This post was featured on One Young Traveler on Monday, August 7th 2017. Check out their blog for awesome travel tips, advice etc. and follow them on Instagram @OneYoungTraveler and Twitter @OYTraveler 

As Americans, we tend to think of Americans as mostly white, middle class and living in suburbia. Too often we forget what it truly means to be a “Native American”. During my college years, I struggled deeply with finding a purpose and passion and changed my major a few times. I finally settled on elementary education and in my senior year of college (part 1), I made a life changing decision to step outside of the very comfortable “American” bubble and travel to the Navajo Reservation to complete my student teaching requirement.

I have always loved art, culture and socio/political discussions, and this experience was all of that rolled into one. As part of the Cultural Immersion program at Indiana University’s School of Education, the first requirement was to complete a graduate level course over 2 semesters, in preparation for the on-site placement. The course delved into many truths that have been suspiciously omitted from history classes, and began constructing the deeper understanding necessary for us to connect and establish relationships with adults and students in the Navajo community. It was eye-opening and my classmates and I were intrigued and eager to experience the exquisite culture for ourselves.

My experience was somewhat of a “study abroad”, as there were required assignments to complete while on site, as well as full-time teaching for 8 weeks. I was placed with two other young women who were in my program and we lived together on the school site, in the dorm program. During our off time, we had some of the most unforgettable experiences. One of them was during the Labor Day weekend, we had a 3-day weekend and on that Friday night we were invited to attend a Kinaaldá, a girl’s puberty ceremony.

The Kinaaldá ceremony takes place over 4 days, but we were only invited to the last night of the ceremony. It took place inside a hogan (a traditional Navajo home) with family members and other members of the tribe. Throughout the night, several spiritual chants were sung to bless the girl’s development into womanhood. After literally staying up all night, the young girl took a run at sunrise, then finally she cut a special cake, that had been baking inside the ground overnight. Starting on the east side she served her guests and saved the middle portions for her closest family members. There are many more details about this ceremony that were incredible to witness, but for time’s sake I won’t cover every detail. The best part about the experience was that most outsiders are not invited to attend. After staying up all night at the Kinaaldá, we began an epic national parks trip across Utah. Our trip included stops at Canyonlands, Arches, and Bryce Canyon, all of which were unique and beautiful in their own right. By the end of the weekend, I was bewitched with the stunning landscapes and of course the beauty of the culture I became immersed in.

The Navajo Reservation covers portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and many cities are quite remote. Because of the remote nature of the town we lived in, driving an hour or more became quite normal to obtain necessities. Throughout, that fall semester there were several opportunities to learn and amazing cultural events to attend. Like the Bluff Fair Pow Wow seen in the above photo and below in a video I captured while there.

Bluff Fair Pow Wow clip

On another weekend trip, we visited the stunning Canyon De Chelly national park located on Navajo land. The Navajo culture is breathtaking and the people are incredibly kind, but unfortunately the family structure has been ruptured due to our complicated “American history”. Their many issues dealing with mental health, drug/alcohol & domestic abuse are a result of years of oppression, beyond what is commonly known or thoroughly understood. I have been fortunate to maintain contact with some of the friends I made while there and hope to return for a visit in the near future.

A word of advice before traveling to Navajo-land, make sure you read about common customs and social norms before visiting. It will help you avoid any potential offenses and/or misunderstandings. The Navajo people have often been wounded by outsiders, so it is important to be very intentional about establishing positive relationships, built on genuine appreciation and respect.

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Yours Truthfully,

Ryan Elliston