Voices of Turtle Island: An Indigenous women roundtable on identity, place and culture

edawnis Spears

Rhode Island may not strike you as a place of great migration, but for three Indigenous women hailing from distinct communities across the country, life in this corner of Turtle Island (North America) brings unique challenges and discoveries. And it’s not simply Indian Country vs. settler land; each Indigenous community has its own cultures and traditions, and they aren’t always compatible. Silvermoon LaRose of the Narragansett, Xochi Jim of the Diné (Navajo) and endawnis Spears (Diné, Anishinaabe, Choctaw, and Chickasaw) spent time discussing these various nuances, revealing what it really means to be an Indigenous woman in the 21st century, regardless of geography.

endawnis Spears: My mom is Diné from northern Arizona. My father is Anishinaabe, Choctaw and Chickasaw. My paternal grandmother was White Earth Ojibwe and my paternal grandfather was Choctaw and (enrolled) Chickasaw from Talihina, Oklahoma.

I give these geographies because they matter in terms of physical and cultural orientation. The Navajo reservation is a large land mass, so knowing specifically what community a person is from is important. Same of Ojibwe communities; there are many bands around the Great Lakes and into Canada, so geographies matter and help situate identities, experiences and kin.

But primary in all of this, for Diné people, is clan. Identifying our clans is the central component of our identity. That being said, we introduce ourselves in Diné bizaad (the Navajo language) by stating our clans. In Bilagáana bizaad (English): I am Hashk’aan hadzohí (Yucca Fruit Strung Out In A Line clan) born for the Ojibwe people. My maternal grandfather is Ta’neeszahnii (Tangle clan) and my paternal grandfather is from the Choctaw and Chickasaw people.

I was born and raised in central Arizona, and now I live in the homelands of my husband and children’s people, the Narragansett, present day Rhode Island.

Xochi Jim

Xochi Jim: Hi! Thank you, endawnis, for describing and establishing a bit of clan system of the Diné!

Shí éí Asdzáánáábaa’ Xochitl Jim yinishyé. Ojibwe people nishłi, Dibé łizhini bashishchiin, Naakai Diné’é dashicheii, Tódích’íí’nii dashinalí. Ákót’éego Diné asdzáán nishłi.

My name is Asdzáánáábaa’ Xochitl Jim. My maternal clan is Ojibwe people, my paternal clan is black sheep clan, my maternal grandfather’s clan is Mexican people, and my paternal grandfather’s clan is Bitterwater clan. In this way, I am a Navajo woman.

I was born and raised in Flagstaff, Arizona, but currently reside in Providence. I’ve moved around often most of my life and just sort of found myself here because of a family friend who had invited me, just thought I’d give it a try. This is certainly the farthest I’ve been from home, though.

eS: Yá’át’ééh Xochitl! We have some overlapping tribal relations, too! What band Ojibwe is your mom? We should be friends in real life, too, not just this fabulous convo!

Hearing Xochitl’s clans help me understand more about her family and it also lets me know if we are relatives via clan. So thank you, Xochi.

I was brought up in a multi tribal family, so it is the only way I really know how to be Indian. I think it comes with its own set of negotiations I am still learning to do. Thankfully, living near my mom and all of my mom’s family in Arizona, culturally I identify as a Navajo woman. Diné women set the tone for how a household is operated, so my dad, who did not grow up speaking his languages like my mom did, acquiesced to my mother and her family in a lot of ways. My dad also spent many years living on the Navajo reservation; he was a rodeo cowboy and attended NAU where he met my mom. So, he grew up around the culture and loved it. Obvi! Because he put a ring on it and raised these Diné babies (my brother and I)!

I think it does put some amount of pressure on me as a mother raising multi tribal children. Because my husband is Narragansett and had lived his whole life in a singular tribal community, he has had a different life experience. 

I feel like I have to model for my children how to be a whole person with family spread across such diverse places. Or not even how to BE a whole person, but how to EXPLAIN my existence to people. I know how to be a complete human with these grandparents that I have. But it is very hard to translate that existence and the stories that made these inter-tribal communities to the outside world. The United States public does not understand very much beyond Indians in movies, mascots and a paragraph in their third-grade history books. How do I explain the swirling and intertwined histories of matrilineality, grandparents meeting because of boarding schools and CDIBs to non-Native people when they ask me what I am? And they always do because being asked what ethnicity you are is part of the daily lived experience of brown people in this country.

