Despite a rich history of a thriving society based on living in harmony with the land, the Navajo Nation is no stranger to poverty. With 35.5% of households living below the poverty line, many residents cannot meet their basic needs. It is estimated that 38% of homes do not have running water, 32% lack electricity, and 31% do not have indoor plumbing.
When Native Americans were forced to surrender their lands for territory in the West in 1830, tribes were divided onto reservations. Each contained poorly rationed resources from the government causing many Native Americans to plummet into poverty. This tragic history of colonialism informs the deep inequality Native American reservations experience. With nearly all tribal land being controlled by the government, bureaucratic processes often act as barriers to economic growth.
A village in the Navajo Nation
Handcraft provides the unique opportunity for people in the Navajo Nation to create economic opportunities for themselves and their families, while preserving important cultural traditions. In 2020, the artisan group Sáanii Dahayóó Igíí, meaning “Women of Strength,” was founded by Valerie and Sheila with the aim to provide employment to Navajo women, both on and off the reservation.
Last year, Valerie and Sheila sat together under the hot desert sun in Southern Utah with their mother, Ella, reflecting on their grandmother, Nez. Each of them expressed their desire to carry on her legacy as a Navajo woman, whose craft permeated every aspect of her life.
Nez came from a long line of people who have inhabited the Southwest region of the United States for nearly 1,000 years. Just as Nez’s hands have created traditional Navajo rugs by weaving different strands of color together to form a cohesive whole, the Navajo people’s existence is deeply intertwined with the land they live on, the wildlife that surrounds them, and the people that inhabit the earth.
On the reservation, Nez raised her eight children as a single mother after her husband passed away in a tragic accident. Her family resided in a traditional dwelling, referred to as a “hogan,” made of packed earth and traditional timbers--with no electricity or running water. Though Nez did not have a formal education, she could calculate complex and intricate patterns to weave into rugs and blankets.
Marrying into Nez’s family at a young age, Ella planned to carry on the crafting traditions of her mother-in-law. However, family hardship created a necessity for her family to move away from the reservation. During this time, Ella was distanced from her family and traditions.
Growing up as Ella’s daughters, Valerie and Sheila recall visiting their grandmother on the reservation. They remember watching her haul water from town because there was no running water in her home, and lighting oil lamps because there was no electricity. Nez chopped wood and herded sheep. They remember the delight of watching her care for her sheep, sheer their wool, and dye and spin it to prepare for loom weaving.
Sheep on the Navajo Nation
They admired her ability to take on the traditional roles belonging to both women and men on the reservation- from caring for the animals and land to cooking food and tending to the needs of her family. They wondered at her physical and emotional strength, and ability to maintain much of her daily labor until her vision gave out in old age.
As all three women look back on memories with their mother-in-law and grandmother, they attribute much of their strength and inspiration to overcome the difficulties in their lives to her.
By working to preserve their ancestral crafting traditions, and providing opportunities for Navajo women, they hope to create connections between generations by paving a way for their children, and their children’s children, to access the strength of the women who came before them.
As Ethik works with Women of Strength to provide dignified work opportunities, we recognize the pervasive role that colonialism continues to play in the impoverished state of reservations across the nation. While we gather to cut turkey and spread cranberry sauce on rolls for Thanksgiving, we acknowledge that this day commemorates the arrival of settlers on native land, followed by centuries of targeted oppression and genocide. The resilience of native people, and the connective power of their culture and community is not only inspiring, it is an honor to witness.