Recognizing that people of color have historically been left out of the U.S. public land conservation movement, SUWA is committed to raising up diverse voices across the Intermountain West. Our Stewardship Scholar Essay Contest seeks to elevate new and essential voices through personal narratives pertinent to the broader conversation around public lands and their protection.
Please join us in celebrating the winners of our 2020 Stewardship Scholar Essay Contest. We will publish each of the three winning essays every Wednesday through the remainder of the month. The Grand Prize-winning essay from Laci Begaye is below.
Trust in the More-Than-Human World
by Laci Begaye
It’s quite difficult to feel a sense of trust these days. Amid a global pandemic, difficult political circumstances, and the troubling nature of everyday life, trust doesn’t come easy. Feeling like one can trust another is something that should be protected and respected.
I grew up in a traditional Navajo household where the importance of this trust is emphasized. I recall the days my mother would say something along the lines of: “If you take from the Earth, you must replace the empty space you’ve created.” Of course, as a child, I wasn’t so sure of what she meant. Frankly, I felt embarrassed when she told me things like that, especially in public since many other children my age did not grow up with those value systems. I wanted to be like my white friends and neighbors who have better things and don’t talk about the Earth as though it’s a living thing. I constantly saw them with new toys, new clothes, new school supplies—new everything, it seemed. When they heard my parents speak of the Earth in this way, they often teased me about it afterwards, which made me feel even more disconnected from my peers.
I wanted to have the same things as them, but my parents never allowed me to get anything new until what I had was unusable. This meant that I went to school in old clothes, used old school supplies, and played with old toys. We never bought anything new unless my parents received their tax refund that year, which was rare. My father was sent to prison for the majority of my childhood, which heightened our family’s poverty status. As children, we place trust in our guardians to take care of us and love us—completely. Trust goes both ways, and my parents trusted me to receive the many lessons of the Earth they gave me in earnest.
Since my family did not have much money, I was never able to join any school sports, or extracurricular activities unless I could find a scholarship or some other method to pay for it myself. As a result, I was never interested in the outdoors, nor was I interested in nature at all. Then, in 2019 I found myself applying for a non-profit program called Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC), which programs hands-on environmental activism for young people, and gives scholarships if volunteers complete the entire program. I needed the money to get through my first year as a homeless college student. Getting this scholarship required me to work in the forests of the Four Corners with a small team of people for about 10 days at a time, with 4 day breaks to spend with my family during the summer. At first, I completely hated every second of it.
I didn’t understand the point in picking up other people’s litter. “It’s their trash, so why would it be my responsibility?” I thought to myself: I have asthma, which made it tough on my lungs to hike for hours at high elevation every day. But eventually, it became easier to take in the fresh air. Being away from my phone for days at a time gave me the space to reflect more on my outlook on life. The work was very physically demanding, but I grew through it. I began to see my muscles change, and my mindset changed along with it.
One day, one of my bosses hiked with a big smile on his face as I struggled to breathe in my hiking gear. He said, “Isn’t this so nice? People have to take time off work to vacation at a place like this. Here, we work in this place. It’s beautiful.” His statement felt like a splash of cold water on a hot day. All of a sudden, I was aware of everything around me. I was feeling dead, but in that moment, I found myself surrounded by life. After that, the hike stopped being about how tired I was. It turned into a competition of how much more of this beauty I could soak in. As I looked up from my feet, I saw a bright blue blanket that covered the sky in grace. The sun was open and shining along the waving creek, as dragonflies fluttered around the rocks. The birds sang their tunes, the clouds seemed to roll on forever, and the ground was a bright warm green. I knew there was even life beneath my feet. Up in the mountains there were no bills, no academic pressure, no poverty. The Earth was wealthy. The plants fed the bugs, which fed the birds, and so on. Everything had a place, and I sensed that I was where I needed to be. “This hard work is something everyone should experience,” I thought.
During one of our hikes, I had a dream of seeing two birds fly overhead of me and my co-workers as we hiked to our new destination. The very next day, we were hiking in the Southern Colorado mountains when two red-tailed hawks flew over us in the direction we were headed, just like my dream. I had no idea what to think or do. I ended up telling my crew members, despite risking sounding crazy. Yet they accepted my confidence for what it was. None of them wrinkled their noses at my statement, and none of them showed any kind of confusion. This was the first time the people around me didn’t make me feel like an outsider for sharing the traditions of my culture. Some of them even asked more about it. It became a very fun night indeed. I told them the stories my mother shared with me as a child that evening around a campfire. Those stories are from my ancestors. As we walked back to our tents under the starry sky, I couldn’t help but look up and take in more of the night all to myself.
