Animalities: Navajo Horse as Healer and Educator
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Animalities: Navajo Horse as Healer and Educator

October 29, 2019


(optimistic music) (audience applauding) – How about another
hand for Grace Sheppard of Tucson Medical Center
Healing Arts Program? (audience applauding) My name is John Paul Jones, I’m the Don Bennett Moon Dean of the College of Social
& Behavioral Sciences, and it’s my pleasure to welcome
you to the final lecture in our animality series. A series where we ask you to
suspend your anthropocentrism and try to see the world from the standpoint of animal agency. Speaking of human agency, I wanna give a shout out to our colleagues in the college of Veterinary Medicine who last week learned from the American Veterinary
Medical Association that they were allowed to
bring in their first class in the fall of 2020 and
I wanna congratulate. (audience applauding) Dr. Julie Funk, would you please stand, all of your colleagues from
Vet Med and take applause? Wow. Thank you for being such great supporters of this series and congratulations. Well, I have some people I have to thank and it’s a pleasure for me to do so because we wouldn’t be able to
put the show on without them and I wanna start with Holualoa Companies, Mike and Beth Kasser, thank you very much for your support, Mike and Beth. (audience applauding) SBS Advisory Board members, Ken and Linda Robin, thank you both. (audience applauding) And our good friends at AZPM, our good friends Dr.
Stevie and Adeeb Saba. (audience applauding) Dr. Barbara Starrett and Jo Ann Ellison. (audience applauding) Fox Tucson Theatre, thank you. (audience applauding) We hope to be back next year. My good friends, Shana and Richard Oseran at Maynards Market and Patricia
Schwabe at Penca Restaurant, thank you very much for your support. (audience applauding) And last but not least, Park Tucson. Even if you park on the street, it’s still because of Park Tucson. (audience laughing) (audience applauding) It’s a great pleasure to
introduce tonight’s speaker, Dr. Kelsey Dayle John. She is a postdoctoral
fellow in the departments of American Indian Studies
and Gender and Women studies in the College of SBS. And she received her PhD this
year at Syracuse University in the field of Cultural
Foundations of Education. Kelsey’s areas of interests
are Native American and indigenous studies
and women’s studies, but more specifically
colonial settlers studies, indigenous education, tribal community colleges,
and universities, indigenous and decolonizing
research methods and critical animal studies. She has received funding
for her graduate work and dissertation from the Navajo Nation, from the National Academy of Education, and The Spencer Foundation and the National Science Foundation. And for such a young scholar, she has published many book chapters and referee journal articles and has presented at many conferences and been invited to speak at
many venues such as this one. Of the referee journal articles, my favorite journal is
one called Humanimalia. The subtitle of which is a journal of the human,
animal interface studies. I’m gonna give ’em a plug because it’s an open access journal, so anyone who’s interested
can just go and log on and read whatever you
want in this growing field of animal studies. Tonight’s lecture is
theoretical, historical. It’s profound, it’s also, as
you’ll see, highly personal and deeply rooted in her community. Please give a warm Tucson
welcome to Kelsey John. (audience applauding) (speaking foreign language) – Good evening, everyone. What I just said to you in Navajo is our traditional introduction. So, I said hello family and friends. My name is Kelsey John,
my mother is white, my father’s clan is the Red Bottom clan. My maternal grandfather is white, and my paternal grandfather’s
clan is Under The Arm clan, and I’m from Teec Nos Pos, Arizona. So, I am so pleased to
be here with you tonight. I wish that I could
introduce you to my horse. I wish I could bring her on stage. (audience laughs) But unfortunately we can’t do
that yet, maybe in the future. But tonight, I’d love to share with you a bit about my personal
journey and story with horses and how it relates to education. Also, before I start, I would like to acknowledge the ancestral territory on which we’re on which is the Tohono O’odham
and Yaqui people land, and I encourage all of you to learn more about the original keepers
and healers of this land. So, I’m a horse person,
I grew up with horses. I can’t actually remember the first time that I got on a horse because I was put on a
horse when I was an infant and so horses have always
been a huge part of my life. This is a photo of me on a horse and I’m about four years old with my mom at my grandpa’s cattle ranch. So, I’ve always had a
relationship with horses and horses and I have really
evolved together over time. We’ve evolved and learned together. I like to say that before
I ever went to school and started studying education,
I was a learner from horses. So horses were some of my first friends and some of my first teachers. Before I went to classes, I knew how to catch my horse, saddle him, ride him, feed
him and take care of him. And so I had that
relationship for a long time. Sometimes people tell me
