To the Native/Indigenous Students of Indian Country:
This past spring, my company co-sponsored a conference that was organized by me and a colleague/friend Adam Crepelle. It was called, “All Roads Lead to Chaco Canyon,” and it was perhaps the first of its kind. It centered on what Mr. Crepelle and I consider to be a new form of economic development for Native Nations—international trade. Much of my research and work focuses on encouraging Native Nations to start re-engaging in international trade, much like they did so many years ago in the ancient city of Chaco Canyon. A lot of topics were discussed at the conference, and we had the honor of welcoming some of the biggest names and leaders in Indian Country. One of them was my father, former justice of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court Raymond Austin.
When I was a kid, my family lived in the capital of the Navajo Nation, a town called Window Rock. We lived in tribal housing located on the top of a hill near the sandstone rocks. Our house was made of the typical cinder blocks with bars on all the windows, which didn’t provide much security because our house was frequently broken into. Our front and back yards were basically dirt plots surrounded by wire fencing and sage brush.
In the driveway, we had a big white Ford truck and an old brown van for traveling. There was an old wood shed behind the house and a clothesline on the side where my mom would hang our clothes to dry. There were four of us kids, very close in age, and one, strong, strict Native mom to keep us all in line, which she did with the assistance of a wooden spoon. My dad taught us about life, but my mom taught us how to be strong.
My dad was the only one who worked. He was one of the first justices on the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, and from what I came to learn later on life, he was also one of the greatest legal minds to grace Indian Country. I remember going to my dad’s office after school with my siblings. He worked out of a trailer near the Window Rock Monument, before it was turned into the Navajo Code Talker Memorial Park.
He had tons of books on his office bookshelves with titles I couldn’t pronounce. On his wall, he had a poster with a drawing of two beings, Mother Earth and Father Sky. As I got older, I would come to learn that the drawing represented the original laws of the universe and the primordial laws that governed our people since creation. From those set of laws, my dad and his colleagues built the Navajo judicial system, a system that would become world-renowned and a model for indigenous peoples to follow.
I would always see my dad working in his office on an old Macintosh computer, reading, writing, and typing. I knew he was a judge but I did not really understand what his job entailed. I had no idea that while I played with my siblings in my dad’s office, he was writing court opinions that would establish the rule of law for the Navajo Nation. I had no idea that he was writing opinions that would later go before the federal courts and the United States Supreme Court like Means v. Navajo Nation and Atkinson Trading Post v. Shirley.
My father’s career took him to many places, and we all went with him as a family, but even then, I had no idea that my father was teaching Navajo law at some of the most prestigious educational institutions like Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School. His students would later become high ranking public officials, legal advocates, judges, and attorneys. The importance of my father’s work did not really become evident to me until I went to college, and it wasn’t until I went to law school that I truly came to see how my father was a leader of nations.
Fast forward to the time after I graduated from law school, after I passed the bar exam and became an attorney, after I finished my Master of Laws Program, to when I was sitting there at a conference that I helped organize, “All Roads Lead to Chaco Canyon.” My father was on stage. I sat front and center among some of the leading academics and legal practitioners, and listened to his words carefully like I did throughout my life. As he gripped the microphone, he leaned forward to gaze into the audience, speaking like the old leaders of Indian Country, with power, wisdom, and authority. As usual, the crowd was silent as my father’s words echoed over the speakers. At one point, he looked at the Native students in the audience and said:
“I am glad there are a lot of Indian students, young people, in this room because you need to hear this. And you need to study it. Because your elders tell you that you are the next generation, that you are the ones who are going to be carrying the torch. As I see it here, and as I look upon your faces, I can see that the torch has been passed to you. Now, what do you do with it? This huge responsibility that has been placed on your shoulders, what do you do with it? Where do you take it? What path do you go down? What are the choices that you will make? Because the choices that you make, the choices that Indian people make today, is going to have tremendous impact on whether there are Indian peoples, whether there are Indian Nations and cultures 200, 300, 400, 500 years down the road. That is as far as you should be thinking right now.”
These were the words of a man who I sat next to in ceremonies, a man who used to carry me on his shoulders as we hiked on our lands, a man who would tell me stories as I sat next to him in the truck on the way back to the mountains, a man who taught me everything I know about law, culture, language, and life. He was a judge, a sports fan, a body builder, one heck of a storyteller, and a person who I thought of as Superman when I was a kid.
But now, he sat before me with more wrinkles on his face than I remember and with more white hair than I recognized. That is when it became abundantly clear to me that indeed his words, like always, were very true: the torch has been passed to us, the younger generation. What do we do with it? As we carry this torch forward, what happens when our mothers, fathers, and grandparents are no longer there to walk next to us and guide us? Where do we go?
Before writing this letter, I sat here at my desk staring out the window of my home office in the early morning hours, pondering my father’s questions and the choices I’ve made in my life up this point. It’s about 6 a.m. now and here I am typing away again, occasionally looking out the window to enjoy the sunrise. It’s an all too familiar view. My laptop sits in front of me, as well as a second screen to extend the desktop.
The steam from my coffee gently rises out of a mug that was given to me by one of my dearest and closest friends. There’s a quote on the mug from our favorite TV show which reads, “Never half ass two things. Whole ass one thing.” I take a sip and gaze out the window at the street, palm trees, and rocks. I’ve probably stared at this same picture more so than any other place. Not much has changed since the time I first looked out this window. The outside world seems pretty much the same; it is me who has undergone the most change.
I sat in this very location when I was a high school student, doing homework late at night and eventually filling out college applications. I sat here as a college student, writing papers at the last minute and playing World of Warcraft instead of reading. I sat here as a new college graduate, searching for jobs and wondering how I was going to pay my bills during the recession. Again, I found myself before this window as a law student, reading at 3 a.m. in a state of panic for fear that I would get called on in my 8 a.m. class.
I sat here for months studying for bar exams. I sat here when I heard the news that one of my best friends passed away. This was my seat when I noticed my name was not on the bar exam pass list and the same seat when I received an email telling me when I could get sworn in to the state bar association. I sat here during times of excitement and wonder, and also times of sadness. Too many times, I gazed out this window thinking about life and why I choose to do what I’m doing now, asking myself if I made the right decision and went down the right path in life.
Now I find myself here again, this time reaching out to those like-minded individuals, the Native students of Indian Country, hoping that you share similar feelings, thoughts, and experiences as me. Perhaps, you’re like me and stop to occasionally ask yourself: where do I go from here? If so, then take some time to listen to me, but don’t listen to me as you would a teacher. Listen to me as you would a peer or an equal.
I like to write, always have. My friends say I have a way of moving people with my words. I’m not sure how I developed that skill, talent, or ability. I was always the quiet kid who sat in the back of the class and stood in the back of lines. I didn’t like confrontation, and the idea of talking to people would literally scare me into a panic attack. My answers were usually limited to a few words or simply saying “yes” and “no.”
I never liked public speaking or giving presentations, and I certainly didn’t like the spotlight. I remember having to give presentations in class when I was a kid. Standing in front of the class would make my eyes water, hands shake, and stomach turn. My mouth wouldn’t move and my face would flush red. I didn’t dare make eye contact with those in front of me. I would read off what I prepared on paper, talk low and quick, then shuffle back to my corner.
When I was a lonely high school kid, I had the most radical attitude and very few friends. I thought I knew what life was about, but when I look back on it, I chuckle. There was so much to learn and see; I knew very little about life back then. But despite my ignorance, there was a fire that raged within me. It was kindled by a childhood of being bullied by kids and teachers. It was stoked by memories of non-Natives, mostly white people, discriminating against me. It burned strong and became hotter the more I read books by Vine Deloria, Jr. and listened to the American Indian Movement song. It was during those years that I learned what it truly meant to live as a Native person in this world.
Sure, all people regardless of race and gender go through difficult times. However, us Native people go through unique experiences. Some of us were bullied for how we looked, our family’s economic status, the language we spoke, and the beliefs we held. Most of us come from families that have folks in prison, folks who committed suicide, or folks who became victims of alcohol and substance abuse. All of us know what it feels like to be mocked by mascots, movies, tv shows, and other forms of media. We’ve all heard the racial slurs about our people like “savage,” “redskin,” “drunk Indian,” “primitive,” “heathen” etc. etc. Some of which were used by the United States Supreme Court and perpetuated by the American rule of law.
No other ethnic group in the United States, except the Native people, has to ask whether they can use water from a river, say prayers at a certain location, or give offerings to a sacred site. No one other than Native people can truly understand why we don’t want people climbing on certain cliffs, why we don’t want reclaimed sewage water to be sprayed on a mountain for skiing, or why we don’t want our songs recorded and symbols copied.
Our generation is unique because some of us speak our Native language and others don’t. Some of us never knew our people’s way of life and grew up in cities. Others grew up on reservations and know only the Native way. Some fall halfway in between. The federal government labels us according to how much Indian blood we have and gives us certificates as proof. Some of us wear that certificate as a badge of honor to show other Natives that we are more Native than they are. Yet, there are some Natives who don’t have that proof but are still very much part of the people and know the Native ways. Some folks have lighter skin and hair while others look like they’ve spent their whole life herding sheep on the mesa.
There is a group of us who do not engage in discussions about Native issues and choose to go about living according to how we see fit. Some want nothing to do with the Native way of life, Native issues, or tribes themselves. There are those who are labeled traitors and those who are labeled rezzed out. Some fight against the outside world and others welcome it in. Some of us are educated, others are not. It’s ironic how a population who shares so many common pains and experiences has become so divided.
This makes us, the young Native generation wonder, who am I? Where do I fit in this modern world? On a sliding scale of Native identity, if there is one, where do I land? Will I be accepted by Native people or labeled an apple? Should I attempt to help my people or Native people? Or perhaps I shouldn’t get involved and let someone else do it?
Unfortunately, I do not know the answer to these questions. I don’t think anybody does, and I know as a generation, this frustrates the heck out of us. When I say “us,” I truly do mean all of us young Native folks because as a person who grew up on a reservation living a very traditional life, knowing the language and culture, and then going out to get educated in the American institutions, I can tell you that Native people of all walks of life ask these questions including myself. And these questions are important because like my father said at the conference, how we answer them will determine whether there are Indian people and Indian nations 200, 300, 400, or 500 years down the road. When we look at ourselves and ask these questions, we need to also keep in mind that there will be future generations after us. They will follow the path that we choose to take, paved by the answers to the questions we are asking now.
Whether we like it or not, or choose to acknowledge it, the torch has been passed to us. Where do we take it? I do not know. But what I do know, after working in Indian Country and with Native people, is that this is not a sugar-coated, politically correct world. It will not stop turning while we ask ourselves who we are; it does not care about who is offended by what because as long as there are differences in the way we look, the languages we speak, and what we believe in, there will always be racism and wars. However, that doesn’t mean we should stop pursuing what we think is right and standing up for our principles and morals. There are many battles going on right now, and this presidential administration has shown us truly what we are up against. We can’t afford to fight amongst ourselves; this, I know from experience.
Native people are dying of health related illnesses two to three times faster than any other ethnic group. The opioid epidemic is sweeping across Indian Country as well as other drugs and of course alcohol. Our people are stuck on reservations and developing mental and emotional health issues. Native people are committing suicide because they can no longer deal with the issues that have plagued them their whole life and will continue to plague others long after they’re gone. Crime is running rampant. Native women are being sexually assaulted and the perpetrators are not being brought to justice. Our languages are fading, and the way of life that our ancestors fought so hard to protect is becoming a story in school textbooks.
I have compared these problems in Indian Country to what the Navajo people call the Striped Winds. According to Diné Baahane’ dóó Hajíínei (the Navajo Creation Story), the winds (Niłch’í Diyin) existed prior to the creation of the universe. They were used by Hashch’éé Diné’é (the Holy People or Gods) to create the universe we know today. The winds are some of the most powerful forces of nature, but they can also be gentle and calming. On a warm day in spring, the cool winds gently sweep across the land, swaying the plants and trees in unison to produce a song of nature. It can be an invigorating and calming experience. However, during the warmer monsoon seasons, the winds are more malevolent, destructive, and unforgiving. They can conjure up vicious storms and even command the directions those storms travel. These winds take on many forms such as rainstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes.
According to our stories, the malevolent winds are called two names, one of which is the Striped Winds (Niłch’í Nóódǫọzí). The Striped Winds violently blow things around, and the further they travel, the more strength they pick up, and the more their power grows. They are distracting, manipulative, and can cause chaos and confusion. They even make people sick. Sometimes, they may seem like a gentle gust at first, but they eventually manifest into their true form. The scariest aspect about the Striped Winds is that they cannot be seen. The only evidence of their existence is in the sudden change of the environment—trees bending, dust blowing, dark clouds forming, and livestock running.
Very few things can withstand the power of the Striped Winds. They say only Niłch’íji bee hataałii danilíinii (those medicine people who understand the Wind Way) can stand against the Striped Winds. Those medicine people can calm the winds, harness the winds’ power, and conduct ceremonies to cure those who are afflicted by the illnesses of the Striped Winds.
When I think about the problems that have been afflicting Indian Country and Native people, I am reminded of the Striped Winds. We can’t see them, but we know they are there and we know what they can do. Our parents and grandparents seemed to do well in dealing with the winds. We hear about their stories and they tell us how they dealt with the winds. But when we see the winds ourselves, we come to see that they are stronger and sometimes different than the winds that previous generations dealt with. Some of us have given up hope and get swept up in the winds.
Deep within the Striped Winds, there is a cry for help from a forgotten people, and only we can hear it. Only we know where it comes from and perhaps only we know how to answer it. So, let us ask ourselves those questions again: who am I? What is this torch that has been passed to me? Where do I take it? More importantly, who will I pass it to when I can no longer carry it?
Like you, I do not know the answers. I still look to our elders, medicine people, and leaders for help. Sometimes I find guidance from old law school professors, members of the community, folks younger than me, and non-Native people. In recent years, I have started to become the one that people come to for answers. Of course, I am not always right. In fact, most of my life has been a pattern of me failing, doing stupid things, and saying the wrong thing. I was fortunate enough to have family, friends, and mentors (like an old law school professor and member of my dissertation committee) point out what I did wrong and how I could not make the same mistake again.
I have stood before numerous crowds of Native and non-Native people pointing out issues that I see in Indian Country and proposing solutions. I have given lectures to students, academics, and professionals. Sometimes people are receptive to my talks and listen. Others choose to challenge me, and few make it a point to try and tear me down, asking the blunt question, “Who the h*ll do you think you are?” Well, here’s the answer to that question:
My name is Wakiyan Tanka. In Dakota, my name means “Big Thunder.” I am from Chilchinbeto located between the four sacred mountains of the great Navajo Nation. I am of the Many Enemies People, born for the Water Flows Together People. My maternal grandparents are Dakota from the Flandreau Santee Sioux Band and my paternal grandfather is from the Salt People.
My work and reputation have earned me the nickname, “the Wolf of Indian Country.” I am an attorney and doctoral student. I am also the CEO and one of the founders of Olea, Solórzano & Austin. More importantly, I am among the many children who carry the torch and stand against the Striped Winds. There are not many of us who have taken on this responsibility. We are so far and few in between that sometimes it can feel like we’re alone in this fight. That’s why I am writing this letter to you. To tell you that despite my accomplishments, degrees, certificates, licenses, and everything I’ve done in my life so far, I am also here asking questions and feeling lost.
I also feel alone and sometimes the winds almost sweep me up. But I stand my ground because if I don’t, then who else will? At times, it feels like I’m fighting a losing battle. Sometimes I feel like quitting and never returning to Indian Country, much of Indian Country I do not know except my own reservation. I constantly make mistakes and cross the line causing trouble.
Many times I have disappointed my family and people, making me re-evaluate my decisions and asking why I am putting myself through this. It is so much easier to just not deal with it. But there’s something inside me that keeps me going and doing the things I do. It’s the vision of the people’s faces I saw when I left the reservation. It’s the voice of the elders and medicine people who told me, “Do not forget us, and do not lose yourself. We need help.”
Am I or should I be the one to answer that call for help? Again, I don’t know, but I’d like to try because that’s my people and my community. No one else will protect them from the Striped Winds. Carrying this torch is a huge responsibility and there are a lot of things we have to go through to carry it, like spending thousands of dollars and investing years into getting educated. And even then, our job prospects feel limited and our futures are not secure. The older folks told us to get educated and we did.
However, when we were thrust into the real world, we came to see that a bachelor’s degree didn’t take us as far as it did the generation before us. We were told we didn’t have enough experience even though we had the degree, and those with the experience were told they didn’t have the degree. Nevertheless, we still decide to do it, keeping in mind that the mental and emotional suffering we endure is not for ourselves, but for our people. Remember that when you’re sitting at your desk like I was at 3 a.m., tired, with pages more to read, and an 8 a.m. class to go to. You are not alone. And when the time comes for us to walk across the graduation stage and get our diploma, we carry it but it belongs to the people.
When you get out into the work place and should you choose to work for Native Nations, I urge you to be patient, learn different things, listen to people, and don’t get swallowed up by the system. Take time to walk among the community and get to know people. You’ll see how much people struggle and how similar they are to yourself. It serves as a constant reminder of why you are there. You’ll see that working in Indian Country and for Native organizations is an experience unlike any other. You’ll have great experiences, but also there’s no getting around the fact that you are in a small community, and you will deal with political issues and gossip.
People, Native and non-Native will come against you for unjustified reasons or no reason at all, so don’t try to make sense of it. It is the sad truth of how some of these systems operate, not just in Indian Country but all over. But don’t get discouraged or lose your cool, and don’t let bad experiences make you turn your back on the people who need help. Continue to strive to make the system better for those who are stuck in it. This is something I need to learn myself. It is tough not to take things personal especially when you are driven by your heart and passion. I learned this from experience and guidance from my father and mentors. One of the hardest things to learn in life is acceptance.
A lot of the times, I feel like just a boy standing in front of a tornado. I am not afraid though because I’m surrounded by the songs and prayers of my people that were set down many years ago. Their echoes and teachings, the distant voices of the past, will keep me grounded as the tornado approaches and will give me the weapons I need to fight. I can tell you from experience that these are very powerful weapons: our languages and culture. Learn them; it is never too late. We need them because without them, we cannot be a nation. Without them, we will not win this war.
So given all that, I now turn my attention directly to you, the reader, hopefully a young Native warrior like myself, and I ask you: where should we go from here?
The Wolf of Indian Country
P.S.: When you get frustrated and beat down, retreat back to the place you know among your family, lay low, keep watch from afar, and then come back out to fight. Stay vigilante. Those are the ways of the wolf.