I woke up yesterday morning and I thought of the sunrise. The clock beside me said 6:30, and I dragged myself out of bed to get dressed. After assembling some cold weather gear, I grabbed my cornmeal and stepped outside.
Metro occasionally contracts with community members to write about newsworthy topics from their perspective as a member of a historically marginalized community, such as people of color, immigrants and refugees, low-income residents and people of varying abilities. These pieces are intended to provide important points of view and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Metro or the Metro Council.
Allison (Al) Rose is Diné (Navajo), born for the Karuk peoples. They currently reside on unceded Chinuk lands, and they work to integrate Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in climate policies and discussions.
Evan Benally Atwood is a freelance creative director currently working on a couple documentaries, one is Waveguides, about Indigenous women musicians, and the other on queer Indigenous joy.
This story was originally published in print with the title, "Ni’hoosdzáán baa’áhwiilyą́ągo nát’ą́ą́’ nihaa’ánáhályą́ | When we take care of the earth, mutually she takes care of us"
This morning’s offering spot was in the small green patch next to some dull apartment buildings. Turning myself to the East, I greeted the dawn and started my prayer. Throughout my prayer, oddities occurred around me that weren’t unusual for my environment, but unusual for me. Prying eyes appeared in the curtains of the apartment building across from me, car engines revved on the street close by, and wafts of bacon and oil from a nearby breakfast spot were caught in the breeze. My senses became overwhelmed and my words inaudible. I sprinkled my offering of white cornmeal and hurried back inside, avoiding neighbors on my way back into the small studio.
Throughout the rest of the morning, the pink apartment building I faced during my prayer was engrained in the depths of my corneas. I wanted to cry because during my prayer I couldn’t even see the horizon; I couldn’t see the portal to those who watch over me, and I couldn’t see them beyond the concrete anyways because of all these trees. While there are tall trees like Ńdíshchíí’ (Ponderosa pine) back home, I can usually see past them because they’re spread farther apart than the trees up here. Landscapes glisten and hills roll down into a flat desert, but up here the hills keep rolling and rolling, and trees loom taller and taller.
The forests here are unfamiliar and they tower over everything, and their branches are so long they feel like they’re trying to grab me. In these moments, I feel disconnected and lost; I’m away from everything that I know and feel comfortable with, and these spruce and cedar trees are a grim reminder of that. My sense of place is skewed here, and I’m so desperate to feel like I belong. I nitpick the differences when I travel back and forth between the Southwest and Pacific Northwest, scanning for similarities in warmth, joy, community, and comfort. Searching for landscapes that look like me, people that look like me, and climate that looks like me.
While I’ve searched for similarities, the differences are stark. I grew up in Phoenix and spent my summers on the reservation with my grandmother, and the communities I lived in were primarily Indigenous and Latinx, maybe a couple of white families here and there. On the weekends, I would listen to my mother speak to her siblings in our Native tongue, and it was a language that felt comforting and most familiar to me; she often spoke to my brother and me in this language, it was how she showed us love. The same can be said for my grandmother, my aunties, my uncles, etc.
Moving to St. Helens when I was nine years old was shocking. The green hills don’t resemble my physical features, I’m the only Brown person in most spaces I enter, and the climate resembles my tears from being so far from my lands and people. There weren’t any other languages spoken other than English, and since my mother was no longer close to our family or our home, our Native tongue slipped away. English became our default, and while the love she gave us was still there, it felt like something else was missing for her too.
So-called Oregon is not my home, no matter how many years I’ve spent twiddling my thumbs in the cold rain. The ground is mushy and wet beneath my boots, and the air feels crisp and wet against my face. I find myself bitter about the cold, wet and cloudy weather for most of the year, and I dread leaving the house in a raincoat. For a while, I resented this place for its cloudy weather and unceasing white supremacy, but as I’ve grown older, I have begun to grow a sense of familiarity and fondness for this wet green valley (I still hate how white it is here, though). While these lands may not be my own traditional homelands, they are the traditional homelands for other Native peoples.
I love my homelands unconditionally and I love my homelands with my mind, body, and spirit. I feel my thoughts in the plants that grow in different regions of Dinétah; I see myself in red and brown sands in the hills behind my grandmother’s house; I feel my spirit when Cheii or Naʼashoʼii Dichʼizhii (horned toad) visits me in my mother’s garden. The way I feel deeply for my homelands can be said for the Indigenous peoples here and everywhere else.
Nothing can describe what if feels like to be enriched both spiritually and culturally to a physical place. It feels like sheepherding on a hot July afternoon, scrambling over hills of sand so thick you can hardly move; it smells like fresh rain on limestone and juniper trees; it looks like sunrays reaching out over the horizon when it rises and sets, almost like laser targets. The stories I’ve been taught, the reciprocal relationships passed down to me, and the ongoing work in Dinétah is a huge part of myself. These feelings are me loving myself, loving being myself. When I take care of the land, I take care of myself.
It took me a long time to come to this understanding: to comprehend the teachings passed on to me from my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother, and all my ancestors before them. However, I think most importantly, it was Pacific Northwest lands and its Native ancestors, that helped contextualize these teachings.
There’s one day in the spring of 2019 where I felt the cosmos align, or rather, I felt like I finally understood everything that my mother drilled into my head growing up. It was a beautiful spring day that graced us between weeks of downpouring rain, and my PSU class was going on a field trip to Quamash Prairie. Pocketed among trees, Quamash Prairie is open and grassy, and it’s where camas has been returned with many other plant relatives who’ve been waiting for a resurgence in tending hands.
We joined Indigenous community members and Metro staff to learn about the land and what work was being done, harvest camas, and be in community with one another. I remember kneeling into the grass, gently digging for camas bulbs to harvest and replant. Around me I could hear my friend and her sister yelling each time they accidentally broke a camas bulb, wind swaying the grasses around me like they were dancing with joy, people talking and laughing with one another while they harvested, and I finally felt what I had been longing for: a loving feeling for myself, my communities, and the land.
Back home, the ground is hard and dry beneath my boots, the air feels hot and dry against my face. I find myself happy to be in warm, dry, and sunny weather for most of the year. I love waking up to watch the sunrise over the mountains, I love the smell after it rains, I love sitting under the juniper trees with my mother and grandmother on hot days, I love the cracking of thunder during monsoon season, I love the flutters of corn leaves in the wind, I love the sounds of sheep hammering their feet on their way to fresh water, and I love the smell of coffee and the sound of KTNN at six in the morning.
Connection to place is intimate and vulnerable. The Southwest is my home, and it cradles my heart because it created my heart. But right now, I’m up North and instead of hating and fearing this place, I want to grow and love this place because it’ll help me connect with this land just a little more. After all, this is all Nahasdzaan Shimá. And so, I declare my love: I love the smell of sweetness in the cedar trees, I love the misting of cold morning fog, I love the changing colors of leaves in the fall, I love the sound of snow in the winter, I love the way the sun comes out of the clouds in the spring expecting applause, and I love how the Pacific Northwest has me yearn for home.