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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Westernization through the generations

Published: November 9, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

With a steady, but solemn voice, Angie Maloney, a Navajo Native American, recalled how she and her sister clung to each other after being abruptly uprooted from the Navajo reservation in the southwestern United States and forced to enroll in a Tolani, Arizona Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in the mid-1950s.

The boys were lined up on one side and the girls on the other, our hair was shaved off and [the administrators] herded us into the shower to delouse us, Angies sister, Mae Peshlakai said.

Maloney added that they were forced to bathe with a brown, terrible smelling soap and if they did not have suds on their bodies, the administrators would hit them with pieces of leather. She said that when she saw her sister emerge from the shower with her crudely cut, ear-length hair, she was almost unrecognizable.

We held on to each other and cried, but not everyone had a sister to cry to, Maloney, who was seven years old at the time, said while Peshlakai was ten.

This was their first experience of Western education that Peshlakai and Maloney described Thursday night, as part of Four Generations of Navajo Women, an event cosponsored by the Psychology Department, the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences, the Education Program, the Program for Cultural Production, the American Studies Department, Women's and Gender Studies, the Anthropology Department, and the Sociology Department.

Peshlakai, 59, and Maloney, 57, were joined by their mother, Dorothy Walker, 76, and Peshlakais granddaughter, Shelby Tamara Nez, 13. Shelbys mother, Jamescita (Tina) Mae Peshlakai, 39, was scheduled to be there, but could not make it due to a work conflict.

The event kicked off Thursday afternoon with a demonstration of traditional Navajo rug weaving and jewelry making, followed by an evening discussion between Walker, Peshlakai, Maloney and Nez of their struggle to preserve Navajo culture and reconcile their Native American heritage with the Western world that lies outside the reservation.

Speaking exclusively in Navajo, with her daughters serving as translators, Dorothy Walker, a Navajo medicine woman and herbalist, described what it was like to watch as her children were abruptly taken away from her and put into Western schools.

Speaking on behalf of her mother, Maloney said that the U.S. government passed a law that made it mandatory for Native American children to attend Western schools, with the aim of forcing them to leave behind their barbaric ways.

Peshlakai said that even though her family did not want her sister and her to attend boarding school, they had no other choice, since her mother and father faced jail if they disobeyed the new law. After the initial shock of being shaved and deloused, Peshlakai said they were forced to attend religious services and were not allowed to speak Navajo, which was especially shocking for Peshlakai, who had never seen a white person prior to arriving at school.

There was nothing we could do, we were trapped there, Peshlakai said. This is how we started our Western education.

Maloney added, Our people are introduced to Western education by being stripped of what you are. She elaborated on their treatment while at school, describing how the long walks with her sister were the only time they allowed themselves to speak Navajo, and even then, they feared they would be caught and punished. At meal times, the Navajo children were deprived of food if they did not call the utensils and dishes by their English names.

Even upon returning to her hometown for her junior and senior year of high school, Maloney recalled how guidance counselors used to tell her she was not “college material. You should just learn a profession. Youre not this. Youre not that.

Maloney, who is holds a Masters Degree in Public Health Administration at Loma Linda University in California and is the Director of Environmental Health at the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation, said that if she saw her guidance counselor today, I have a few choice words for her.

Although she could not be there in person, Tina Peshlakai prepared a short video to portray her struggle to live on and off the reservation without losing her Navajo culture.

Being a part-time business owner selling jewelry, arts and crafts, with frequent visits to the reservation, Tina Peshlakai said she felt like she was living two separate lives. However, she is undoubtedly proud of who she is and her unique history.

I get my strength, my courage, my motivation in life, from my tradition, my ancient history, she said.