Over the years, I’ve taken on an ambassador role of sorts between Indigenous communities I capture and the wider mainstream media audience—relying on my Nanai/Hèzhé (Siberian Native) and Chinese-American heritage. It’s a responsibility I take quite seriously because the access to experiences and stories that I capture are not my own. It’s a collaborative effort to get the stories right—to really understand what issues look like from particular Indigenous cultural perspectives—and how to see a community the way it sees itself. What transpires next is a translation to the wider audience to help them understand what are often vast cultural differences.
Much of the work I do is important today because Native communities are so marginalized—Indigenous peoples make up around 5% of the world’s population, but our stories are incredibly important and becoming more so. For example, 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity exists on lands managed by Indigenous peoples. That’s 80 percent managed by 5 percent. Seems only fair that such an outsized influence on the world should get more attention, and in a way that’s both accurate and not so culturally-blind.
Mainstream audiences often want to see universal themes and things that apply to themselves as well. But the truth is that many Indigenous cultures really see the world from an incredibly localized way and have a completely different set of values. It’s my hope that I can impart even a small portion of that to people, and especially to Native youth, who are often subject to intense assimilation.
I spent a week in January of 2019 photographing life on the rural Navajo Nation, particularly young families that were part of the Family Spirit program sponsored by the tribe and Johns Hopkins. While there, I saw many families immersed in contemporary Diné life, while carefully passing their culture forward. I spent only a short time there, but it was enough to paint a picture of the people—the sacred heart of the Nation.
It’s the desert in January. Here, in Arizona is the upper rim of Canyon de Chelly, a sculpted red rock gorge that compares well with the Grand Canyon for its craggy juniper trees and vibrant colors.
I hadn’t expected the reds and oranges to be covered in the soft whiteness of snow. My Navajo friends and guides, however, are completely undaunted. This is their home, and they are as excited about the freshly-fallen snow as children. For those that call themselves Diné, also known as Navajo, snow in their ancestral canyon is a timeless special event and something to be celebrated.
The Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, which brought me here, has sponsored a program to help young Navajo families learn to be new parents in a culturally sensitive fashion. My job is to document the program and a way of life for these young Navajo in remote regions of their land. As assimilation by the United States has increased over the past centuries, the need has never been greater for Indigenous youth to know and understand their cultures.
That’s not far from my mind at the top of the canyon when I see Kristin and Danielle messing about in the snow with the juniper trees. One is standing under a tree laden with snow, while the other furiously shakes a flurry from the branches on top of her friend. As the snow comes down, Kristin gathers it up in her hands and washes her face in it. It’s around 30 degrees F right now, and with the wind, it’s chilling, but Kristin doesn’t flinch one bit as she gets the snow down under her sweater and through her hair.
This, they tell me, is snow-bathing. Elders have said that to bathe in snow is to remain strong, and to be prepared for hard times. Snow-bathing is also, of course, about hygiene and keeping the body clean. For Kristin and Danielle, it’s also clearly about having a good laugh and a good time, as they take turns shaking snow down on each other and projecting their mischievous laughter down the canyon. And that’s the thing about life for the Diné in modern times. There’s an idiosyncratic blend of ancient tradition, modern technologies, and spiritual resilience.
As I worked across the Navajo Nation, I encountered Diné cowboys herding cattle to market, young couples with their first babies tending to them in traditional cradleboards, and medicine people performing healing rituals for their communities.
Everywhere I looked, I found people that were working hard to overcome the past legacies of colonization and forced assimilation. I found young people reclaiming their culture’s traditions and passing them forward. As I hear the sounds of Kristin and Danielle's snow battle echoing across the canyon, it seems clear to me the future for the Navajo Nation will be strong and enduring.