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Indigenous Student Voices: Colonization is not my burden

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I am a Diné (Navajo) woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, the ancestral homelands of the Pueblo people. I come from the Black Streaked Wood People clan, born for white people, where I am a member of the Becenti and Holtz families. In this way, I am an Indigenous woman. I come from a people of resistance and survival. In our ways, it is important to introduce ourselves in relation to our ancestors, relatives and place. Place is a way that we come to understand ourselves and the world around us. Place sustains us, protects us, but it can also challenge and attempt to break us.

I have spent the last two months in a place far from home, on a BOSP study abroad program in Madrid, Spain. Before arriving here, I had many romanticized ideas about what it would be like to spend three months away from home studying in Europe. Seeing as I had never travelled here, these ideas were filled with daydreams about the delicious food, the intricate art, the vibrant “culture” and, of course, the wine. All that I had heard about the study abroad experience was how great it is and how it changes the lives of those who have the resources and desire to participate. But no one ever really talks about how these colonizer countries and their respective environments can be extremely difficult to adjust to, especially as a Native person internalizing an environment that once deemed Indigenous people uncivilized savages in need of salvation. This was Spain’s mission upon contact with my people and many other nations. The Spanish attempted to colonize Diné people through Christianizing, enslaving and committing violence and murder. Our children were taken from their families, sold at auctions and many never returned back to Dinetah, sacred land of Diné people.

Upon arriving in Spain, part of me had expected some sort of introduction to this history, to openly discuss colonization and conquest and its connection to the “history of America,” and even the personal connection I had to it, especially considering that the BOSP program is sponsored by an elite, liberal institution. But, to no surprise, there was absolutely no mention about how essential it is to fully comprehend where we are, what this place is and was, and how the history of this country disrupted the lives of so many of our ancestors and filled it with violence and tragedy. 

Every Oct. 12, Spain celebrates a day of national pride: the moment that Columbus “discovered” the Americas. In addition to the annual holiday, Spain has continued this celebration through monuments dedicated to conquistadors, through grand statues of Christopher Columbus and through reverence of the once-great Spain that was built from the bloodied gold stolen from the New World. Spain has chosen to continue to celebrate those same brutal conquistadors who raped, massacred and enslaved our ancestors.

One of the most prominent and jarring of these commemorations is the Jardines del Descubrimiento, located in a central area of Madrid in a plaza named after Columbus, which also bears a statue of the murderer. In this area, under the protection of a monstrous Spanish flag, stands a huge stone monument (in front of which I am standing in the picture above) dedicated to the discovery of the New World, to Columbus and to other colonizers. In addition, there are multiple written recognitions of the Spanish royalty, friars and others who “believed in Columbus and made the discovery possible.”

During my visit to this place, I had already felt the frustration boiling inside me. While walking around this disturbing memorialization of a history smeared with lies, I encountered a group of young tourists and their guide sitting on a cluster of benches facing the monument. The guide, who was part of a religious program, was speaking animatedly in English about the glorious discovery, praising Columbus and his men for finding the unknown land and all of the wonderful gifts waiting to be exploited for the benefit of Europe.

His only mention of Indigenous people was: “The Indians were savage and uncivilized. They did not even have toilets or running water.” I looked at him in disgust and thought to myself, it was actually the other way around. We knew how to take care of ourselves, the land, and each other, while across the ocean your ancestors were dying of famine, war, jealousy and the black plague spread by human filth. Through this monument and its depiction of the same fantasy of conquest that is glorified in travel magazines and history books, it was so easy for this man to perpetuate the cycles of ignorance and the dehumanization of Native people, yet again.

This was only one of many examples of profound ignorance that I encountered during my time in Spain. In other cases, I witnessed a group of white women walking around with caricature feathered headdresses, a multitude of stores that sell dream catchers and other “Indian” novelty items, a person telling me that Indigenous people were the “losers” of colonization, as though it were a fair, evenly-matched war that my ancestors faced instead of an invasion, and so much more.

In a discussion session I held to talk about the celebration of colonization in Spain, we read excerpts from a textbook for Spanish high school students that discussed conquest in an incredibly desensitized, glorified way that seemed to depict the invasion as something natural and unquestionable. These are just a few examples of how misconceptions about the way that we are as Indigenous people and the story told about contact and conquest exists and continues to be spread in places all over the world: through severe miseducation about colonization and the unadulterated celebration of the very people who committed genocide.