that they’re scared of horses and I always find that so interesting because it’s kind of like somebody saying that they’re scared of grass
or they’re scared of rocks. Scared of something that
has always been there and that has always been a friend. In the Navajo worldview,
horses are healers and the way that they heal
us is by connecting us. So, they might connect us to the land. They might connect us to each other or they might connect us to our language and our
tradition and our culture, but one of my favorite parts about horses is that no matter where you go, whether you’re talking to Navajos or other native tribes or other people, there are always gonna be
a horse lover in the crowd. I’m sure there’s some
in the crowd tonight, and so horses often connect people who might not have anything else in common and that’s a really beautiful thing. So I think the most important thing is they help us to connect one another. This is a photograph of my parents when they were young
before they got married and they come from two
very different worlds, but what they did have in common was a foundation of
horses and horsemanship. My mom grew up on a
cattle ranch in Colorado and my dad grew up on
Navajo Nation ranching and rodeoing and training Navajo mustangs. So, our family and our foundation was very much built upon the relationality and
connectivity of horses in many, many different ways. I also grew up with Navajo mustangs. So, we grew up with a few horses from my maternal
grandfather’s cattle ranch which were quarter horses, but we also grew up with mustangs that came off of Navajo Nation. So, I grew up in Oklahoma, spent most of my time away from my community at Navajo Nation, but I did grow up with
little parts of my community who were these Navajo mustangs. This is a picture of a couple of them with my dad and my grandpa and some of the mustangs that we had. We took in these mustangs. Some of them were horses
that were my grandfather’s on the reservation and
one of them in particular, which you’ll see in the next
photo, is a horse that came at a time when they were
doing wild horse roundups. On Navajo Nation they usually
leave the younger colts. So this is a horse that
had kind of escaped that roundup and wondered
into my grandfather’s corral and he kind of felt sorry for him and so he started feeding
him, giving him water, and then he came to
live with us in Oklahoma where my dad trained him. So I’ve seen this training relationship for most of my life. So tonight, I’m going to talk to you using
narrative, using stories. I’ll tell you some stories
about my companion horse and I, some stories about my
community and about the land, but also some stories about policy and how all of these
things weave in together with one another. Stories are very powerful because
anything can have a story. The land has a story,
animals have a story, humans have a story and they all connect with one another and also you
can have multiple stories. I might have multiple stories, the land might have multiple stories and it’s a really powerful thing. In many indigenous communities, stories are used as a form
of knowledge, communication, and so they’re passed down
from generation to generation for thousands and thousands of years and that’s how we, specifically, as Navajos transmit knowledge. Stories also can capture
the interrelatedness or the worldview of a community. So for Navajo Nation, Navajo people, our stories talk about
the interrelatedness and the connectedness between
humans, land, and the animals. In our creation stories,
animals are present, horses are there with us from
the very beginning of time. We’re in relationship to
them, in communion to them, but also, in our stories, horses have autonomy and so they speak and we learn from them and
they have a certain value and respected place within these stories as knowers and teachers. So before I get into the story
about my companion horse, I wanna give you a little
bit of background information about the philosophy. So, in the Navajo worldview, it consists of a very
delicate set of relationships that can be thought of as
positive and negative energies and they’re contingent upon one another. Another way that this can be characterized is as male and female energies. Now, this isn’t the same
type of male and female that we talk about in western society or non-Navajo society, but rather these are
male and female energies that existed before humans and they exist throughout all things. So, in the land, the plants, the rocks, the animals, everything has a balance of these two intersecting
and complimentary energies. This picture represents
the Navajo worldview in a number of different ways. In our worldview we start
with the east direction and we move clockwise around to the south, the west, and the north. This maps out our space where
we are traditionally set as caretakers of the
land by the holy people between these four sacred mountains, but it also maps out a
spacial representation of our life philosophy. So this is important because our day can be mapped using this where
the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and then becomes dark in the north which is nighttime
and then starts over again. It can also be a life cycle of a human. So, from when you’re young
to when you’re middle young to older and then