So now that I have married into and made community with my husband’s Narragansett people, I have passed on that responsibility of explaining their existence to an ignorant public to my own children. And the weight of that will be something they may struggle with for the rest of their lives. I pray that our traditional forms of kinship supersede all of these colonial ways of knowing; perhaps that is work we are all doing now as Native people.

Silvermoon LaRose: When I used to do cultural competency trainings all the time, I always talked about the importance of introductions. When Native people first meet, we always go through our whole kinships. The goal is always to look for a connection, be it tribal, familial or friend. If you can find some way that you connect to one another, it’s like building instant rapport.

I always used as an example the time a coworker brought a friend from Wisconsin to my house for Thanksgiving. She was cold and standoffish until we went through our introductions. When she heard about my eldest son, who is Hocak, and learned his family line, she discovered they were cousins. Next thing I know, she’s lying on our couch with her feet up like she’s known us for years. We were instantly family through that kinship connection.

eS: That is such a good example! Silvermoon, that really speaks to the fact that having vast kinship ties are considered an advantage in our cultures.  They are a form of IOndigenous cultural capital. Yet, explaining this to the over culture, which is based in the concept of the nuclear family and rugged individualism, is burdensome. 

Xochi, can you talk about some of the experiences you have had moving from one cultural space to another, ie, when spending time with family living on the reservation, your time living in Flagstaff, and your time here in present day Rhode Island? How have these experiences shaped your understanding of yourself and your identity as a Native person?

XJ: Growing up, even in Flagstaff, which has a large Native community being so close to the Rez, was tough and a bit confusing. Mostly because I did have to try and find a balance between being Native who came from a family that followed traditional practices and trying to fit in with the western society. My family didn’t follow strictly Diné traditions; they also followed a lot of Lakota, their “religion,” which it isn’t really, it’s more of a way of life, is called the Red Road. So, for example instead of having Friday or Saturday nights out with friends or sleep overs, that’s when we were having ceremonies usually, same with over summer breaks. I mean it wasn’t constant, but it was hard to have to explain to other kids why I would have to miss certain events. Both my parents were avid activists for Indigenous rights, so we also attended a lot of events for that. Being a kid, I was almost embarrassed because I felt so different and had to constantly explain to other kids why I would have to miss certain events. I got a lot of weird looks after trying to explain… there was also a lot of judgement and bullying; I can remember my brother being made fun of for his long hair or myself being called a t.r.o.g. (Total reject of god) once in a while. On the flip side, though, there was also a lot of pride in being Native, knowing I was connected to my people, homeland and spirituality that I could tell others weren’t.

As I got older, it got easier to explain my background and culture and especially with more confidence as I understood myself better.

So to try and answer your question, edawnis, I think each location has strengthened my pride in just being able to identify myself as Native and particularly a Navajo woman. I didn’t realize when I was younger not all places were as heavily populated with Natives like Flagstaff was or when I went to the Rez. All of the sudden I was getting asked where I was from or what I was because they could tell I wasn’t from that area. So as I repeated myself, explaining a brief background of myself and the Diné, answering questions, and mostly receiving positive responses, I felt a lot of pride and confidence growing. But as I got further and further away from Dinétah, and being mostly alone in my travels, I found it very hard to hold on to a lot of my traditional teachings and language. I think it’s one of those “use it or lose it” scenarios. I no longer had my community near to help guide me, teach me, and strengthen my hold on them. So I can agree with Silvermoon in that community and kinship is so important!

As I got to each place I was able to find some semblance of this, though, I’ve never been completely cut off. Being in Rhode Island is probably the hardest it’s been. I do have to say, though, with the rise of connectivity on a digital level among Natives, I have been utilizing that a lot to keep involved, updated, and it’s been helping me rediscover a lot of what I have lost along the way. Though we didn’t get the pipeline stopped completely in Standing Rock, one unexpected and amazing thing that came from that was the networking and beginning of this rise in using digital platforms.

