The Land Is My Legacy

Raised to forever be a steward of the place she calls home

I am the little girl at the end of a dirt road seldom traveled on. The curious mind who watched her grandmother weave rugs for eight hours straight, never tiring. The young soul who never understood the land she walked on was crying for help.

I walked aimlessly alongside my best friend, whose white paws left soft tracks in the red sand. We ventured to the cliffs, where I stared at the giant monuments and listened to the soft breeze of the wind. I was free. In mind, body, and spirit. I was happy. Perhaps it was because I had my grandmother’s house to watch the sunrise from. Or because my best friend was always waiting for me, prepared for another adventure. This chapter of my life I call: Answered Prayers. In my childhood, every day was filled with adventure and life lessons; every day prepared me for a future of resilience, and instilled in me a clear sense of self and an unshakable pride.

I grew up in Tse’bii’nidzisgai, Monument Valley, in Diné Bikéyah, the Navajo Nation. As a young girl, I often wondered why so many people flock to our lands in search of an experience in the West and to capture the views of our valleys. To be honest, it frustrated me that so many people could freely walk throughout our lands when just over 150 years ago my people were forcibly removed by the federal government and imprisoned at Bosque Redondo, Fort Sumner, New Mexico. It is only through our treaty with the U.S. government that my ancestors were able to return home to begin rebuilding their lives.

Many who visit Tse’bii’nidzisgai are unaware of our history and the era of ethnic cleansing we endured. Many do not understand our trauma, our strength, or the meaning of our relationship to our land, but we do—I do. This is my homeland. This is where I am supposed to be. I think of home, and it makes my heart happy because I know this is what my ancestors prayed for. I am healthy and happy on the land they loved and died protecting. I am reminded of the sacrifices of my people so that I could take evening walks to the cliffs and watch sunrises from our valley, like we always have.

Monument Valley is the place where stars are the only light at night, and where the air is filled with lingering prayers.

The concept of home is tied to my land because we have been loving this land the longest. I do not believe that people can be separated from land. I grew up learning that our relationship to land is as stewards and protectors. We are people of the land: In the Navajo language, we call ourselves Diné—the people. We continue loving and living on our land, known to us as Dinétah. Even in our language, we cannot be separated from land. We are interconnected, and this love and protection is visible throughout our history and our current day-to-day lives.

To grow up in such a beautiful place has taught me how to truly live in hozhó, beauty. To live in beauty is to live in balance. This interconnectedness between harmony and goodness in all things physical and spiritual that leads me to live in health and well-being. This is what this land has taught me.

The older I grew, the further away from home I found myself. Off to new adventures seeking educational and employment opportunities. Though sometimes thousands of miles away, I can still feel the harmony of home. I have been advised many times to follow an educational path, which led me to Duke. Paths of curiosity, education, and advocacy have led me to the Andean mountains in Cusco, Peru, the beaches of Hawai’i, and the hallways of the United States Senate. If there is one thing I am sure of in this life, it is that all of my paths lead back to the little house at the end of a dirt road.

Monument Valley has instilled in me an appreciation for all that my people have protected, and has showed me the responsibility of ensuring generations after me will have the blessing of growing on our land, too. To live in a beautiful place with beautiful people is nothing short of a blessing. It is Tse’bii’nidzisgai that has taught me to walk through this life boldly, but carefully, and always in beauty.

Herrera ’19 is a proud member of the Navajo Nation and graduate of the Sanford School of Public Policy. As a lead for America Hometown Fellow, she currently works with the Oljato chapter of the Navajo Nation as a policy analyst and project consultant.

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