finally to elderly again. So it really organizes our philosophy, our philosophy of education
and our thought on life. Finally and most importantly, there’s horse for each direction and this is very important because they’re different colors of horses that represent each direction, and they represent maybe that time or that stage of a philosophy. So, the four cardinal directions
ground us as Navajo people but they also have horses
embedded within that too. So, they’re very deeply embedded in our whole organization of how we live. So every good story starts
at the meeting point, and this is my companion horse, Bambi. Bambi is a five year old mustang from Navajo Nation and I met Bambi while I was volunteering
at a equine rescue called Four Corners Equine
Rescue in Aztec, New Mexico. I was working on my dissertation research which is in partnership with Navajo Nation and during this time I was
interviewing Navajo people about their horse stories
and horse knowledges while at the same time I was away from my own childhood horses and so I felt a little bit
off balance and disconnected. So I started volunteering
at this equine rescue. When I met Bambi, I learned
about her story which is that she was picked up with a herd of free-range horses
near Nageezi, New Mexico by the New Mexico Livestock Board. So when horses get onto the
highway on the reservation, then they become state property. So, when the New Mexico
Livestock Board picked up these horses, the local
equine rescues come in and see which horses they can adopt. So when I met Bambi, she
had been at the rescue for about two years and had another person who was previously working with her. And when the owner of the
rescue told me her story she said, “Yeah, there was
someone who was working “with her but her friends
convinced her that “because she was a Navajo mustang, “she was gonna be dangerous, “she was gonna be too dangerous to adopt.” And so then that individual
didn’t end up adopting her. So, I thought that was a
very interesting story. So, I immediately was drawn
to Bambi because of that because as a Navajo and as
a Native American person who often gets labeled
with all kinds of things, I know what it feels like
to be in that position and I think a lot of people know what it’s like to be labeled. So we started working together. Now it wasn’t always a smooth sailing. When I first met her, she wouldn’t even let me walk up to her. It’s pretty clear that she had,
had either no human contact or had, had very little or
negative human contact prior to her time at the rescue
and so this is an early photo that I took of her and I
was actually not the one who haltered her, but this is about as close
as I could get to her. So she was kind of distrusting and trying to feel me out and
was a little unsure about me and she was scared of everything. She was scared of ropes, brushes,
other humans, you name it. She was very challenged
by the fear of those or the unknown of them. So you can sort of tell in this photo, her ears are forward, her feet are braced very
sturdy in a sturdy way and she’s not looking too comfortable, but you’ll see over time
that she does change and she becomes more comfortable with me and I with her. So my relationship with Bambi, we went through a set of
training exercises together over the course of a
year at the equine rescue and it’s a wonderful place because they train volunteers
in natural horsemanship which is the most gentle and relational type of
horsemanship and training. So, I learned more about
natural horsemanship techniques and I was also learning more about my community’s philosophy of
the horse all at the same time that I was working with Bambi and helping to train her. Well, she’d probably tell you that she was training me. (laughs) So the training relationship
is great, it’s like a dialogue. It’s like a dialogue or kind of a dance. I like to call it a dance of intuition and the reason is that
horses really communicate with you a lot, but they don’t verbally
communicate, occasionally they do, but they’re not speaking
to you in English, but what they have to communicate with us is actually very profound
and this was something I knew to kind of tune into from watching my family’s training relationships but also from the knowledge I was learning from my own
community members as well. So, this dance of intention
is really about asking and trusting and a back and forth. So this is kind of a short
video clip that I took. It’s a very routine day with
Bambi and I in the round pin. What I’m doing is I’m just documenting that I’m able to halter her. Super easy, very
routine-basic everyday thing. I probably have done this
with her a thousand times and this is about eight
months into our relationship, but you can see very clearly that there’s this back and forth, there’s this intention
between the two of us and it’s kind of powerful,
it’s like a dance. So I’ll just have you watch this clip and kind of analyze yourself. So, here we are. This is something that
we do every single day, sometimes twice a day and I love this clip because there’s this
definite back and forth that almost reminds me of a dance, right, that’s trying to portray a
very complex conversation and you see that we have this respect in what each other wants and there’s no forceful movements in that. You can tell a lot, you can say a lot from just such a short clip. So, what I really wanna do tonight is just sort of frame