My parents were forced into boarding schools as children. They were both stolen from their parents in the 1950s and ‘60s, where they were made to speak English. I remember the stories they told me of how horrible it was.
In that moment, looking up at the stars, my heart felt a big heavy ache. I felt so sad to remember how much my parents had to trust the system to take care of them, and were failed immensely. The world during that time did not value or respect the trust my parents had in the academic system—an unfortunate truth that lies forever in our history as a country. However, like the fire we sat around earlier that evening, my heart was ablaze just the same. Against those odds, against the killing and abuse of my ancestors, and against the malicious efforts to erase my culture, there I was. I was breathing the same air as my ancestors. My feet walked the same Earth, and my mouth had finally spoken the same stories.
After that night, I no longer complained of being tired. The next morning, I was the first one to wake up and start breakfast for everyone. The morning air was cool and teased my nose with its sharp breeze. Nobody was awake yet.
As the dawn brightened, I couldn’t help but cry. I stood over some frying eggs and watched my quiet tears soak into the dirt. I thought of my life, my parent’s lives, my family in general, and all the pressure I feel. I was always aware that I needed to succeed in college in order to provide a better life for us. I knew that my ancestors must feel welled up with sorrow to see their descendants struggle to live on the land that was supposed to be for all living creatures. I felt so small and debilitated; as my crew members slept I became overwhelmed. The Earth, however, does not sleep. Like the tides of the sea, it is constantly changing. The big mountains around me felt like giant arms wrapping me with chilled love. The sky displayed a lilac glow that brightened in each cloud. The winds whispered through the waving trees, and the birds kept their songs alive. These were the sounds that kept my family going all this time. The music that my mother tried to tell me about in her stories was playing just for me.
There are many other students just like me in this world. So many young people who don’t see the Earth for what it is. It is alive, breathing, moving, singing, and loving.
In the future, I want my own children to experience the Earth in all its nakedness. I want them to know what hard work, perseverance, and self-reflection look like. Right now, I feel there is a significant emptiness in our society. It is our job to fill that emptiness of the Earth, as my mother would say. Looking back at my past, there are many things that I did not recognize. New toys, clothes, supplies—these would not have helped me. They would have not taught me how to be resourceful, responsible, and to care about the things I have. My parents had to teach me very difficult lessons in life because they knew I would struggle with those issues later on, and that they would have no control over it.
They taught me how to be independent, how to feel self-assured, and how to love my culture for all it is. My parents, my ancestors, and the Earth taught me how to cherish what I have now. I’m thankful to be alive today, despite the efforts of a racist history, and despite not having the resources many others had. I have seen poverty up close; and I still live in it today. But I would never consider myself unwealthy. I have recognized what real opulence is, and it does not exist in money.
These days, my relationship with nature has transformed into a mutual relationship of trust. It is my responsibility to care for this place the way it has cared for me all these years. This relationship has informed my activism and has given me a new sense of self. This is a gift I cannot repay, so I will remain doing community service work for as long as I can. This upcoming summer will be the second year that I will be working with SCC—I could not be more excited.
Yá’át’ééh! Laci Begaye yinishyé. Naakai Dine’é nishłį́. Kin ł ichii’nii bashishchiin. ‘Áshįįhi dashicheii. Táchii’nii dashinalí. Ákót’éego diné asdzáán nishłį́.
(In English): Hello! My name is Laci Begaye. I am part of the Mexican People Clan, born for the Red House People Clan. My maternal grandfather is the Salt People Clan, my paternal grandfather is the Red Running into the Water People Clan. In this way, I am a Navajo woman.
I was born and raised in the four-corners area, and I call the Navajo reservation my home. I am a junior in college majoring in English Secondary Education. I chose my major so I can help Native students become successful and confident in themselves as well as the world that surrounds them. I feel very passionate about maintaining our natural world because my ancestors had a deep respect for the world around us, and I would like to pass these values on to the next generation of indigenous youth.