Interviewing Indigenous Visionaries: Dr. Delores Greyeyes, Director of the Navajo Department of Corrections
Valene A. Hatathlie
Navajo Cultural Arts Certificate Student, American Indian College Fund Indigenous Visionaries Fellow
Our conversation only reinforced the knowledge that Sa’ah Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhóón, which is a four-step process of Thinking, Planning, Implementation, and Reflection, is pivotal to a person’s success. Within this philosophy there is the practice of personal accountability – we call T’áá hwo ajitéego. And part of the self-accountability is learning how and when to help others.
In the conversation Dr. Greyeyes, the second of nine children in her framily, revealed that a pivotal moment with her understanding of T’áá hwo ajitéego happened when she was about eight or nine years old after her mother, a woman raised her children based on traditional Navajo teachings and wove Navajo textiles to support her family, had made the well-thought-out decision to divorce her father to protect her children from domestic violence. As Dr. Greyeyes was out herding sheep, she watched them graze. Her focus shifted upward to the sky. In that silence, she made an oath to never let her own children go through the type of abuse her father inflicted on his family, and she swore to never leave her mother’s side.
With mentors like her mother, Dr. Greyeyes and her family lived on top of Black Mesa. The struggle they experienced was a familiar one that resonates with other families on the Navajo Nation – that same lack of resources continues to plague us still. Dr. Greyeyes grew up knowing that people around her needed help. Knowing that there was missing infrastructure, she sought to build a judicial foundation on the Navajo Nation. To achieve that goal, she set out on a pathway of higher education. Early in her academic career, Dr. Greyeyes received an associated degree in human resources. She then went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s in social work. She did not stop there. She continued onward and a received a Doctoral Degree in social justice with an emphasis in criminal justice. As she wrote her thesis, her research reminded her that cultural teaching is substantial in a person’s lifetime success
Dr. Greyeyes believes these cultural teachings should be available to all Navajo people who want or need them. With the knowledge as her armor, she researches Native American prisoners and their journeys that have led them to the correctional system and their experiences while in the system. She learned they were eager for cultural teaching. She believes that early education roots individuals for lifetime achievements.
So the questions I have for myself now as I continue my leadership and weaving journeys:
(1) how will I be able to pull together my environmental concerns with my weaving knowledge and skills; (2) how can I use my voice to create change in those areas; (3) how will I choose to act?
Dr. Christine Ami
NCAP Grant Manager and 2020/21 American Indian College Fund Indigenous Visionaries Mentor
March 31, 2021: I couldn't image a better last day of National Women's History Month than with a book discussion on I am Malala followed by a memoir writing workshop with none other than the president of the American Indian College Fund, Cheryl Crazy Bull!
Throughout our Virtual Connection, we had the opportunity to hear from several of the other Indigenous Visionaries fellows from: Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and Salish Kootenai College. We touched upon some key points and personal connections with the text. I was particularly impacted by commentary from our own NCAP Visionary, Tammy Martin, who pointed out that she read the story of Malala, a young girl who was shot by the Taliban for advocating for eduction, through the eyes of young Nobel Peace Prize winner's parents.
Our discussion moved from takes on feminism to the power of writing for women. One of our College Fund facilitators brought forth a quote from the reading that highlights the act of writing as activism. Malala writes:
I know, I know - I am getting a bit jargony here - but hang with me for a sec or two...
Specifically, Spivak highlights: "Can the subalern speak? What must the elite do to watch out for the continuing construction of the subaltern? The question of 'woman' seems most problematics in this context" (90). Through her critical eye of Foucault and Deleuze, she concludes: "The subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with 'woman' as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish" (104). So the question remains - how does the intellectual, even the female intellectual, represent these voices without being condescending, without commoditizing their knowledges and their experiences, without engaging with epistemic violence of academia? For Malala the answer is clear, don't wait for the academic - write for ourselves.