this story of Bambi and I now that you have some
background knowledge, really in kind of a theoretical basis and so when I met Bambi, I was doing a lot of
the analysis and writing of my dissertation and so in a lot of ways I think that Bambi is kind of the core of the analysis of my data and the stories that I was getting from my co-participants and
co-narrators on Navajo Nation. And the reason being is that in these complex interactions that we had, she was asking me questions and so tonight I wanna
share with you three major, big theoretical deep questions that Bambi was asking me during this time and how it relates to
education and research and also policy as well too. It weaves in really nicely. So the three questions are what is wild? What is education and what is science? Bambi’s really smart. (laughs) The first question is what is wild? So, this has always
fascinated me simply because I grew up with wild, Navajo mustangs. However, these were the
horses that my parents put me on when I was
three, four, five years old and so I always wondered about that. And so I started thinking
about the frames that I have as a indigenous studies person and also a Gender and
Women’s studies person and thinking about the word wild and what it has meant for our history and the characterization
of not only animals but also humans as well too. So wild is interesting
because it’s this word that has been used to characterize
native peoples as well in the history of the U.S. And it’s often juxtapose with
it’s counterpart, domestic. Wild and domestic or
maybe wild and civilized. And so the more I got into this, the more I realized that wild is a trope that has dominated the American narrative and the idea of taming the wild has also dominated the American narrative. I think this photo represents
this really, really well. This is called Manifest Destiny, and as many of you might
know, Manifest Destiny was sort of an underlying
religious philosophy that was driving the
colonization of the Americas. It’s the idea that it is
the duty both religiously and politically to bring civilization to the Wild Wild West including
the people and the animals. So in this photograph, it
moves from right to left in kind of a swoop of civilization. You can see that on the left
side it’s not only darker, but there are indigenous
folks, there are bison. Indigenous folks riding
horses, there’s dogs, and then as you move
to the civilized side, you see that there are power lines, trains, and there’s also a farm which is a fenced in, set plot that embodies this western
idea of agriculture. And then, of course, in
the center you have a woman who embodies an angel and
she’s carrying a Bible and then carrying the strand of the power of the electricity that’s running through. So, this is an interesting painting because in a lot of ways
it really represents the American narrative of progress and taming the Wild West, but you can see that
it’s not only a narrative that envelopes people, but one that also envelopes
land and animals as well. In the wild and domestic binary, it also gets caught up in
the system of education. So, the civilizing project
was not only a land project, but also an educational project. This is most evident in the residential boarding schools that Native American people
were forced to attend. In these schools, these individual
native people were taken from their homes, their communities, their languages, their
religions, their land, and also, of course,
their animals as well. Boardings schools were also an
incredibly gendered project. So, in these schools, the gender roles were taught to Native American individuals and in a lot of ways they
were reversed or new. So for Navajo women, we have always been on
the land with the animals. We were sheep headers, horse trainers, horse
women, agriculturalists. We were involved in
all these parts of life and even more specifically
in Navajo society, it’s a matriarchal society, meaning that land and livestock belong to and are passed down through
the female line as well. So Navajo women always
had control over economic and political issues, but
going to boarding school was a very different curriculum there. So I love this photo
because it kind of shows the domesticated education that these Native American women were receiving at boarding schools that were removing them from the political and economic
spheres of society, both native and also non-native society. (audience laughs) So in Bambi’s question to me (laughs) I always felt like she was asking me, “Am I wild because you can’t ride me, “and what does that mean?” So, when I first started
working with Bambi, I could hardly even walk up
to her much less ride her and I’ve grown up riding horses. So, I know it’s powerful,
it’s very meaningful and I always saw that a
little bit as the end, right, the end of our relationship. But what I really started to realize is that when Bambi was acting wild, it was when she was resisting violence or resisting pressure coming
from either the relationship or maybe the structures around her. So she’s a free-range horse. She was out on Navajo Nation until she came to the equine rescue where was she put in a smaller pin, right, and so this kind of spacial
