BYU students from Navajo Tribe share ancestral teachings

BYU Navajo student showcases traditional Navajo jewelry. Silversmithing has been a Navajo tradition since the 1850s. (Julia Orellana-Funes)

BYU students from the Navajo Tribe shared ancestral teachings that have made the most impact in their life. 

The Navajo Nation is the largest Indigenous reservation in the United States, spanning Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It is currently inhabited by just over 170,000 people, who call the land home.

“Navajo” itself is a Spanish adaptation meaning “farm fields in the valley.” In total, the Navajo population has just over 331,000 people throughout the United States, according to a 2010 U.S. census.

A group of 29 Navajo men who were selected by the U.S. Marines to create an unbreakable military code during World War ll. These men participated in every major operation in the Pacific theater.

Up until the end of the war, the Navajo code remained unbroken, and, in 2000, the original 29 code talkers were awarded Congressional Gold Medals. The Navajo leave a rich legacy, not only in their service to their fellow men and country, but also to their families. 

Leah Waldrop, co-president of the Tribe of Many Feathers club at BYU and whose grandfather is Navajo, said the Navajo think long-term about how their actions will affect their children and their children’s children. This idea is known as the Seventh Generation Principle — an ancient Iroquois philosophy. This includes how they treat each other and how they treat the earth.

“You feel bigger than just yourself,” Waldrop said. “That’s a way you can make a difference in the world because the choices you make in life can change generations and generations of your family, and those are people that you care about, even though you don’t know them yet.”

Waldrop said this principle helped her see the big picture and benefited her relationships growing up, teaching her to be mindful of the planet and conscientious of her own future family. Waldrop said the Seventh Generation Principle can help create a better world for future generations and benefit everyone, not just the Navajo.

“If everyone grew up knowing about the Seventh Generation Principle and lived their lives as if their choices were going to affect people down the line, I think that would make people more kind to each other,” Waldrop said. “I think we would keep a lot more things sacred and safe.”

She said American culture can at times lean more overindulgent rather than substantive.

“They’re just thinking about the here and now and how they could make money or make energy fast and for right now and don’t really think about the long term effects like how things would pollute their children’s water, or their children’s food sources,” Waldrop said. “I feel like it’d make people more conscious of what they’re doing and less greedy because you want to share with your children, because you love them.”

Kyle Eltsosie, the other co-president of the Tribe of Many Feathers club, grew up just outside the reservation. He said it is important to stay balanced. Eltsosie shared to live the Hózhó way is to take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually — that principle being important in Navajo culture. Eltsosie stays balanced by avoiding getting overly absorbed with one topic or aspect of life. 

“I’ve had time to think about it and ponder about it.” Eltsosie said. “It’s important that we keep a balance in our life, that we’re not just hyper-focused on one thing and forget other things that are also very important.”

Keeping a more holistic approach to life, Eltsosie sets spiritual, mental, physical and emotional goals for himself. He said following this principle can help us be more aware of each other and help build a better sense of community. 

Kimberlyn Yellowhair, a BYU student from Monument Valley, a small town on the Navajo reservation, describes Hózhó Naasha as “to walk in beauty,” to walk in harmony with all living things. Yellowhair said the idea of walking in beauty was most prominent in the gratitude she was taught growing up. 

“Whenever we say prayers, we always say what we’re grateful for,” Yellowhair said. “It could be the tiniest things like being grateful for everything that the Earth has provided us, from the sun to the ants — just the tiniest things.”

Yellowhair said walking in beauty and expressing gratitude helped her become resilient because she could always find the bright side to any situation. She gave the example of her ancestors who were sent to boarding schools and said even though it was probably one of the worst things they could have experienced, they still found ways to view it positively.

“I think it just shows how resilient native people can be and it’s just really beautiful,” Yellowhair said. “I like to see that even today within my family members and just even myself that, no matter what I go through, I always end up thinking about the positives in the end.”

Yellowhair said it is important to find ways to strengthen ourselves and to keep going, to walk in beauty, even when the adversity might seem too great. 

“I know everyone has their own ways of going through hard things and overcoming them and strengthening themselves,” Yellowhair said. “And at BYU a lot of that is through Christ. So, I think that it’s all the same what I’ve been taught, compared to what other people have been taught.”

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