Dusty shoes and chasing sheep: My reservation childhood

HOUSTON -- I can close my eyes and still feel the warmth of my little body as I curl up underneath a blanket on my grandparents' pullout couch. There was a coolness to the summer mornings in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, a small community on the Navajo (Diné) Nation that is located near the four corners.

I am not fully awake and my eyelids still hang heavy enough to stay shut. I can hear shimasani ("my grandmother" in Navajo) clanging the pots and pans, searching for her favorite one. Shicheii ("my grandfather" in Navajo) was usually already headed to our family farm. On some days, if I woke up early enough, I could hear him starting up the tractor and would listen to the purr of the engine slowly fade off into the distance.

Mornings were always my favorite time with my grandparents. I was usually nudged out of bed by shimasani when breakfast was ready and the house smelled of food. I would sit down at the table with my bushy black hair, wait for her to recite her daily prayer in Navajo, and then dive into a steaming hot plate of fried potatoes and Spam with fresh naneskadi, Navajo tortillas.

As a grownup, this is still one of my favorite meals -- one that floods me with so many memories of a unique childhood spent on and off the Navajo Nation.

I grew up on the west side of Phoenix in the city of Glendale. My parents moved to the city for better jobs and better opportunities. Both were born and raised on the reservation, so making this move was a big deal. Ever since we were small, my sister and I were told that Dine Bikeyah, the Navajo Nation, was our true home.

Since I was two years old, I have traveled six hours each way to visit my family on the reservation. I've seen the beauty of my tribal homeland in all four seasons. I can recognize all the mountains and mesas, watching them go by from the backseat.

I have fond memories of playing with the rez dogs, herding sheep, slurping down a cool orange soda under the hot sun and having an endless playground out on the rugged reservation.

It is these experiences that helped shape me.

Being Native American comes with so much joy, but also a lot of pain. The stereotypes still live in the minds of many. I cannot count how many times I have been asked if I live in a teepee or if I get free money from the government. The answer to both is no.

I have also become comfortable with usually being the only Indigenous person in the room. Is it lonely? Absolutely. Will it stop me? No.

For me, the greatest challenge is thriving in a world that, historically, wanted to see people like me fail. My ancestors fought to survive horrific atrocities committed by the United States government. First was our forced relocation and then forced assimilation. There were so many people who did not make it. I never forget that.

This pain is not unique to the Navajo but sadly is the history of many Indigenous people in this country. It is an invisible hurt that we all carry with us.

But through this pain, we still find our joy. We celebrate our language, our stories, our traditions and our survival. My grandparents passed on these gifts every single moment I was with them. I did not realize it at the time, but they were showing me what it means to be a strong and confident Navajo woman -- someone who takes pride in who I am.

I never imagined I would ever go from playing in the rez dirt and chasing sheep to reporting the news in one of the largest television markets in the country. As a kid, I never dreamed someone like me could make it here. Throughout my years as a news reporter, I've received messages from Navajo viewers saying how they love to see me on TV, how proud I make them -- thanking me for representing Native American people and inspiring a new generation.

For me, that is the best compliment.

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