pressure makes, perhaps, a horse act wild. And so I also thought too
about how this intersected with the training relationship. So I’m sure many of you have
heard the word break before or breaking horses and I hate this word because in the training relationship what I learned that I
think is most important and also quite gendered
is that you can’t force a horse to do anything
and if you’re forcing them or you’re using dominance or fear then that’s actually something that’s quite violent and problematic. And so what I like to say instead is that the training
relationship is really about reciprocity and
there’s a difference there. So the reason why I say this is gendered is because in gender
studies we like to critique the social constructions of
femineity and masculinity. What I mean by that is not that, that there are any innate
qualities that are male or female, but rather there are these
social constructions. So with masculinity it’s
often times constructed as being good to be
violent or dominant or sort of domineering and
aggressive whereas femininity is often characterized as being, making yourself small or being
pleasant and conversational, maybe more relational, more caring, and what I learned is
that often times trainers try to really embody masculine qualities in the training relationship
and what actually is more effective, I believe, are stereotypically feminine qualities which are qualities of
relationality and care. And so I think this really
pushes back not only on the taming of the
wild western narrative, but also the narrative that horsemanship is something that is
male dominated as well. So this story of nomenclature is also a policy story as well. So, in 2013 the fate of wild horses became a national conversation. This is one of many
New York Times articles that covered the
situation of a high number of free-range horses both on Navajo Nation but also in BLM lands and other indigenous nations in the U.S. So at this time, basically, what the conversation
was summarizing is that horse slaughter had previously been legal in the United States and people
were kind of pushing back against this because
the main way of dealing with high free-range horse
populations was rounding them up, and often times sending
them to slaughter plants or sending them off to slaughter plants in other areas as well. So, the reason why wild is important in this characterization is that depending on what you call a horse
or consider it to be can in some ways situate
it’s life or it’s fate in the policy world as well too. So, wild is thought to be something that is not only an animal
with no human contact or no domestication but also an animal that has evolved on the North
American continent, right? Sort of aside from human interaction or human interference as
well whereas a feral horse is a domesticated horse that
has gone off into the wild. It’s had previous human contact or perhaps it’s ancestors have had
human contact as well. The other definition of
horses is domesticated horses and so I always question too
the markers of domestication as well because it’s usually
human serving purposes or corrals confinement brands or maybe a utilitarian
purpose as well too. The one characterization
that I did not see, though, in all of these policy conversations was (speaks in foreign
language) and that is the Navajo word for horse. In Navajo, horses are not
simply domestic or wild, but they’re horses and those
horses are our relatives and so in the relationship of thinking of them as domesticated, it kind of doesn’t make sense in the Navajo worldview because you can’t own your sister, right? You can’t own a family member and so this is really where the clash of definitions not only of
what we call these horses, but the worldview behind
what we name the horses and then enact the policies
becomes problematic. And I’ll speak more toward the end about the developing
policy on free-range horses both on Navajo Nation and beyond. So I think this goes back, again, to is wild simply resisting violence or resisting domestication or maybe resisting anthropocentric human-centered utilitarian
purpose in our lives? And I think that Bambi and
I came to that question because there’s a point at which I thought I may never be able to ride Bambi and that’s
really what I would like to do, right, that’s what brings me joy. As a human but if she doesn’t want that, then it’s not gonna happen
and I have to respect that. I also think about Bambi
pushing the limits on wild because she thrived without
human contact on Navajo Nation, kind of fending for herself. No one was feeding her or giving her water or trimming her hooves, but she’s also now
thriving in my care as well and so I think about the interesting ways that not only mustangs
but other animal species make us question and push the boundaries of what it means to be
wild or domesticated. The second question that
Bambi pushed me toward in our conversations is what is education? Now, I’m an educational studies scholar, so I’m always asking this question. What is education? Or maybe more specifically, what does it mean to be educated and who do we turn to as
a teacher or as a knower? And this is a photograph of my dad, he is also a horse trainer and where I learned a lot of methods from. And this is one of the first times that he met Bambi and, him being the skilled horseman that he
