Members of Navajo nation work on Ramstein

Story and photos by Master Sgt. Scott Wagers
Air Force News

***image1***Airman 1st Class Uriah Hale-Huskon and Glenda Shirley-Yellowhorse are not only a part of the Air Force family, they are enrolled members of the second largest tribe of Native Americans in the United States – the Navajo Nation.

Now serving their country in Ramstein, nearly 6,000 miles from the Navajo reservation where they spent much of their youth, the two share insights into their past that reflect their proud traditions and common traits as tenacious, adaptable, enduring and spiritual people.

From the city to the reservation:

Glenda Shirley-Yellowhorse is a Human Resources advisor for the 435th Mission Support Squadron who has served the Air Force for the last 10 years. Mrs. Yellowhorse was born to Navajo parents who left the Navajo reservation – an area covering 26,000 square miles in the “Four Corners” region of North America – in pursuit of the U.S. government’s promise of steady employment in northern California.

Within days of stepping off a train in the mid-1950’s, her father soon learned that the government’s promise of employment was empty – as did other Navajo families who were uprooted. The displaced families stayed connected and settled in Oakland where Glenda, the eighth of nine children, was born and spent her youth attending public schools and growing up in “mainstream” culture.

“Living in California, nobody ever asked me who I was or where I came from. It was a melting pot with all different shapes, sizes and ethnicities and it was just something we never brought up,” she said.

That all changed in Glenda’s early teens when her father retired as a steel worker and maker of traditional Navajo jewelry. Returning to his roots, he moved the family back to the reservation.

That’s when I first started hearing words of, ‘You’re an urban Navajo’ and ‘You are an apple – red on the outside and white on the inside.’ This was racial discrimination by my own people because I didn’t grow up with them and I didn’t know about a lot of things they talked about. It was all foreign to me.”

Moving from one of the largest cities in California, she was now living in wide-open expanses of sparsely populated land where the nearest store was an hour and fifteen minutes away, gas was a 25-minute drive and her home was heated by wood.

“We also had to do our homework by kerosene (lamps)…and we’re talking 1980.”
Feeling removed from her own culture, Mrs. Yellowhorse discovered she could gain access to social circles in school by sharing first-hand knowledge of what it was like to live in the city.

From the reservation to the city:

Airman 1st Class Uriah Hale-Huskon said working for his grandmother on her desert ranch in Cameron, Arizona – near the Grand Canyon – was “much harder” than any challenge he’s faced in the military.

“We called her ‘the Drill Sergeant’, said the cryogenics fuels technician assigned to the 435th Logistics Readiness Squadron.

She’d stand on top of the hill and bark orders at us,” he said, reflecting on long days spent in the high plains desert with brothers hauling water for horses and cows and rounding up livestock for branding.

It’s work that he attributes to a “hard work ethic and respect for the land” that he says has been passed down to generations of Navajo for thousands of years.

Wanting to pursue a better education for herself and her son, Airman Hale-Huskon says his mother moved him at 14-years-old from the reservation to Salt Lake City, Utah where he enrolled in a Catholic school.

“It was a big culture shock going to the city and seeing million-dollar mansions whereas I was used to seeing a broad, open landscape with shacks here and there,” Another adjustment was dealing with misperceptions about Native Americans.

I would always get asked if my people live in teepees or if we smoke peyote to get high,” Peyote is a cactus native to the southwestern U.S., historically used for its psychotropic affects and popularized in an 80’s-era Cheech and Chong film.
Learning native culture:

Following high school graduation, Mrs. Yellowhorse attended college at the University of New Mexico where she said she enrolled in her first classes about Navajo language and culture. She also began travel throughout the Navajo reservation and visited pueblo tribes where she witnessed traditional practices and ceremonies through what she described as “brand new eyes.”

Reflecting her cultural journey, she shares a traditional saying. “We have a motto on our reservation that says, ‘Walk in beauty and harmony’ which means that when you travel outside the reservation away from your people, you’re not in balance with yourself.”

A traditional belief exists amongst Navajos that if you travel outside the Navajo reservation beyond the “four sacred mountains” you can become imbalanced with your surroundings.

