Pauline Whitesinger died earlier this month.
Grandma Pauline was my hero. A Navajo elder, she lived a traditional life on the Navajo reservation in what is known as Arizona. She lived a hard life–hard by our industrial-world standards, and made harder by the coal mining occupation to which she refused to concede. She stayed on her ancestral lands, stood strong against invasion, oppression, and relocation, and kept her language and culture alive.
Several years ago, with a group of others, I spent a week on Grandma Pauline’s land, helping out with her day-to-day living–which has grown increasingly more difficult due to the occupation–in order to support her resistance. We brought our own food and water (there was no running water or electricity), stayed in her sheepherders’ hogan (traditional Navajo house), and did whatever she needed us to do (herd sheep, chop wood, repair buildings).
Pauline was, as you can imagine, a total bad-ass, and quite intimidating. She was old but seemed immortal. She taught me so much–not literally, as she was not there to be my teacher, I was there to be her worker, and also we did not speak the same language. But seeing her life, knowing her struggle, experiencing just a small taste of that incredible land and its people and history–it changed me.
Now, in the words of my friend Jake, who was very close to her, Grandma Pauline “rests on the land.” She fought for 40 years, a fight which will continue beyond her death, beyond the deaths of all of us.
But this is not about sadness, and this is not about me. Indigenous people–their cultures and traditions, which could teach us so much about how to live in accordance with ourselves, each other, and the earth–they still exist, but they are still being forgotten, through cultural or flat-out literal genocide.
We are getting dangerously close to destroying everything, simply because we don’t know any other way. Because we keep destroying every other way. For every death of an elder, a new life does not necessarily take its place.
So what do we do? What we can. Me, I volunteered for Black Mesa Indigenous Support, and continue to raise consciousness, and educate myself, and seek ways to support the efforts of others, when the fight is not mine. I try to raise my child to have an awareness of indigenous cultures so that they do not seem foreign or simply nonexistent.
We are all called to something. We don’t need to have the same causes, fight the same fights. There is no one right way. In the face of mass injustice, it is easy to forget that, and all to easy to feel helpless. We do what we can.
More about Pauline Whitesinger:
- In Loving Memory
- Vanishing Legacies (video)
- Navajo Elder Nominated for CabinetHardware.org Home-Improvement Grant
- Declaration of Pauline Whitesinger
photo credit, Her Life Belongs to the Land