is, I was really having trouble picking up her feet to
clean out the underpart and trim them and she just would
not pick up her feet for me and the first time he met
her, she just picked right up and there, I went, I’m like, “Ugh.” (audience laughs) So, he’s very skilled. (laughs) When I say that horses are teachers, it’s an idea that’s very grounded in the Navajo worldview
and the reason for that is that we see these animals
as holding a set of knowledge that we do not have, a set of knowledge and skills that we, as humans, do not have, but also that we respect
them for that knowledge too. And so whenever I have
someone meet my horse for the first item, I always tell them, “Remember, she’s stronger than you, “she’s smarter than you and
she can read your mind.” Now go. (audience laughs) But it’s true and so
this is what I learned as a Navajo person from
many deep and complex ways, but mostly from watching my dad interact with horses is that approaching them as if you truly believe that
they are smarter than you, stronger than you, and
they can read your mind will totally change the
conversation and the relationality. And you will look to them as teacher. So, as I mentioned,
horses can reach your mind and I love this because this is a quality that makes them so skilled as an educator and they’ll educate you
in many different ways, some of which you might be opened to, others of which you might not. So this is another one
of our family horses, his name is Major and
he is also a mustang too from Navajo Nation and
this is my dad’s horse. I was home this summer training
horses at my parent’s ranch and I got to ride him
a lot, almost everyday. So, Major’s way of reading my mind is that he, along with other horses, often put a mirror up to you or point at your biggest
flaw in their attempt to help you fix it, all, of course, in the
best interest of them. So as I was riding Major one of the things that we don’t really
allow our horses to do because it’s disrespectful is to eat while we’re riding them. So, it would be kind of
like if I was up here eating a hamburger during this talk, you might think it’s a
little bit disrespectful. (laughs) Or you might just want me
to share, I don’t know. (laughs) So, as I was riding Major, he would continuously
do this and I realized that what he was doing
was trying to push me to my limit to see how I would react and to help me learn to
control my reactions to him, control my emotions, control what I do when what I don’t want happens or when I don’t actually have control. Very subtle reminder on his part, so I snapped this picture ’cause I thought it was funny. He’s all saddled up and has
his bridle on and everything and you can tell in his
face he’s got a snack. (audience laughs) And he’s happy about it. (laughs) So the educative relationship with a horse is something that I think
should be learned from and also mirrored in
education relationships in institutions of higher learning, but also K-12 settings as well. And this is because it’s an
ethical and reciprocal one. So, in a lot of ways it can be thought of as a knowledge exchange. In Bambi and I’s relationship
I was teaching her things that would help me care for her, so picking up her feet was a big one because when she’s not on the rocks, she can’t trim and chip her hooves herself and so you don’t want
them to get too long, it’s bad for their feet and their joints and their whole posture. So, it took us a while to get to the point where she was okay. Now you can tell in this
picture it’s very lovely. She’s just like looking
back like oh, it’s great. You’ve got my foot. But I realized that as I
was simply teaching her to let me pick up her feet, she was teaching me all
of these more in-depth conversations and lessons about education but there came a point in
our training relationship where there was a real willingness for both of us to enter
into the round pin together because it was an exciting
and educational space, right? What are we gonna learn next? What thing are we gonna
overcome together next? What fear are we gonna get past? What anxiety are we gonna push past? What are we gonna teach each
other in the round pin today and then how can we take that beyond? Also I continuously challenge
the sort of ending point too. As I mentioned earlier, there was a time of which I
thought I may never be able to train Bambi to be ridden and so I had to really think about what it
is that horses have been used for historically and
how it is that we have a utilitarian view of
characterizing not only horses but other animals and
then in turn the land too. So looking at these beings
that, as Navajo people, we believe are our
relatives who are alive, we can’t simply use them
for utilitarian purposes. That’s a really deep and important lesson. Which brings me to Bambi’s final question which is what is science? Huge question, but I think
maybe more easy to understand if I say what is knowledge and the sub questions with
that or what types of methods do we use to gain knowledge? Who do we listen to and what types of knowledges do we value? So, I work for university and so it’s a knowledge-producing
community, right? We do research, we do education, but I think that what horses teach us are equally important to the pursuits that we have at the