The Madrid program requires that accepted students take a language pledge in which we vow to only speak Spanish for the duration of our time here. Though I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my Spanish, I keep finding myself wondering, Why do I want to become fluent in the language of those who attempted to colonize my people, when can’t I even speak my own language? Why am I trying to speak with the same tongue of those who once tried to slay and enslave my people; those who tried to use this language as a way to subdue my ancestors and gave us a name that is not our own?

During my time in Spain I have faced so many complex experiences and challenges filled with emotions and often times anger, loneliness and sadness. I have had to cope and deal with the reality that one can cross an entire ocean and still find the same systems, images, stereotypes and false histories that exist in the U.S., the same barriers that Indigenous people are trying to fight and undo throughout all of the places where our people have existed and resisted since creation.

I found myself having to constantly remind myself of who I am and where I come from. It was as if this place was trying to do to me what it had tried to do to my ancestors by attempting to break my identity. It has been an active external and internal process to combat these forces that have been trying to weigh me down in this place. In order to fight the overwhelming sentiment of oppression, I began to practice simple acts to stay connected to my Indigeneity, such as making Navajo tea on the stove just like my mom and grandma do; listening to my Native Jams playlist through my headphones while waiting in the metro; standing in a sea of Spaniards and tourists who will never understand that bobbing my head to the beat of the drum group in my ears is how I decolonize and claim this space. I found such power and internal intensity from these subtle intricacies that reminded me of who I was, these brief moments that made me remember the pride I feel for where I come from.

I have never felt so much longing for my home, my family and for just being around other Indigenous people who understand the complexity of the burdens we are forced to deal with. I began to question why I ever decided to come here in the first place; why I travelled so far from home to find a different version of myself. I could not understand why I was struggling to live up to those expectations of supposedly “life-changing” and “incredible” experiences that my peers and others had raved about. Was I really too much of an angry Indian, just mad about colonization and white privilege, to not let myself fully enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

Creator gave me my answer while I was walking from class one day, listening to an episode of All My Relations, a podcast hosted by Adrienne Keene and Matika Wilbur. I just needed to hear two badass Indigenous female academics talk about the very things that excite me and nurture my wellbeing. I had almost arrived at my homestay when Adrienne said, as if she were speaking directly to me, “those feelings of shame and embarrassment are all a part of the settler colonial project. We are supposed to feel that way.” I stopped walking immediately. My eyes began to water, and I cried right there. I felt heard. I felt like they were right there next to me, speaking in my ear and telling me that it was not my duty to carry the burdens that this place was trying to put upon me. It was in that moment that I realized that I should be able to experience and thrive in any place without having to feel the need to fight a battle with ignorance at every turn. I, and every Indigenous person, should not have to experience shame and self-doubt because of the profound ignorance of a place or the people within it. 

I am incredibly frustrated, but by no means surprised by my experiences here. This is all part of the settler-colonial mindset which is bred to live and thrive all over the world. In the U.S. and Spain, where histories are consumed by the falsities of colonial greatness that seek to erase and dehumanize Indigenous people, it is no surprise that the same systems exist in these countries because they were both built upon and operated by the exploitation and genocide of Indigenous people. These realities have allowed for stereotypes and misinformation to be breeding grounds for the celebration of conquest and false narratives that glorify and make heroes out of murderers.

I, along with every other Indigenous person, should not have to explain to anyone why stereotypes and the celebration of conquest are wrong. These are things that should just be inherently known and understood at a human level. These are things that should be actively questioned by all people everywhere, not just Natives and their allies. It is not my responsibility to compensate for a lack of someone else’s education about the world in which we live, to fight to create my own space in a world that caters to the groups in power and simultaneously fills in the erasures of history that were created by the ignorance and pride of a colonizer mentality. This should be something that we are all actively trying to remedy. This should not be a burden that I, or any Indigenous person, has to carry. This is and always has been the burden of those who continue to practice ignorance. Colonization is not the burden of Indigenous people.

I am a woman who comes from between the four sacred mountains. I do not carry the burden of colonization because I am an example of existence, resistance and generational resilience from my ancestors, and no place can take that from me.

— Kendra Becenti ’21

Contact Kendra Becenti at kbecenti ‘at’ stanford.edu.