My Cultural Heritage and Identity
By Peter Ray James
My Dad once told me, “You are not poor, and you are not abandoned.” I remember those words as if the coldest water from my Grandmother’s well splashed all over me. I was eleven years old at that time. All five feet of me plus a big heart wanting to be a Navajo! You see, I asked my Dad if I could attend an Indian Boarding School for my freshman year. As a child, I was hungry to identify my hands, my feet, and my life to claim what my heart desired -- a yearning to be a strong American Indian. Perhaps a leader!
I was brown, intelligent, skinny, and fast! I was brown because my parents equipped me with my ancestor’s stories of how I was formed from mud and air. I was intelligent because I had three older sisters and two older brothers who never read their books from high school. They often told me to do this or do that, and I figured reading their books would be part of my chores. So I read their books. I was skinny because I got up early in the morning to chase puppies in spring, lambs in the summer, school buses in the fall, and snowflakes in the winter. But my tongue and heart were as far apart from each other as east to west. And because of this, I could not deliver any message in Navajo -- either at home, school, or to my friends.
As I grew older, my hands and feet were growing in every direction. The first thing my fingers wanted to do was to shape them on a girl’s hand. You know, “puppy love.” However, my Dad strengthened my hand with community service in the spring, a wheel barrow in the summer, an ax for the fall, and working gloves for the winter. Secondly, my feet wanted to out run all those Indians with braids at the boarding school. I envisioned myself running effortlessly with my Chuck Taylor canvas basketball shoes. You know the one with a big star on the right shoe. Fortunately, out of wisdom, Dad laced them with donated church work boots. You know the kind I’m referring to: the ones that feel as though someone died in them, and someone just decided to donate or give them to you. I sure needed those hard shoes that winter because they were useful for kicking up dead tree limbs hidden beneath the snow when firewood was considered necessary. Finally, Dad also imparted his love upon my hands and feet with his understanding -- to position my life in the shadow of his words.
Several years later, one June morning, the pressing heat of summer embraced my newborn son. He was born in an Indian hospital where cultural heritage and identity was one I couldn’t understand. His little fingers, reflexively strong, seem to grab for things I could not even see. His feet, so soft, wrinkled from mom’s love, reached out to society unprepared, nevertheless secure. I still couldn’t understand, I let him grab my thumb. I suddenly understood. I touched his footprints, and I was refreshed with Dad’s and Grandma’s love. Now, I was really am beginning to understand. I begin to speak the waters from Grandmother’s well into his life. I began to stir the shadows of my Dad’s words, while gently saying unceremoniously, “You will never be poor, and we will never abandon you.” I began to let words shape his fingerprints with wisdom I will get to see. I spoke words from my Dad’s shadow that forged my baby’s footprints with understanding that my Son will see.
Now, I am really beginning to understand, “I am a Dad”. Grandmother’s well is poured into my son’s heart; one message with two rivers: wisdom and understanding. I discovered that my cultural heritage and identity was love. To my delight, my son squiggled, squirmed, cried, shivered and didn’t even know me yet, but I know he is brown, intelligent, and fast with his breathing. Love will shadow his generation. I am proud. He will be proud. We will follow before we lead people to love one another. Because love will penetrate all people, all schools, all wisdom and all understanding; and all languages as far as the east to the west.
UnPublished work © 2016 Peter Ray James, Third Day Studio. REPRODUCED HERE WITH PERMISSION FROM THE AUTHOR.