Thoughts on life, death, moisture, and my brother.
Death is such a touchy topic for many, but especially for Navajo people. For me, my work brings me very close to death - mostly with non-human animal deaths- so much so that I am writing a whole book about it. But we often forget that humans are in fact animals and death is part of life.
To say that writing sections of this book has been cathartic would be an understatement; it has allowed a release of emotions and actions that, for me, have allowed grieving to take place. Many of the knowledge holders I worked with, had conversations with, butchered with during my dissertation now are gone. So, as I write, I celebrate their knowledges -- remembering them in a good way and re-membering me in a good way.
As Navajo people we have dealings with death that many of us have forgotten - relationships if you will - that have slipped into a realm of "taboo." When topics of human death arise, we quickly shove it away with "yiiyah." And when nonhuman animal deaths take place, we quickly brush it off as coincidence. In our avoidance, we have forgotten obligations, including gender led responsibilities, which for Navajos are heavily laid upon men's shoulders, especially in the case of human animal deaths. Entangled with avoidance, grieving also becomes hidden, because we have left behind practices of how to process death; grief, it seems, has also entered into a "taboo" topic.
But, death and grief aren't taboo, they are part of life. And now, as Navajo people we find ourselves at a critical juncture, where we can continue to let "taboos" run us away from
-learning how to care for our dead and dying through Navajo ways of knowing
-learning how to read signs about death that are brought to us by the more-than-human
-learning how to grieve so that we can create a healthy relationship with death that will not make us sick
or we can carefully, with respect, with knowledge holders, work to rebuild relationships with life and death.
Because death can make us sick - if we do not work through grief
-- avoidance is not working through it,
--labeling it as a taboo is not working through it,
And here, within this hamster wheel is where we get stuck -- needing to know how to process grief without overstepping "taboos". As the wheel moves, we go no where and grief weighs us down, making us vulnerable to sickness - both western and Navajo explained.
So I am glad that Navajo community members are writing about this - Dr. Jennifer New Denetdale has a piece coming out entitled: "Mom, you'll be home by summer": A Diné Story of Cancer, Death, Grief, and Home" Commissioner Steven Darden's work through the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission: "Revitalizing the Traditional Diné End of Life Practices" addresses the practicalities of death of Navajo people. And Wally Brown speaks of these topics in his YouTube video: "Traditional Navajo View on Death and Grieving." And of course there are those creative writers I mentioned in my book review of The Diné Reader (2021) for their "embrac[ing] death's integral relationship to our cycle of life—of our corn, sheep, ways of knowing." (Yeah.. I just quoted myself lol: Check out that book review here) These works don't get stuck in the fear of taboos but in the self-accountability of renewing relationships with a life that is larger than our own. They do not write to become obsessed or to have other obsess over human animal deaths - but to better understand how to be proactive in stopping the hamster wheel.
With that, I leave you with some thoughts of my brother, who inspired this butchering project, and passed away New Year's Day of 2022. This story is about stepping off the hamster wheel and listening to the snow...
It snowed today - New Year’s Day - just like it did last year.
This isn’t the first time moisture has come to me with news of this type and it won't be the last. When nálí man died, he traveled to me 4 days after his passing and broke our drought. That rain was soft, steady and strong like he was hugging me telling me to forgive. Then there was grandma, with immediate lightening, thunder, hard rain- telling me of the tests that would come, commanding me to stay put, and reminding me that she would be there to scold me when I did otherwise. And most recently my cheii left this world a few weeks ago with a fluffy soft snow 5 inches deep, like a blanket apologizing for his daughter, my biological mother, who seemingly tossed me away and yet it was also a reminder of where I came from and who I am.
Last year's blizzard though - it was filled with shock and pain, secrets and addictions- the blizzard came to tell me the news of my brother's death before I heard it from family.
Last New Year’s Day, after my dad called, after I spoke with family, life surrounded me - I had animals to get to and boys to feed. So after breakfast, we bundled up again and headed out into the unforgiving wind to shovel. The sun was out but the wind made it impossible for us to keep the trail from the house to the corral clear. We could move the snow and within minutes it would be filled again. But I didn’t stop trying, because I knew if I stopped, adrenaline would slow and I would feel inside. At that moment, I needed to feel the outside, I needed to feel the piercing wind on my face -punishment for not being there to help him, retribution for not being with his siblings at that very moment to help them, sanctions for not having trust set with people, with him, to tell me of his problems or maybe he did and I just wasn't listening. The stinging also created a tangible grounding to reality, that this blizzard was real. I needed to keep pushing every muscle in my body so I could feel life and do something with all the anger and hurt I had. So I kept going - until my husband took my shovel away and there, in front of the corral, my tears became one with the icy snow being thrown at my face by the wind.
Just then blizzard stopped, allowing me to process the reality - he was no longer physically in this world but now preparing for his journey to the north, a path that not all make to the end. It was now his fathers', all of them, their responsibility to push him on, to get him going, to have him leave. My roles as his big sister became different. While we aren’t the same clan - our fathers are brothers so that made us siblings and I prepared for mourning. I needed this period - I needed to really feel this - I needed to somehow sacrifice during these next four days. And in four days, I would send him away with water and sun and as much raw grief as I could wash from my hair. No, none of these are taboos, all of these are part of my obligations, recognizing the balance between life and death and the limits of their boundaries.
This year’s New Year’s Day, it is snowing again and life still continues. It is a different kind of snow - sleeting. But still a blessing. It comes after four days of fluffy wet snow that has now begun to melt. Together, the snow, slush, ice, and mud are making it a bitch to push the wheel barrel to and from the corral. I could take this as coincidence - but I know there is no such thing. Today’s snow is much like how life has been for the past year since he left, sleeting, muddy and a bitch to get through - and for me, my tires get stuck in anger. But I remember the lessons and remember the blessings. I am grateful for the moisture today - and last year’s despite the news it brought. They prepare me, test me, and tell me to keep trudging along -- in the mud and the slush, keep the tires moving, Christine.
So this New Year’s Day, like last year's I missed my morning phone calls with him, his late night messages. But I also remembered what I told my siblings after their brother passed - "it's okay to be sad, but not for too long." This morning and in the afternoon, I pick up my hay hooks, thought of him, and smiled. Tonight I made spam, potato and onions, a meal that I always photographed and sent to him because we are rezzy like that. And it was delicious; it made me smile.
It snowed today - and I miss him. But like the wheels on my wheel barrow -- life must keep moving forward.
Thank you for reading about this sensitive topic and this personal story.
If anything, I hope you take away how easily it can be get to get stuck, like a hamster wheel with grief. Not only can't you move forward but the loved ones who passed away can't move forward either. We forget that they are supposed to be on their own journeys now too. Moving forward doesn't have to be moving on. Every so often, it will sting again but keep your wheels moving forward; you don't get stuck, you don’t forget them, the lessons, or the memories; rather, you let them continue on their own journey, you learn from what they taught you when your journeys were in the same world and you teach that to others - the good and the bad. Lessons aren't always pretty sometimes they are harsh, like the snow.
And don't forget, it's okay to ask knowledge holders for lessons, it's okay to be sad, but not for too long, it's okay to find help if your grieving is making you sick, and if you are a knowledge holder, it's okay to share, especially with your loved ones.
Just a Tách'inii thinking out loud about butchering, researching, manuscript writing, and life on the Navajo reservation.