Faith Roessel grew up with a positive self-identity and a sense of pride in her Navajo heritage. Now a mother, Roessel has made sure her three sons connected with their Navajo roots and are versed in its rich culture. The daughter of educators and a firm believer in cross-cultural education, Roessel—along with her sons—have invited classes to come to the Navajo Nation reservation, which occupies portions of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, and learn about the indigenous tribe’s history and culture from the Navajo people themselves.
Roessel talks about some of the misconceptions people have about American Indians, her hopes for the next generation of Navajo people and her vision for an ideal future.
What are some misconceptions about Navajo people and the way you see yourself portrayed in the public eye?
From my experience growing up, there was always a real difference between how we saw ourselves at home and within our own families and our own clan and the people who loved us—we were cherished, we were seen as sacred pieces of turquoise that our relations knew were to be looked upon and cultivated and motivated and loved. But, when we would go off the reservation, it was a very different picture that we would get reinforced.
I remember one of my first experiences was bike riding off the reservation. A kid came up to me and just slammed right into me and called me ‘dirty Indian.’ When something like that happens and you’re a young person you wonder, ‘What’s wrong with them?’ But then really, ‘What is wrong with me?’ And if you keep seeing these kinds of interactions, or not seeing them, but feeling them, you begin to internalize and you wonder, ‘Is there something wrong with me?’
Part of the problems that I’ve seen growing up, have been trying to overcome stereotypes people have about American Indians.
Why is it important for non-Native people to learn about Navajo culture?
In my life and my experience, the most important thing is cross-cultural education. My culture and… values are something that I believe very strongly needs to be shared with non-Navajos. Non-Navajos benefit because they would have a better understanding of our way of life and our value system.
What has happened too frequently is we are erased from history books, or we are erased from any conversation—we may live right in that state or we may be part of an issue, yet our community is ignored. So I think it’s very important that we share with each other. I learn from you, you learn from me, and in this way we respect each other’s dignity and we respect each other as human beings.
What is your hope for the next generation of Navajo people and their relationship with non-Native people?
My greatest hope is that my children really build upon what they have been taught about being Navajo and that they use that as a springboard to further help their people. On the other hand, there’s the expression of preaching to the choir and I have learned, and I think what my sons are learning firsthand as they go to school and become educated in the white ways and as they move ahead in their work, that they unfortunately have a responsibility to educate others about who they are, who the Navajo people are. It would be a wonderful dream to have that they encounter colleagues, comrades, allies, and people who already have a good knowledge base about Navajo or American Indians. We are so far from that.
My greatest hope is that our educational system in the United States really takes on the fact that they have not done us any service by not mentioning us, by misrepresenting us, and by putting us in the past tense when who we are is now in the present tense. The greatest challenge is that our educational system has to do better so that Americans have a better knowledge about their history.
What is your vision for America’s ideal future?
In our country right now we need each other in a very desperate way. The knowledge the Navajos have of how important the community is before the individual…about our land and our relationship to it—not one of domination, but one of humbleness and respect—are things we need to come back to in our country to really reaffirm who we are so that we don’t trash our mother earth. We [need to] respect each other and know that the greater good means that we all move ahead and we don’t leave others behind.
It’s really a critical time right now. We need to have all positive thoughts and energy and wellbeing so that we’re not feeling like we’re giving up, because we can’t give up. What our ancestors fought for is something even greater and more challenging than what we face today. That’s what gives me the strength [to] move ahead—knowing the history and what my relations went through. That reaffirms my strength moving ahead.
If we can think about each of us and each of us adds onto the other… then we’ve built a community and we’ve built a country that I believe can really be its best self.