Diné travel to sacred peak

A group of young Diné recreate their peoples' forced march from their homeland to call attention to issues faced by the nation today. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

Annie Ayze said the walk is a way for her and others to know their culture.

While the Civil War raged in the east, the Diné people - commonly called Navajos - endured a death march of more than 300 miles from their traditional homeland in the Four Corners region to a barren wasteland reservation in eastern New Mexico. The Diné simply call the atrocity the "Long Walk."

Over a century and a half later, a group of young Diné just completed a different long walk, one that took them to the four lofty peaks that define the traditional corners of Diné Tah, the Diné homeland.

Last week the walkers arrived at Mt. Blanca, known to the Diné as Tsisnaasjini', or White Shell Mountain. Their journey, which began at Huerfano Mesa near Bloomfield, New Mexico, has taken them over 1,200 miles of desert. They began their walk in January.

Their journey has taken them to the other sacred mountains: Mount Taylor, north of Laguna, New Mexico; the San Francisco Peaks, near Flagstaff, Arizona; and Mt. Hesperus, in the La Plata Mountains of Colorado.

The walkers gave a presentation on their journey at Adams State University on Tuesday. The walk means many things to its participants. It honors the memory of their ancestors who endured misery and torture on the Long Walk, and draws attention to environmental and cultural degradation plaguing the Navajo Nation today.

"It's not so much that this land belongs to us as much as we belong to this land," said Dana Eldridge, one of the walk's organizers. "We all need to do our part in protecting this land. If we can't drink the water, if we can't breathe the air, what kind of future do we have? All the money in the world won't save you from that, no matter what."

The Navajo Nation sits over the San Juan Basin, one of the world's largest repositories of oil, natural gas, and uranium. Decades of resource extraction have left much of the sacred Diné homeland scarred and poisoned.

"We live with it every day, and we see the realities of how it plays out in terms of pollution and contamination of our water, of our land, of our air," said Eldridge. "One of our sisters has a saying that what happens to the land, happens to our people. It's like there's this sickness, this illness that hangs heavy over our people because we're not respecting our Mother Earth, we're not respecting those sacred beings, which give us life."

Supporter Tom Johnston said the walk draws attention to the ecological disaster on the Nation. "Some of us just hear the cry of the earth better than some other people do," Johnston said. "It's not an excuse to say it's bigger than I am, or that I can't do anything. How are you going to tell your grandchildren when the last of the water is poisoned that you were too small to do anything? I just won't be that small and neither will these guys. I encourage all of us to find our real power and do everything we can."

To walker Annie Ayze, the march means a way to reconnect with her heritage. Ayze was adopted at age 4 into a white family in New Jersey and knew little about her background.

"I left everything behind to figure out my identity through my culture which I had been taken away from," said Ayze. "So when I came out here, I didn't know my clans, I didn't know the language. I didn't even know the four sacred mountains. I didn't know anything."

Ayze has been walking since June.

"Just being on the sacred land has allowed me to figure out who I am and not what the government has convinced me my identity has been for so long," said Ayze. "So it's definitely been a healing process, a learning process. I'm walking to try and bring people home from the cities, to just remember how beautiful indigenous culture really is and how helpful it really is."

For Lytle Tsosie, the march is a way to bring awareness of their culture to other young Diné. Tsosie said his people suffer drug addiction and gang violence.

"The prayers we carry with us to take to our mountain, it strengthens our people," Tsosie said.