By Garnette Arledge
Larry and Donna Etsitty spend their summers here where she grew up on Cabin Hill. Donna is a Cole. Her sister is JoAnn Kaufman.
The rest of the year they live on the Navajo Reservation at Hunter’s Point, located beyond Window Rock, Arizona. I met them at the Andes Presbyterian Church where Donna resumes choir singing each year. They agreed to give a program at my bookstore while I took notes. The following is an abbreviated version of the fascinating talk they gave at Andes Books.
Larry explained that Navajo is only a translation of The People’s real name, given by the Spanish explorers when they encountered his ancestors. “We are Din`e (pronounced di NEH). In our language, it means The People, it is how we regard ourselves.” Then he said in his peaceful, quiet voice, “Now we will begin with a Din`e Blessing in our way:
Thank you for coming to gather here. Hopefully I can open up understanding of The People’s Way of living, our lifestyle, that all will feel more content and when we leave being together, understand more of each other. I dedicate our time together to the Higher Power.”
Next, Larry said that when he tells a story to a group or to individuals, even to his own family, of the Navajo Ways, it is complicated. “We are called the five-fingered people and the stories of our beginning could be the truth or could be lies, we don’t know. But we do know that it was the custom of the Wise Ones, the old people from long ago in the past, to always say there are two sides to every story. It takes time to tell a story because you have to go back in time to bring out the answer.”
Here’s the story of how the Etsittys met thirty eight years ago after Donna graduated from Parson College, in Iowa, and took a position in Greasewood, Arizona as a second grade teacher with the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs).
Larry said teasingly, “We met at a dance. She swept me off my feet. I wasn’t a good dancer.” He was a pre-law student at North Arizona University initially, then began working for the Navajo Nation and in insurance. He worked with teachers and employees in personnel and performance management, training them in the cultural and traditional ways of the Navajo people. Larry’s parents worked for the BIA, cleaning, so he grew up in Window Rock.
“On the Reservation we live on ten acres that Donna inherited after my mom passed on because traditionally women inherit the land, the household, the livestock, the whole caboodle.” Larry continued. “We have one acre for a homesite in trust by The People, the rest in land used for crops with a grazing permit which my brother ranches with sheep. He grows apple trees, corn and squash. Donna inherited because to the Navajo, women own everything. The kids are hers, food hers, stock, household goods, land. I only own my clothes and oversee the land outside. Men are outside all the time traditionally, overseeing the family needs and weather concerns, and in old days, wars and raids but we no longer have them. However that matrilineal concept is not really true anymore but it is a fundamental concept to Navajo belief still respected in our courts of law, which we call Peace Making Court for resolution. In case there is a conflict between cultural ways of customs not written, this fundamental law works with the judicial law. The decisions are based on what is good for the family.”
Donna displayed the beautiful turquoise jewelry she wore to the bookstore group. Intricate silver settings with large turquoise stones in necklace, rings and bracelets. “Turquoise is for protection, in the Navajo tradition,” she told us.
Larry added “My grandfather made the family jewelry which was stolen at a house break-in. All we have is photographs of it. I still have a bolo tie he made though. A lot of our jewelry we have now my mother gave to my brother and us. I will be giving that to my children.”
They have three daughters: Jennifer, a photographer, and Julie Elizabeth, a probation officer, live in Seattle. Their youngest daughter, Janelle, attended Delhi Tech and Western Carolina at Cullowee. She has a daughter, Taylor Elizabeth, and is expecting a second child soon. She lives on the Reservation in the traditional ways.
Both Larry and Donna emphasized the respect they have for the Navajo Ways and the closeness of family. “The importance of clanship, of family, how related we are is primary. We have a saying in Din`e, The One Who Walks Close To Me, that’s family.”
And Donna added, “We have the huggiest church.”
There will be another session with more information on Thursday, September 2 at 2 p.m. on Navajo Baskets at Andes Books. All are welcome.~