The award of the Fulbright Pre-doctoral Fellowship in 2001 supported my research on Native American literature and gave me the opportunity to experience the tribal lifestyles that I had read about in novels by authors such as Momaday, Welch, and Silko. The principal theme of these works is the deep-rooted attachment between the narrator and ‘the land’- a connection that is an integral part of the Native identity. From Abel in Momaday’s ‘House Made of Dawn’, to Tayo in Silko’s ‘Ceremony’, the protagonist eventually returns to the Reservation, bruised and broken, to be healed, and made whole again. I knew I had to experience the restorative power of the Reservation myself, and I, therefore, visited several Reservations, belonging to a diverse set of tribes – the Tohono O’odham, the Navajo, the Hopi, the Apache, and the Zuni Pueblo – during my Fulbright tenure.
The Native American tribes living in the Southwest (Arizona and New Mexico) have been able to hold on to their lands and their lifestyle despite depredations. I found that each tribe had its own distinctive culture that continues to be shaped by the landscape, traditional values, beliefs, historical events, relations with the U.S. government, and interactions with other peoples in the region. There are, however, certain common characteristics amongst these tribes.
The first is the ability to preserve the beauty of the natural landscape – unspoiled by modern, high-rise edifices. The homesteads, along with the traditional hogans, kivas, round houses, and sweat lodges, blend into the landscape. Then, there is a bond with the ancestral land, and with the community. The older members are held in great esteem as the storytellers, healers, and leaders of the tribe. The members speak native languages, wear traditional clothes, practice traditional art and craft, and follow a traditional way of life.
Lastly, I observed the native people’s ability to balance their traditional beliefs while accepting modern influences. A striking example of this syncretism that I observed was at the Church of San Xavier on the Tohono O’odham Reservation where native art and craft was used in the Church Service. Judicious introduction of tourism and gaming have ushered in a certain degree of economic self-sufficiency without any major disruption to traditional lifestyle. This adaptation extended to health care as well. At the modern health centers on the Reservation, Native American healing remedies are allowed by the doctors and nurses, alongside modern medical treatment.
By experiencing their culture at first hand, I learned that Native Americans are a proud, dignified, and resilient people. They are striving to survive on their terms, while their communities and way of life are constantly endangered by legislation and local regulations that govern land, mineral, water and power management. Even though there are complex problems that impact the lifestyle of the Native people on Reservations, these Reservations are a refuge, a home, to which the Native people return from the outside world, to recoup, recover, and reaffirm their identity.
Nafeesa Fathima Moinuddin – Fulbright to USA 2002