Photo by Gabi Piña
Story by Danielle Bunting
Pima Community College student Jordan Collins, 19, grew up on the Navajo reservation listening to stories about his great great great grandmother Na’ałtǫǫ’í Bitsį́’.
His ancestor, whose name means Tobacco’s Daughter, escaped from the Navajo Long Walk in 1864.
The Navajo Long Walk started when the U.S. Army forced Navajos to march from their native regions to Fort Sumner, N.M. The trek took a little more than 18 days by foot and at least 200 Navajos died along the way.
Tobacco’s Daughter’s family was forced to trek the Long Walk, and late one winter night her mother helped her escape. Tobacco’s Daughter ran two nights and returned home to gather supplies and sheep.
She then traveled to the highest point of a mountain on the reservation and lived in isolation for about 11 years. When the Navajo people were released and returned to the land, Tobacco’s Daughter found a husband and had children.
Tobacco’s Daughter claimed all of the land that Collins’ and his family now own.
“On the reservation today we still have our family reunion at the base of the mountain every year,” Collins said.
The Navajo nation is the largest Native American reservation in the United States. The nation’s region includes northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado.
Collins grew up in LeChee, Ariz., about a mile from Page, Ariz., near Lake Powell and the Utah border.
“I miss the lake and my family most of all,” Collins said.
Collins moved to Tucson to earn a college education and is taking courses at West Campus, working toward a degree in mathematics in order to teach someday.
He enjoys math, hanging out with his friends and playing tennis.
“I was on the varsity tennis team all four years of high school. I was the No. 1 player on the team for three years,” Collins said. “I almost played for Mesa Community College or Gateway in Phoenix, but I ended up coming to Tucson.”
Although the Navajo tribe is a very old culture, Navajos still thrive and function in modern society.
“It’s a sovereign nation under the U.S. government,” Collins said. “We elect the president and the Navajo nation is comprised of many different sections maintained by the chapter houses.”
President Joe Shirley currently holds office in the Navajo nation. Chapter houses maintain their designated territory of the reservation. A president resides over each chapter, and if anyone has a complaint they go to him.
“There is a grazing committee that is run through the chapter house to maintain people’s livestock,” Collins said. “You register to vote and cast your ballot there.”
As a formal introduction to know who your family is and avoid interbreeding, Navajos introduce themselves based on the clan system.
“You have four different clans, the main two are the most important,” Collins said. “First is your mother’s clan, the main one. The second is your father’s, the third is your maternal grandfather’s, the fourth is the paternal grandfather’s clan.”
Collins’ two main clans are Tódích’inii, meaning by water’s edge, and Kinyaanii, meaning red house.
“I would say that’s interesting because it makes our tribe unique,” Collins said.
Living on the reservation provides many interesting opportunities. Despite being in the 21st century, many native traditions live on.
“A lot of traditional families still practice everything,” Collins said. “From raising sheep to farming, still.”
Navajos continue to wear traditional dress for special occasions. Many Navajos still believe the turquoise stone provides protection.
“Little kids are given turquoise bracelets as a form of protection, traditionally,” Collins said. “Women used to have to farm the fields and they would leave the bracelets on the kids for reassurance.”
For men, Navajo traditional dress consists of moccasins, a long sleeved shirt and pants with leather coming down from the knees for protection.
Women wear long-sleeved shirts, moccasins and their hair tied in a bun with wool strung into yarn. In order to put their hair in a bun, they use a Navajo hair brush made of dry grass strands that are two to three inches in diameter.
Collins knows how to have fun by mixing old and new forms of entertainment on the reservation.
“My family owns five horses and I like to ride my horse,” Collins said. “My family also enjoys riding dirt-bikes and quads.”
The arid desert of the Navajo reservation provides a unique setting to keep Native American traditions alive while still living in the modern world. Collins is just one example of how a person can grow up with traditional values and strive to achieve big modern-day hopes.