For Airman Hale-Huskon, he stayed in touch with his culture by spending his summers off from school in Salt Lake City, back at his Grandparents house in Cameron, AZ.

“It was like living two lives – balancing trying to get a good education with going back to my Grandmother’s to learn Navajo and the old ways.” He also helped his mother sell native artwork to earn money for school clothes.

 When his mother finished her degree and returned to the reservation after his junior year in high school, he requested permission to stay behind and support himself through his senior year in high school.

“I worked at Dominoes Pizza from four to eleven every day and studied school work during down time,” he said.

The money earned paid for his rent, living expenses and part of his car payment. “My parents helped me out with the remaining part of the car payment.”

Airman Hale-Huskon prides himself in knowing his native Navajo language and being able to recite his clan lineage in native tongue – a formality practiced in traditional Navajo culture when speaking with an elder or making a new acquaintance.

“It’s also something you recite when meeting a girl because it reveals whether the two of you are related,” he said. “When I met my wife, Sondra, and heard her clans, I had to ask my grandmother if the two of us were related – and thankfully she said ‘no.’” Sondra is a traditional “jingle-dress dancer” who actively participates in cultural awareness venues throughout the KMC.”

Service to your nation, service to your people:

Practicing the native philosophy of “walking in beauty and harmony” while balancing a mainstream lifestyle is important to Mrs. Yellowhorse who, for the last decade, followed her husband, Perry, during a nine-year active duty career as an Air Force firefighter and working as a civil service employee. Their travels have taken them to Japan, Guam, and now Germany, which has provided them with opportunities and experiences that are unique to traditional Navajo culture – and often times consciously withheld and rarely shared with friends and family who they visit three times a year.

“When I go back home to the reservation,” a place where Mrs. Yellowhorse reports that less than half of the homes to this day have running water or electricity, “I don’t talk about where I’ve been and what I’ve done – like going to a jazz festival or seeing the nutcracker,” she said. And her children are not allowed to discuss their laptops, MP3 players, or the quantity of shoes they own.

“Because we have relatives who cannot provide at that level, their children should be comfortable with what they have,” she said.

Concerned about “intimidating” traditional Navajo friends and family who may not be familiar with new technology, Mrs. Yellowhorse has even admitted to feigning ignorance about how to operate an electric dishwasher back at her parents home on the reservation.

“I remember people asking me what the dish washer was and I would tell them I’ve never used it and that my children are really the best dish washers. If they continued to show an interest, I may say something like, ‘Perhaps we can learn how to operate it together,’ and it would allow me to show it to them that way.”

Glenda says it’s important to her to preserve the same kind of relationships she had with friends and family before she left the reservation in the mid-90’s. “I’ve matured and I’m older now but it’s important that the characteristics that make me who I am now are consistent with who I was when I left.”

Anticipating her imminent return to the reservation in coming years, Mrs. Yellowhorse wants to utilize her 10+ years experience in human resources to “plant a seed and give back something that the next generation of Navajo can capitalize on.”

She said assimilating into mainstream culture is very difficult for Native Americans who grow up on the reservation because experiences may only consist of interaction with family members and relatives. 

“When you leave the reservation it’s as if you must reinvent yourself, learning to alter the way you dress, speak, and present yourself” which she describes as “intimidating” and says it could be the one thing that turns a traditional person back to the reservation before successfully assimilating into life away from the reservation.

“I’d like to bridge the gap between native youth and mainstream youth and help people be successful by reaching their goals – and I’m not talking about monetary goals but rather personal goals.”

To “find himself and choose which path he wanted to take”, Airman Hale-Huskon said he returned to the reservation after graduating high school to spend more time with his grandparents.

Having a father who was a medical supply troop in the Army, the Window Rock, Arizona native said he wanted to join the Marines. “But my dad thought everyone in the Air Force was smart,” he said with a grin.

He claims he didn’t know what he wanted to do in the Air Force and “just picked eight jobs” before finding out he was selected for the fuels career field in February 2004. Now he says he could easily see pursuing a full career.