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This is What I was Told to Do

This award winning essay was written by Joseph Austin for the 18th Annual Richard Grand Legal Writing Competition.

Dedicated to those young Native warriors who carry the torch of a forgotten people, the light in the darkness, the hope of generations past, and the vision of a better future. It has been passed to us. Now, where do we take it? Where do we go from here? Don't be afraid of these questions because the answers lie within ourselves, our identity and way of life.


…and so the lands of the Glittering World, our world, became filled with monsters that the first people thought they left behind. A once beautiful world was being destroyed and reduced to ruins. If the monsters were left to roam and continued to wreak havoc, it would only be a matter of time before the people were exterminated. And so the search for a hero began and this song came into being:

This is what I was told to do

I saw your light in the darkness and so I searched

I searched the whole world for you

I searched for you in the forests

I searched for you in the rivers

I searched for you in the mountains

I searched for you in the sky

I traveled on the rainbow

I searched for you with the crystal

I searched for you with the water

I searched for you with the fire

I searched everywhere for you

This is what I was told to do

This is what I was told to do

This is what I was told to do

This is what I was told to do

-Retelling Part of the Navajo Creation Story, “The Search for a Hero Begins”

I arrived at the airport an hour before my plane left. I got out of the car, grabbed my suitcase, shut the door, and waved goodbye to my Uber driver. I walked through the airport doors and found the check-in counters. I went to the back of the line. Fifteen people were ahead of me, and a lady was arguing with the customer service representative. It would take some time before I got to the counter, perfect opportunity to check some emails.

I unlocked my phone and scrolled through my work account. I saw too many emails with nerdy subject lines from senders I barely recognized. It was too late in the day for that, so I switched over to my UofA email. I began to scroll. There were the usual emails: Nancy Stanley’s Day-at-a-Glance, Bernadette Wilkinson telling us to RSVP for something, and Netflix asking if it was really me who signed in Friday night at 8 pm to watch episodes of Friends. I looked up from my phone; still more people in line ahead of me. I took a few steps and continued to scroll. There was an email from one of my favorite professors asking if I was still alive, and one about The Richard Grand Legal Writing Competition.

I opened the email, wondering what the topic was this year. I took a few more steps forward in line and quickly glanced through the prompt. Something about explaining what it means to live generously and give back to the community as a lawyer? I closed my email, put my phone away, and walked up to the check-in counter.

I put my suitcase on the scale, checked in, and proceeded to security. Same old routine: items in bin, body scan, secondary frisk because I look suspicious, items out of bin, onward to the departure gate.

I got to the gate just in time. There was no place to sit, so I leaned against the wall and started thinking about the writing prompt. What does it mean to live generously? Heck if I knew. I was a broke solo practitioner with ridiculously low hourly rates who took too many cases pro bono. What does it mean to give back to the community? Does giving back to the community mean traveling to distant, remote places on my own dime to help Native people rebuild their nations and lecture them on ways to revitalize language and culture? Because that has been a large part of my career as an attorney—doing things without being compensated.

All of a sudden I heard the intercom announce that boarding has begun. A short time later my group got called and I joined the line. Like everyone else, I waddled forward to get my ticket scanned and then waddle down the ramp. I put my ear buds in and found Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” on my phone, perfect waddling music. I finally reached the plane and began waddling down the aisle.

Those who were seated awkwardly watched as those of us in line waddled by. I looked at my ticket. I was assigned a window seat in row 24. I looked above me near the storage compartment; I was at row 20. The people in front of me took their seat and before I knew it, the line disappeared. I walked forward and saw my row. A woman stood in the aisle, apparently waiting for me to take my seat so she could take hers. She smiled. I smiled back and excused myself as I ducked and maneuvered into my seat.

The woman sat down and made a joke that I barely heard because of my music. I chuckled nonetheless and took my ear buds out. The woman next to me started the old airplane talk by asking where I was coming from. It was going to be a long flight, so I figured I would reciprocate the question. Pretty soon we were talking about our families and jobs. I told her about my career as a tribal attorney and the stress that comes with working in Native Nations.

As I talked, I looked out the window and realized that we were already above the clouds and the sun was setting. It looked like we were floating above fluffy orange cottonballs. Enchanted by the view, I stopped talking and grabbed my phone to take a picture of the horizon. Then I heard the lady next to me speak, “You said your job stresses you out and gives you a headache. So why do you do it? And why do all this other work for free?”