university in research level. Science and the scientific
method have been the privileged methodology
of knowledge collection and certain communications
have been privileged for their knowledge, but the
reason why I come to this is that it’s a very important concern for indigenous peoples as well. As indigenous peoples, we see science as a set of relationships and I think that scientists who are non-indigenous would also agree that this is true too, but I think the relationships that we look at as indigenous peoples might be a little bit different or they have different rules or they have different instructions that we live by and so
this really questions power structures and
what types of knowledges are privileged, but also
where it is that we look and how much we privileged
that relationality before we gain the data or the knowledge, and so that’s one that goes back to the reciprocal, respectful, and educational set of
knowledge as well too. In indigenous communities, stories are knowledge and
so all our of science, all of our policy, all of
our social society rules, our environmental rules, they’re all embedded in our stories. You can go to any
university in this country and find a thousand books
on Navajo philosophy. However, what you will seldom find is that philosophy being
acted out or listened to and the reason is that our
philosophies and our stories have often been characterized as simply just that, myths or
stories and not scientific. And the reason for this is that I think a lot of times it’s really easy to collect and consume
indigenous knowledges without actually listening to what it is that they have to say in the
same way that I could kind of collect and consume knowledge from Bambi without actually listening to what she has to say and how it applies to my actions as a researcher
and as an educator. I like to say it’s all fun and games to research Navajo or native philosophy because it’s not really real, but what would it look
like if we did listen to these relationalities and understand that we are meant to have
relationship with the land? That there are original
caretakers to land, original characters to animals, right? That horses actually didn’t come over with the Spanish but evolved here and have been here since time and moral. What does it mean to
enact those in education and in research and then,
finally, in turn in policy? So I wanna return again
to the policy story and some history on the high number of free-range horses on Navajo Nation. In the 30s and 40s, the U.S. government conducted research on Navajo Nation and they
brought in non-Navajo, non-native anthropologists and researchers to take a look at the land. What they determined is that the land was being overgrazed and that
there were too many horses and too many livestock
and, specifically, sheep. So, the policy solution to this was to put a cap on
the amount of livestock that each Navajo family could own and this was devastating because any family that had over that cap that amount of livestock was slaughtered. So this is a traumatic
event in Navajo history and it’s something that
has really changed, and put a challenge in
for our relationships to our land and to our animals. So a lot of times people like
to look at the high number of free-range horses on Navajo Nation without knowing this policy story, without knowing that two generations ago, our livestock were slaughtered by the U.S. government and I think that
what’s even more deeper to this policy story
is that there’s a clash in worldview that informs research. So, the researchers coming
in without an understanding that livestock, horses,
sheep are family, right, that the land is alive to
come in and enact this policy is absolutely devastating to a community that is completely organized and contingent upon these relationships. Scholars have offered some
other alternative explanations for why the range was
characterized as overgrazed and I think these are really interesting, some of which include that
it’s simply a move to put a cap on expansion and to continue
enacting confinement. So reservations by themselves
are spaces of confinement to confine native peoples and native land and the policy of livestock slaughter kind of just continues that as well. One of the second is that there was a very gendered perspective to this too. As I mentioned earlier, Navajo
women were sheep herders, they were livestock owners and after the livestock
slaughter happened, grazing policies were
enacted on Navajo Nation through the U.S. government
and these policies put land and livestock in
ownership of male names. For Navajo society this totally
switches everything around, really changes our relationship that is managed in a different kind of way to our land and our animals. One of the third explanations
that indigenous scholars offer is that the land was
characterized as overgrazed because of the affects that it would have on the Hoover Dam, so knowing
where the Navajo reservation is located and having too
much runoff would impede the construction of that
dam and then in turn impede energy sources for non-indigenous communities as well. So today there are over
38,000 free-range horses on Navajo Nation. This is a photograph of some of the herds on Navajo Nation that are near where my family lives in Teec Nos Pos. And this is a highly controversial topic because there’s a lot of