Just as my mind started to wonder further into memories of literary theory and gender studies lectures, inquiries of what/who defines an "intellectual", and the complexities of my role as a Navajo woman with a Ph.D. in academia, our Indigenous Visionaries event flowed into a memoir writing workshop
- I see what you did there, College Fund people... read a memoir, workshop our own memoirs ;)
You see, I write in stories - a highly controversial form of data delivery in the academic realm - second reader responses typically echo: where is the hypothesis?; is this the introduction?; why can't you just get to the point?; is this creative writing?, is it theory?, is this even research? My introductions are usually snapshots of when the perplexities of the study have culminated in a personal setting and my conclusions are usually finalized with my traditional introduction, reaffirmations of who I am as a Navajo woman. In between are hypotheses, data, theory and research.
More importantly, these stories from my experiences, from my studies - both formal and informal - are how I learned to learn and how I learned to teach. From weaving to butchering, from graduate papers to my dissertation, from to my response to the Navajo Nation's president for silencing me to my current application for a National Endowment of the Humanities Grant - stories are where you will find my voice, my successes, my failures, my family - it is where you will find me. So vulnerability pretty much wraps up a lot of my anxieties about publishing.
Cheryl pushed those vulnerability buttons and had us practice some writing - "How does your story start?" What better time to test out the starting line to my article draft, entitled: "A Native Scholar Pushing Back: Epistemological Imperialism, Academic Gaslighting, and Credential Theft". What would people say? What would my peers think? Despite the fact that the group I was writing with could not have been more supportive, vulnerability creeped in. Oh well... here I go:
In the stillness of my home before the sun rose, before my children, husband and animals awoke, I was trying to make sense of the theft of my Indigenous research credentials by a non-Native former colleague.
Heads nodding - That's a good zoom sign. A voice reached out: "I would read that!" Another voice followed, "Yeah, I would too." Followed by another, "Now, I want to know what happened!" Validation of my experience, of my voice, of not only others hearing me - but of others listening to me. It was only the first sentence and the story was still to come, but it was an opening line that epitomized a crucial moment in my life as an academic and a Native woman and which also interwove my experience in complex sociopolitical realities of the Native American Studies discipline.
After our workshop, I thought about what was shared and what it means for a Native American Woman to write down her stories. My fingers reached for one of the first Native women's anthology that I had ever read, Reinventing the Enemy's Language (1997). Julia Coates, Councilor for the Cherokee Nation's Legislative Branch, and my first Native Women's Literature professor at UC Davis, introduced me to this compilation of poems, songs, and essays that bring to life the "beautiful survival" of Native women, including all of the ugly as Joy Harjo declares: "We are still here, still telling stories, still singing whether it be in our native language or in the 'enemy' tongue" (31).
As my mind returned to the issues brought forth by Spivak, these questions returned: How can I write about Navajo women, from my position as an academic, and encapsulate their voice with mine? And then I thought - why do I have to encapsulate ALL Navajo women and why do I have to write like a western academic? What I write about is my experience as a Navajo woman and I write in stories.
These sensory textile narratives constitute creative acts of writing, complicate constructions of Indigenous feminisms, and promote cultural sovereignty through means other than the enemy’s language.
And as I thought of those words and my place in academia, I thought of my grandmother. I thought of how she told me stories - it was through weaving. Weaving is our memoir - In the warp are stories of her survival and mine. Each line is a recap of my day, smooth hooks retell my successes, each section unwoven is not only the presentation of one of my failures but also my reattempt at troubleshooting the problem at hand. Inside my weavings are my thoughts - my family - my research - my vulnerabilities. Inside my weavings are told, unseen stories.
I haven't woven a complete piece in years - work and life have kept my loom covered. I tried to look at my weaving tools that were my nálí's who passed away from COVID complications in July. But I just wasn't ready.
But today - today is different. Today I picked up my spindle. The warp, my hand, my thigh became one instrument. My spit used to mat and settle the warping mixed with the wood of the spindle and in return that taste of wood brought forth the memory of the feel of my nálí's velveteen skirt - coated with a slight tinge of mutton grease. The sound of my spindle on the floor joined the sound of her spindle in my memory.
