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Raised on a reservation, Navajo teen talks graduating high school and the impact of COVID-19

Raised on a reservation, Navajo teen talks graduating high school and the impact of COVID-19

It is estimated that the graduating high school class of 2020 in the United States will total about 3.7 million. Many will pursue a college degree or perhaps vocational training of some kind and others will enter a job market that is one of the worst in the history of this country. El Tecolote spoke to a recent high school graduate from the Navajo Nation, Nishonii Holiday, about this milestone in her life and how her community has been impacted by COVID-19 in recents months.

When asked for her full name for this story, she says with a laugh: “Ok I am going to introduce myself and explain.” 

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When a Native American of the Navajo Nation introduces themselves, it is more than just telling someone their name, it’s about sharing who they are and where they come from. This starts with their clans. Each clan comes from a different area of the Navajo Nation, with their own meaning and a story. Each person belongs to four different clans. 

“When you meet someone and shake their hand, you are telling them your whole story,” said Holiday, explaining that a person’s story is told by their hand, each finger representing a clan. “You are your thumb and then you introduce your four clans. The first finger is for the clan of your mother (nishłį́), the second is the clan of your father (bashishchiin), the third is the clan of your maternal grandfather (dashicheii) and the fourth is the clan of your paternal grandfather (dashinalí).

“So, here is how I introduce myself,” Holiday begins. “Shí éí (name) yinishyé (I am called) Nishonii Holiday; or, my name is Nishonii Holiday, Coyote Pass Jemez, Blacksheep, Kiaoni, Folding Arm…I am from the Oljato Chapter of the Navajo Nation and a graduate of Monument Valley High School, class of 2020.” 

Nishonii, if you’re wondering, means beautiful. 

Nishonii Holiday.

Despite the challenges and difficulties she has faced in her young life, Holiday has a calming and peaceful way about her, optimistic with a relaxed sensibility that reveals life experiences beyond her 17 years. She is the youngest of seven children—nine if you include two step siblings. She lives with her father and one of her older brothers in what she refers to as a small to medium sized town—by Navajo nation standards—of about 200 people. Her mother lives with her grandparents in the next town over, as does her stepmother, and the rest of her siblings live on the reservation and in Salt Lake City, Utah.

 Her father is a welder and often away from home for his work so it is mainly up to Holiday and her brother to maintain things around the house, including getting water from an uncle’s well a few times a week and ensuring the generator and outhouse are kept up. “Most of the people living on the reservation in the Navajo Nation don’t have running water, electricity or natural gas service,” Holiday said. “Many people rely on propane for heating their home and to heat water for cooking and bathing. Some may have one or the other, most down in the valley have nothing.” 

Holiday shares videos on Tik Tok of her life on the reservation, including her hair washing routine using the jugs of water she and her brother fill from their trips to the well. The house she has been living in for the last three years has no running water or electricity, but they hope to have it this summer. “Everything takes a really long time with the Navajo Government, that’s just how it is,” she said. “A group of students from my school went to Washington DC and visited the office of the Navajo Nation, they said they had received all these funds, but we don’t know where they went. It’s not that we need donations, we need action.”

When asked about the challenges her people face during the pandemic, she has a complex but simple answer. “People that live on the reservation in the Navajo Nation are not very trusting of people outside,” Holiday said. “Elders and adults don’t want help from non-natives and they don’t always follow the advice they are being given from people they consider to be outsiders. The Navajo government also doesn’t do a good job of communicating with the people. We also have bad internet access, so it’s hard to get information out, especially when everything is changing constantly. All of this makes young people feel helpless and fearful that the preservation of our culture and heritage will be lost without elders to pass down traditions.” 

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When COVID-19 reached her community, resources began to dwindle quickly. There are only 13 grocery stores throughout the entire Navajo Nation, an area of roughly 27 square miles with 173,000 people. “They started to run out of food and supplies quickly,” said Holiday. “Natives just aren’t recognized, but with the help of celebrities like Sean Penn and Jason Momoa, we got the water, food and supplies we needed. Finally, the Navajo government stepped up and opened food banks. Why it took so long, we don’t know, they don’t say anything.”

Graduation day for high schools in the Navajo Nation was much like the rest of the country, uneventful. “We could have family take us to graduation, but everything was separate,” said Holiday. “We each went one by one to have a photo taken with the principal holding our diploma and got back in the car and left. I didn’t see my friends, my family didn’t watch me get my diploma, that was kind of it.” When asked if her school planned to celebrate graduation later, she said, “I don’t think so.” 

Monument Valley, Utah. Photo: Nishonii Holiday

“The Navajo Nation is kind of on lock down and my dad was recently laid off so, probably at least I can spend time with him and my brother,” she said. 

Nishonii is headed to Fort Lewis College in the fall where she will live on campus and study biology with plans to go to dental school. She wants to return to the Navajo Nation and help her people. She will work with children to help them understand the importance of good dental health. “They need to know that they eat, speak and smile with their teeth, so they have to take good care of them,” Holiday said.