While still looking out the window, I told her, “Because as I once said to a group of Native students, there are monsters out there. You might know them as alcohol abuse, drug abuse, domestic violence, poverty, suicide, depression, etc… But to us Native people, they are monsters. Some people can’t see them, but we can. Deep within our lands—through the trees, deserts, waters, and mountains—there is a cry for help from a forgotten people. Only we can hear it and only we know how to answer it. We fight the monsters everyday, but our warriors are few. Our weapons are our knowledge, education, skills, our language, prayers, songs, and most of all, our hearts. Our hearts link us together, and bind us to the same fate and destiny. They drive us forward even when the odds are against us. I want so much for my people to know that no matter how afraid we are of these monsters we must stand together and help each other. Some of us will be victims, some of us heroes. I travel far and wide, hoping to help heal the victims, recruit warriors, and find the heroes.”

I turned back to look at the woman. Her eyes were focused intently on me. I continued, “I know it’s a long, dramatic answer to a simple question, but the truth is I don’t do this for recognition or to feel good. I don’t do this out of some moral obligation or because I feel sorry for people. It’s different for us Natives. It’s very difficult to explain to non-Natives why we are the way we are and why we do the things we do. Most of it is due to our history and current state of affairs. European people came here from a distant land. They killed my ancestors, took our lands, culture, and language. They put us on reservations and then forgot about us. They say time heals all, but the wounds of my ancestors ran deep. So deep that the future generations, people like me, still feel the pain. The trauma and effects can still be seen today on most Indian reservations like the one I call home.”

The woman sat in silence and we stared at each other for a few seconds. I continued, “I’m flying back to Tucson and from there I’ll go back home to the four sacred mountains—the traditional Navajo lands. When I do, I’ll see the same things that I’ve seen since I was a kid: people living on the streets, infrastructure falling apart, people buying alcohol in border towns to take back to the reservation, and elders who will probably leave this world, seeing as a last image their nation crumbling and people suffering. Sometimes I wish I could forget about it, not see it, and ignore it, but my heart won’t let me because it’s linked to a nation of people. It’s the heart of my ancestors. It’s same heart that went on the Long Walk in 1864 and survived four years of military captivity by the United States. It’s the same heart that was gunned down in Wounded Knee and hung to die at Mankato in 1862.”

I put my hand over my chest and said, “This heart comes from a history of resilience and perseverance. It will not let me give up or abandon my people, despite how much stress pro bono cases cause me, how much of my own resources go into donating to Native education, and how many late nights and early mornings I spend traveling to distant, remote places to speak to Native youth and tribes. I teach Native Nations about the rule of law, how to build governments, and how to develop economies, all at my own cost. Because if it’s not me, then who else would it be? When I left the reservation so many years ago, the elders told me never to forget our people, and not knowing the type of big, ugly, mean, unforgiving monsters I would come to face, I promised them I would not.”

At that moment, I noticed people across the aisle were also looking at me. I forced a smile, sat back in my seat, and looked out the window: “As you can glean from my rant, I do this because I have everything to gain from doing so and everything to lose from not. I do it because… this is what I was told to do.”

…and so the heroes dropped down from the sky and landed on top of a mountain, weapons in hand and flint armor covering their bodies. Though they were only two young men, their weapons were strong and their power was rooted in the ways of war. For these two, the fate of a people depended on them. They gazed out into the distance and the hunt for the monsters began. And so we have another song:

I came when nobody else would

I am the son of Changing Woman

I am the child of the Sun Spirit

I walked from a place under the eastern horizon

I walked from the house of the sun

It floats on blue water

It is made of turquoise

It has a turquoise ladder and doorway

Turquoise rattles move around it

The path to it is lined with white cloth

At that place I was given the weapons

At that place I was given the bow of the nightsky

At that place I was given the arrows of lightning

At that place I was given the armor of war

There you will find my footprints

There you will find my handprints

I am the all-powerful one

I came when nobody else would

I came when nobody else would

I came when nobody else would

I came when nobody else would

- Retelling Part of the Navajo Creation Story, “The Heroes Arrive”

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