contextualized history in the gendered, educational
and land policy changes that have been enacted on our community that we didn’t necessarily
ask for historically. So, a lot of people that I’ve talked to have proposed that the change from free-range
grazing to grazing permits and fenced in areas has
caused a rise in the number of free-range horses on Navajo Nation, but also that there’s a
healing and a recovery to be done in the community
around our relationships to land and animals. And so my work is dedicated
to, as a Navajo person, creating these spaces where
Navajo people can engage with horses in the way
that we already know how and I’m certainly not the
only person who’s doing this. There are many others on Navajo Nation that are doing this as well, but I do challenge people to think that there’s not simply a high number of free-range horses on Navajo Nation because Navajo people can’t or don’t take care of their horses, it’s actually way more complex than that with a violent history
of land animal policies that have been enacted on my community. I also like to use this example to return to the idea of wild and domestic and what that means. Often times domestic characterizes that a human is in
relationship to that animal, but actually on Navajo Nation, these free-range horses,
they’re not domesticated, but they’re still in relationship to the people out there because of where they are on the land because of how they fit into our worldview and our creation stories. These are some more
free-range horses currently on Navajo Nation and I like
to go running out there with my dog and I often
talk to these horses while I’m out there running. I’m not saddling them,
I’m not riding them, I’m not sticking them in a corral, I’m not feeding them, but I’m still in relationship to them in a meaningful way and so I think this really pushes what it is that we call
domesticated relationships and maybe what they actually should be. Finally, to situate Bambi back in this, this is our herd, my family’s
little herd of horses, mustang and quarter horses and they’re in the rain too
so they don’t look happy in this picture and poor
Bambi’s the one in the front. She’s left out, she was
the newest to the herd, so she got left out of the shed. (laughing) So really the story about Bambi is kind of a sweet story,
right, how can it not be? But it’s also a very deeply historical and political story about
these free-range horses, about Navajo worldviews, about the clash of science and the way that science
and worldviews inform policy and then really complicate things for land and horse relationalities
and native commute. So, as I mentioned, my work is to promote and create spaces of horse education. So, this is a conference that I did to sort of sum up my
dissertation research. It was called (speaking foreign language) which means horse songs and horse stories and the conference subtext
was connecting horses, connecting communities
across Navajo Nation. The wonderful thing about this conference was that it was held
at a tribal university, Navajo Technical University
in Crownpoint, New Mexico. So it was held on Navajo land, it was a space where we
could share our songs and our stories and younger
people could hear them. I learned a lot that
education was passed down in the way that we used to pass it down before formal schooling
came into the picture. It was also cool because we
had a live horse demonstration on campus and so we set up
a round pin behind the gym, and you can see on the left side that I invited a horse
trainer from the community to come and do a training demonstration and then to relate that back to education. So this was a space that brought together not only students and
faculty at the university but also local ranchers, horse trainers, grazing officials, policy
people to all remember and center the sacredness of the horse and to start our
conversation from that place and so this was a wonderful event that I hope will continue
annually at this university or maybe different spaces
in the community as well. So, I just wanna also put
a plug in for this as well. If any of you are interested in this, please feel free to contact me and also if you’re interested in donating to Four Corners Equine Rescue, I would encourage you to do that. That was where Bambi came from, and where we had our training relationship before I adopted her
and, just so you know, she’s in Tucson with me
now, so she’s boarded at a facility just down
the street from me, and so we hang out everyday and we’re still doing well. So, I just wanna thank you
and Bambi wants to thank you. (audience laughing) (audience applauding) – That was great. I wanna thank everyone for coming tonight, and for attending so
many of these lectures, and then not last, I
wanna give a big shout out to my compadre in all of this organizing, the Associate Dean in the
College for Community Engagement, Dr. Maribel Alvarez. Thank you all for coming. (audience applauding)

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  1. Well spoken and a great job pulling together what Womyn have always innately known. 'Wild Horse Annie' fought to get Congress to pass the Wild Horse & Burro Act of 1973 (?) allowing the herds to roam free on public lands.

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