Just like that - My grandmother, Cheryl, Gayatri, Julia, Joy, Inés, and I, we started a new piece - In this warp is the outline for my next memoir - this one includes the stories of the Visionary fellows and how they got their mentor to weave once more. It is filled with the vulnerabilities we discussed in our workshop, power that is associated with learning to write ones story, and continuation of our ways of knowing with a weaving comb in hand.
Sue V. Begay
Weaving BFA Student, American Indian College Fund Indigenous Visionaries Winter 2021 Fellow
Never once did I think that one day I would be amongst them as an artist. Well, it happened this year.
With the encouragement from the Navajo Cultural Arts Program, my Visionaries' mentor, and one of my weaving mentors, Tahnibaa Nataanii, I completed the Heard Guild and Indian Market's application and submitted it. The application process was pretty simple – to be considered I submitted my art descriptions, pictures and paid an application fee. The hard part was waiting to hear if my art was accepted. The anticipation to receive word back as to whether or not I was accepted, waitlisted or rejected was almost too much...I didn't know if I would get it. It takes artists YEARs to get it.... but it came! I was accepted!
Sue V. Begay from Dennehotso, Arizona got a spot at the Heard Museum!
After I accepted and paid my booth fee, my thoughts were on how exciting and honored it was going to be placed among the super famous artists. Seriously though – Tahnibaa Nataanii, Lynda Pete, Barbara Teller Ornelas – they are my teachers, my friends and I was going to have our work shown next to theirs! I was happy to be amongst them even though it was a virtual experience.
I was elated to sell two of my three weaving pieces. The personal experience is self-achieving with lots of support and encouragement from your peers. If it were not for the support of Diné College programs I would not have had the opportunity to shine with the superstars.
I look forward to submitting again next year. I'll have to apply again and I am sure it will be an entirely unique experience to be selling there in person.
A few pieces of advice that I have for my fellow emerging Navajo artists about entering into shows like the Heard Indian Market is:
The pictorial raised edge with an eagle design pillow shown below is one of my items that sold at The Heard.
Navajo Weaving BFA Student, American Indian College Fund Indigenous Visionaries Fellow
She was very happy with her sale because she got to keep the money. This money allowed her to buy graduation items she thought she wouldn’t be able to afford. She went on to attended Navajo Community College (now Diné College) and earned a certificate. She uprooted from her home area and moved to the Eastern Agency community of Crownpoint. It was here that she worked at Indian Health Services, the Navajo Nation Police Department, the Office of Vital Statistics, and Crownpoint Community School.
She had married, had a family and a place to call home. Weaving became therapy because she soon found herself a victim to domestic violence. Two years after filing for divorce, her oldest daughter became ill with leukemia and passed away in April. During these trying times weaving de-stressed her and provided an extra income. Five years later, she married Kenneth Begay, a big supporter of Gloria and his stepchildren.
When teaching her students, she tells them to research other well known weavers and their textiles such as Roy Kady, sisters Barbara and Lynda Teller, Gilbert Nez-Begay, and Kevin Aspaas; they all have their own story for weaving, their styles are what makes them recognizable, even from a glance. She says “the more you learn about other weavers, the more you know about yourself and you can create your own style”.
Learn your language, even if you know just a few words, you identify yourself as a Diné person; to learn that being Diné is unique. “No one can take that identity from you”. That is something that a lot of our youth are dealing with, they may feel embarrassed to speak it because they might get shamed for speaking; it should be that way, we should be encouraging all the youth to speak our language.
The last is something that she recalls her mother sternly telling her “You have ten fingers, those ten fingers are given to you so that you can take care of yourself; work with your hands”. This was not just a saying, it is the Diné philosophy of self determination or T’aa Awoli Bee. I recall my own grandmother saying that whatever you want or desire is at the very tip of your fingers, it's up to you to make the rest of the hand, mind and body to work to earn it. Sometimes, we take for granted how much work you put into something has its own rewards, or sense of accomplishment.
We ended the interview encouraging one another to keep weaving, carding, spinning, and learning. In Gloria’s words “Weaving is a non-stop learning process”.
Download the full recap of Tammy's interview with Gloria here: