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Striped Winds and the Boy Who Stood Against Them: Letter from the Lone Wolf

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.”