and different stories to tell.

Here are a few of the different places where you can learn about and experience Native American tribes, cultures, and stories across the continental US.

  • Big Lake, AZ: Here you can see a hogan, watch a powwow, and be treated to a hoop or jingle dress dance by the generous Navajo people. 
  • Page, AZ: Here you can boat over Lake Powell, explore Horseshoe Bend, and admire Antelope Canyon with Navajo natives. 
  • Park Hill, OK: Here you can visit the Cherokee Heritage Center and experience exhibits, cultural workshops, and events close to the heart of the Cherokee tribes. 
  • Milwaukee, WI: Here you can visit one of Wisconsin’s many public powwow celebrations and observe the cultures of the Ho-Chunk Nation, the Menominee Indian Tribe, the Oneida Nation, the Red Cliff Band, and more. 
  • Shoshoni, WY: Here you can start your way on the Wind River Canyon Scenic Byway, a 34-mile highway that offers a look into the lands of the Great Plains tribes and the beauty of the Owl Creek Mountains and the Boysen Reservoir. 
Dara Johnson