Friday, November 15, 2019

Native American Heritage Month: Navajo Student Shares Her Story

Leilani Lee

November is Native American Heritage Month. Leilani Lee is one of more than 200 Salt Lake Community College students who identify as American Indian/Alaskan Native.

Lee, 33, is Diné (Navajo), attending SLCC with the help of the D. Ashton Hillman Scholarship for Native Americans. She is currently working toward associate degrees in Non-Destructive Testing and Welding Fabrication and Inspection. She grew up in Utah and on the Central Oregon Coast and currently lives in Salt Lake City.

This is Leilani’s story.

About you:
I am Tse deeshgizhnii (Rock Gap), born for Honaghaahnii (One Walks Around). My maternal grandfather is Chishi (Chiracahua Apache), and my paternal grandfather is Todich'ii'nii (Bitter Water). I grew up on a different tribal reservation than my own. I spent much of my teen years on the Grand Ronde Reservation and visited my family on the Navajo Reservation as much as I possibly could. My maternal family is from Sand Springs, Arizona, and my paternal family is in Sawmill, AZ. In my community in Oregon, there would sometimes be Navajo storytellers who visited or other visitors to the longhouse or women sweat lodge meetings, and I would just spend as much time with them as possible. It has been a dance to partake in some ceremonies of the Grand Ronde, Warm Springs, Yakima or Nez Perce people while maintaining what is appropriate for me as a DinĂ© woman. I have had to work hard to practice my own traditional ways but feel at peace when I do. I don’t speak my language as well as I should and have been trying to teach myself for the sake of my three daughters so that they may have more knowledge and carry on our traditional ways. With the help of mentors from The Urban Indian Center and especially Julius Chavez, I have been able to reconnect with my people and am thankful for those who have the patience to teach.

What your Native American heritage means to you:
It has been difficult for me to maintain traditional Navajo ways being so far from family, but I do my best. It does not stop me from trying to carry on the traditions. It is especially important for me to pass down the language and traditions to my children. Knowing that I am a part of something greater than myself has helped me overcome many barriers in my life, including addiction. I hope that my daughters will be able to feel the connection and know that they will never be alone. We are who our ancestors prayed for and have a responsibility to continue to pray for our future generations and carry on the traditions.

What you want others to know about Native Americans in general:
We have a lot to be offended about! Often, I see (mostly online) that people are calling our current American culture the “I’m offended” age. Recently, I saw a local photographer post an ad calling for people to “dress up” as Native Americans, to even be spray tanned to fit the bill. We find this kind of thing to be offensive. I truly believe that we have a right to be offended by something like this, and it has nothing to do with this “I’m offended” idea that just sweeps things under the rug. We will not just “get over it,” and I really hope to see progress in the way of civil rights and reparations due for minorities who have been oppressed.

What Native American Heritage Month means to you:
To me it shows some progress in the way of letting America know that we are still here. For many generations, the idea of Thanksgiving, I feel, has been skewed. Making November Native American Month helps bring back “the reason for the season” so to say. I am also very happy about many states recognizing Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day now. I hope that bringing awareness of Native American Month will resonate with our current and future national culture and allow citizens to seriously consider what is being taught in American history books.

In what ways at home or throughout the year do you celebrate and keep alive your Native American heritage:
My family and I pray together. My mother is usually the first one up, burning cedar in the morning. We come in for our blessing. We also attend powwows, food and craft sales to visit with and make friends in the community. In the winter, we love going to shoe games and listening to winter stories. We also join in sweat lodge whenever possible and basically just go where gatherings are taking place.

Plans for after SLCC:
I am currently working in a structural steel fabrication shop and will enter the field as an ironworker after my apprenticeship takes off this coming spring after my graduation from SLCC. I will work as a welder until I get enough experience to take the AWS Certified Weld Inspector exam. My end goal is to start an inspection firm with my husband, who is also graduating from SLCC with a Non-Destructive Testing degree this spring, and be my own boss.

Leilani Lee attends welding class at SLCC's Westpointe Workforce Training & Education Center.