Singing Generations: Father-Daughter Diné Duo Brings the Past to Life
It’s not very often you see a father-daughter Navajo hip-hop duo performing at a social justice festival. When you are so lucky to witness an event, you have to pause, to take note. Renisha Clara, a young girl in the tug of adolescence with black-framed glasses and the confidence of preteens, spoke first, asking the audience, “Are you ready for some hip hop?!” Her hands flew up to the sky, mimicking the fluid flow of her father, Synapse, standing behind her. They had practiced the art of rallying up the crowd. Prepare yourselves, they invited us. Today you’ll bear witness the genetic collaboration of two generations, speaking their way through stories of the struggles of daily living, of the indigenous peoples of this country and of the hopes held for the future. The beat began, and we, a group of about one hundred folks of varying ages, genders, races, ethnicities, started to nod our heads to the rhythm.
Synapse started by telling a story in sound, sending his words forward as if they were diplomats traversing the space between indigenous land and the construction of Arizona State University, where the festival, an annual forum put on by Local to Global Justice for 18 years now, was unfolding. He told how this was once the land of the Hohokam, the O’odham, and the Akimel O’odham. Both Synapse and Renisha Clara are of the Dine’ Nation, Diné meaning “the People.” The Diné are also known as the Navajo, one of the largest nations of indigenous peoples in this country. The Navajo reservation is currently the largest land territory of any indigenous nation — but the return to the land, an area roughly 27,000 square miles–the size of West Virginia — came at the steepest of costs, those of life and of future.
The Navajo Nation: History To Know
The Navajo Nation, located around the Four Corners, was always situated between four sacred mountains. “The Diné were one with the canyons, the desert, the rocks and the air in that land that sits between Blanca Peak in the east, Mount Taylor in the south, the San Francisco Peaks in the west and Mount Hesperus in the north,” says current Navajo nation president Russel Begaye. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed in 1848, ending the brutal Mexican-American War, its own controversial assertion of American “rights” over Mexicans and Mexican territory. In the aftermath, the indigenous peoples of the southwest and south, including the Diné, Hohokam, O’odham, and others, suddenly had to contend with thousands of Americans moving west, influenced by President Polk’s justification of manifest destiny for the white American man. Guilt, shame, and grief, that strongest of feelings, were overlooked with the promise of gold, of land, of success.
In 1851, Americans built Fort Defiance in the middle of Navajo country, and by 1863, after a decade of fighting to preserve their land, their culture, their home, the Navajo were forced to surrender. In 1866, the 10,000 remaining Navajo, from a nation that had between 2–18 million people in the early 1800s, were marched by Kit Carson and presidential decree to Fort Sumner, some 350 miles away. It was a journey known as the Long Walk. This walk, moving away from home, toward the unknown, was one of the resounding themes of the weekend’s festival, as well as a refrain of Synapse and Renisha Clara.
American Government Acknowledges Wrongdoing: Too Little, Too Late
Synapse, in one of his songs, sang of the the land as we see it and the true history buried beneath. He said, “Some people call me indigenous…but I’m just a spirit…” A spirit that was forced to walk the Long Walk. The 10,000 Navajo lived in concentration camps at Bosque Redondo. Around this time, the American government, particularly a special committee headed by Senator Doolittle from Wisconsin, began to investigate the treatment of indigenous peoples; they were forced to come face to face with the destruction they had created. In 1866, during these investigations, President Johnson was encouraged to extend peace treaties of some form to various nations, though not all. Political strategy usurped humanity.
The Navajo, led by leader Chief Barboncito who collaborated with various female leaders, demanded that they be returned to their land. The Navajo Nation Treaty of 1868, also known as the Bosque Redondo Treaty, returned some of the land, the current 27,000 acres, to the Navajo; it also allotted tools, cattle, seeds, and some materials. The Dine began the slow move to a home much changed, yet they were not allowed to return for free. This treaty, which can be seen at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, AZ, came at a price, a price that Synapse’s daughter knew as she sang.
A Culture Fights to Be Remembered
Throughout the songs, mostly sung by Synapse, Renisha Clara would chime in for the refrain, often singing of what’s next, of future generations. For all of the young people growing up with wide eyes refusing to nod their heads in acceptance of what is, Renisha Clara sang her words, bold, quivering, powerful, with the honesty a young woman can harness. During one of the last songs, she sang, “I do not choose to be in this world, and I’m not just a little girl. I’m too divine for you to rewind back in time. So do you mind? So do you mind?” Being too divine to be rewound in time speaks to what was lost, and what remains, of the Navajo nation.
The price of the treaty that returned the Diné to the land was the price of the future. The leaders were forced to agree that they would allow children ages 6–16 to be educated in the white schools, “Indian Schools,” where they’d be trained to forget their language and taught, in many ways, to disavow parts of their culture. The Diné also agreed not to interfere with the construction of railroads through their “new” reservation or to interfere with cattle passing through their lands. Assimilation into the nation that had murdered them, stolen from them, and now wanted to essentially brainwash their future, that was the cost of land. The cost of home. When people speak of home being something worth fighting for, are there boundaries to that fight?
Relearning What Was Erased
Home. What was home to the children who government officials took from their parents, who were forced to unlearn their culture. Radical Imaginations — the theme of the festival where Synapse and Renisha Clara are performing — is an homage to breaking through barriers, to removing the walls that separate us. There are Indian School classrooms, and classrooms today that present a limited, biased, whitewashed view of history. There are border walls. There are reservation boundaries. But many walls are, and remain, invisible.
When listening to the voice of the next generation, this girl singing her experience of twelve or thirteen years, one cannot help but contemplate the future she’ll inherit. Just 150 years ago, the future of the Diné, of all indigenous nations, was challenged. It was not erased, as the native people of this country have preserved incredible amounts of knowledge considering the genocide that took place, but the youth of that generation of Indian Schools were the subjects of brutal, mental torture. The concept for these American Indian schools was developed by army officer Richard Pratt while he was “reeducating” Indians in prison. He was the man who stated, “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one…In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” To be told that you, your culture, your experience, is inferior, is animalistic — to be told to hate all that you are — it takes a fierce kind of resilience to resist that power in any small, or big, way.
It wasn’t until 1969, almost a hundred years later, that the American Senate wrote a paper after an investigation, claiming the practice of ripping apart native families and erasing native culture was “a major indictment of our failure.” But there wasn’t a legal response until 1975 with the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. However, change takes time, especially through 100 years of destruction. By 1990, the government caught up with what native families had already taken into their own hands–the language had to be preserved, and education should return to the local communities.
Reclaiming what was lost is not just a matter of returning to land; it is simultaneously a return to knowledge. Renisha Clara sang how she wasn’t just a little girl, and how she was too divine for this madness of the present. Even divine souls cannot breathe life into dead languages. There were once more than 300 Native American languages, and now, there are only 175. Estimates say that by 2050, without active restoration, only 20 will remain. Walls within the mind, walls that try to format a future, these walls are insidious, and must be seen to be broken. Song and storytelling are two of the most powerful ways to break down those barriers, to bring up a new message. That was what was witnessed when Renisha Clara and Synapse performed, and that is what must move forward in beat, rhythm, word and sketch in the process of unlearning, relearning, and teaching again.
*A note: This piece is written from my perspective, as a white woman, learning and observing. For more information about the Diné, read here.