In July, the Escalante River Watershed Partnership took eight young people from the Ancestral Lands Youth Conservation Crew into Harris Wash in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. As field staff, we shared with the Hopi Youth Crew the process by which the Russian olive removal program helps to restore the watershed. The four-day trip would be the first time the Hopi Youth Crew would go backcountry to a remote location. It would also be their first time visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. While the location and the type of work were new experiences, each crew member respectfully met the venture with a smile.
We began our trip at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center. During our meet and greet, I gazed upon the young crew's faces. Within their eyes I saw sparkles of anticipation, and they went about getting ready with enthusiasm. As we continued our way, I could not help but think about my first experience within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Memories of a young Diné girl on a multi-day outdoor leadership course flooded my mind. I can remember being excited to immerse myself with the Escalante River. I wanted to know what it was to be within the canyon. Just before our group dropped into 25 Mile Wash, I can remember gazing out into the distance wondering what experiences awaited me. That same eagerness I had then, I could sense again, but this time from the crew.
My upbringing as a five-fingered being on the Navajo Nation was tied to Náhásdzaan Shíma, Mother Earth. I was taught my interactions with her were characterized by a strong sense of connectedness to place, and a respect for all living things. That the relationship to land, community and to each other plays an important role in our identity as a people. As I continued working, I did so with a smile, my spirit was happy. For in that moment I was now coming from a place of respect and with more awareness as a Diné.
As the sun moved across the sky, playful banter, laughter and songs sung in their native tongue echoed throughout the canyon walls. The environment created by the Hopi Youth Crew propelled me to a familiar place, I was suddenly back home surrounded by family. An overwhelming sense of comfort and a reconnecting to place went throughout my being. Working with these young people, I was able to reconnect to my authentic self. I know now my indigeneity runs deep, and for that I am grateful to each of them.
As we ended the trip, I was leaving with a reclaiming of my identity, I felt renewed. While it is not my place of origin, the national monument evokes memories of place, of community. Unfortunately, it is this sense of discovery, this connection to the land, that is at risk with the national monument review being conducted in Washington, D.C.
As I, with renewed eyes, continue to do my part as a steward to the land, and to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, I hope the administration will do the same and leave our national monument intact so that future generations will have the opportunity to gain an understanding of the place in which a lot of people call home.