Silvermoon,  I would like to hear how your Narragansett community has influenced your parenting. What are some attributes you learned as a Narragansett child/young adult growing  up here that you want to maintain and pass on to your children? What are some challenges that you faced that you want to prepare your children for, as the next generation of Indigenous leaders and culture bearers?

SL: I grew up in a huge extended family. I can look back now as an adult and see how culturally immersed I was as a child and how different that may have been from others. At the time, it was just my norm and I thought everyone was. That’s changed. The community isn’t what it was when I was growing up. I miss the safeness and love and support I had from all over. I want that for my children and it’s just different now. As an educator, not just for my children but for all children in our community…the challenge in continuing our traditions and passing them down comes from a lack of community. I hear from kids how much they want to learn but never have the opportunity to do so. Where are the spaces for sharing and coming together? We used to do this a lot but now we tend to stay apart in small family units and how can you learn from one another and share knowledge if you’re all separated? Are there things from your community you miss now that you’re here?

eS: There are many, many, many things I miss. I still get very homesick sometimes even though I have been living here for more than 10 years now. That is one of the things non-Native people don’t always understand — our tribal cultures are so different and so diverse. Sometimes I think Cassius and I are the fish and the bird that fell in love. From that saying, “a fish and a bird can fall in love, but where will they build their home?” Except he is a quahog.

I can tell you that one of the aspects that makes life so far away from home possible is community. We are all communal people. So, feeling like his community is also mine — the familiarity of extended family, politics and place and origin stories and intergenerational sense of memory — these are all comforting to me.

I can only do so much way out here in Narragansett homelands, so far away from my cultural points of orientation. But I know they are getting much of what they need from their father’s family and community and I am blessed to be a part of it.

XJ: At first glance people don’t know usually know I’m Native, they assume I have an Asian background more often than not or they just don’t know and don’t want to guess out of fear of offending, which is reasonable. Once I explain, however, then normally I immediately get grouped with their understanding of Natives from the local tribes, which obviously is very different my own. It’s still always very shocking how many people still group natives as one entity with one cultural background. There are, however, a few that do understand the tribal separation and ask questions about where I’m from and general questions about maybe the size of my tribe, reservation and blood quantum, how I’m liking being surrounded by water and all that!

Overall living in RI had been one of the more difficult places for me because it’s so far from the southwest and my home, they say (the Diné) the further you are from the four sacred mountains and Dinetah (Navajo homelands) the crazier you get. It’s so polar opposite from where I grew up. I was at a conference a couple months  ago and there was something that was being released in Navajo and they played a sample and I cried because it had been so long since I had even heard someone speak my language, it caught me off guard.

However, I’ve had a birthing ceremony, part of me exists and tie me to my homeland particularly Dook’o’oosłííd and will always guide me home and I take a lot of comfort in that. It’s also what ties me to Mother Earth. That’s another part of being Indigenous that a lot of other people don’t understand or get to experience, I feel so blessed to have that. 

eS: The process Xochitl is referring to involves burying part of the umbilical cord in the earth after a baby is born. This is done with the understanding that the baby is now tied, spiritually, to that place. And that is her/his true home — she/he will return to that place. When you are living in your mother’s womb, you are tied to her in a spiritual way. When you are born, you are now tied to your original mother, your mother’s mother and her mother — mother earth.

Dook’o’oosłííd or in English, the San Francisco peaks, are one of our four sacred mountains. It is one of the holiest places in our universe. My umbilical cord is buried there, as is my daughter, Nizhoni’s. And so, we are tied spiritually to that geography and cosmology. 

All three of Cassius’ and my sons, Sowaniu, Giizhig and Tishominko, are tied to a sacred space on the Narragansett reservation. We made this decision as a family to conduct this ceremony in their father’s home.

What this singular example shows is that our land is not just the originator of our languages, cosmologies, kinship and identity. It is our living ceremony. And so ecological violence is not just an environmental issue — it is a discussion about religion and human rights.

And that is the truth across Turtle Island. 

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