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Veronica Yellowhair, 2024 1st Place Identity, Culture, and Languages

The Identity, Culture, and Languages category welcomes submissions that focus on exploring elements of identity, culture, or languages, through the written word. This category seeks writing that investigates the human experience, particularly through perspectives that are frequently marginalized or excluded, which may include members of the LGBT+ community, people with disabilities, non-citizens, and multilingual writers. Submissions are open to projects written in any course, at any level. There are no length limits for this category. Veronica Yellowhair wrote the 1st place submission in the Identity, Cultures, and Languages category for the 2024 President’s Writing Awards.

About Veronica

head shot of Veronica in her Women's Fancy Shawl Regalia

Veronica Yellowhair is a Senior at Boise State University and will be graduating with a B.A. in Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communications in the Spring 2024. For Yellowhair’s Senior year, she had the opportunity to be the Boise State Seven Arrows Powwow Director, Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Library recognized her journal publications in Tribal Author Spotlight, and was a keynote speaker for the Fall 2023 Indigenous Stole Ceremony. She enjoys dancing and attending Native American Powwows, learning her Diné (Navajo) culture and language from her mother, writing, and reading. Ahéhee’ (Thank you) for reading my piece.

Winning Manuscript – The Way Things Were


When we arrived at my Saniì’s (grandmother) hogan in the summer, it was at night. My family maneuvered through the hogan with a dull pink flashlight, my Saniì’s savior. I could only hear my Saniì and Shimà (mom) talk to one another, I couldn’t see anything but the dark. While I unrolled a foam padding on the floor, I could feel the uneven ground as I threw the blankets and my pillow on the bed. Finally, we laid our bodies down and rested our heads on the pillows. Moments later, a conversation in the dark began. Saniì and Shimà speak the Athabaskan dialect. Maybe they are talking about how restless they are or how their day went, I don’t know; I only speak English. Nevertheless, the sound complements the silence and is my companion at night. I look up where the chimney pipe exits the roof of the pink hogan, where there is a wide gap that shows the night sky with bright white stars. The grandmother sky tucked me in, and mother earth sang me to sleep.

The Way Things Were

The land reminds us of who we are. A breeze comes across my face in the early morning sleeping at my Saniì’s hogan. She does not have electricity nor running water; my own security from the harsh cold is my blankets. I hear feet moving, pans clanging, and dough kneading. I sit up slightly on my elbow to see what is going on, however; I only see my Saniì’s silhouette sitting on a chair making dough. The door is wide open facing the east, a ray of orange light is rising in the center of the wooden door frame. She is swift while making sounds as the dough rubs against the plastic green bowl container. Dinè (Navajo) people rise with the new day every morning, 4 a.m. to be exact. We wake with the holy people who rise up to greet the father sun (morning sun). We pray with our white corn pollen to bless our family and ourselves for the day. We pray any troubles we are having, any worry, or sickness our family may be experiencing to bless and heal. Shimà told me these are the old traditional Dinè ways of living; wake up early with the holy people and pray for the new day. Since Shimà was a little girl, she was told by her Shimà and her Nali (paternal grandmother) to always wake up before the sun; it was bad to sleep once the sun had risen. However, today in the 21st century; the elders like my Shimà, who lived and breathed these lessons, are aging or passing. Waking up at 4 a.m. might not occur elsewhere, but here on Dinè Bikèyah (the people’s sacred land) it does. Sadly, this is an old ritual that is passing as well.

There is a picture of my sisters as toddlers, Shimà, Saniì, and a few relatives sitting on the Arizona sand with a white sheet laid on the ground with pots and plates. They are eating while my Saniì is cooking on an open fire. I looked at that picture and asked my Shimà,

“Why are they sitting on the ground eating? Why not a table?”

“Because that’s what they used to do a long time ago. Your Saniì’s would lay a sheet down on the ground outside or inside and eat. No fork or spoons. Just sit and pick the food up with their fingers and eat.”

I saw this once when I was small. My Saniì laid a sheet down in her hogan and her cousins gathered and ate on the floor with her. No forks or spoons. Just their fingers as utensils. They had their bowl of fresh tortilla bread, cooked potatoes with spam and eggs, and freshly brewed coffee in a blue coffee pot; the food and the white sheet represented purity, something that occurred sparsely. My Saniìs are gone along with many of their Dinè traditions.

I’m not sure why, but many memories I have of my Saniì’s were during the summer months. Some late afternoons, my family would place chairs outside of the hogan facing the east like the door and talk. The pink sky was a reflection of their sweetness and laughter. Next to the pink hogan was a Chaha‘oh (Summer shelter), slender tall wood stood side-by-side forming a rectangle, three walls and a roof. Tree branches would cover all-around the shelter including the top. These were designated for cooler shelter in the summer months and used for ceremonies. One particular shelter I remember was out near my family’s ancestral land in Bodaway, Arizona, the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon. We had our family reunions there or Mother’s Day cookouts. There are not many Chaha’oh on the Dinè reservation. With the advancement of electricity and air conditioning, these traditional homes are vanishing.

Letting go of these old Dinè customs is difficult. The past six years, many of my relatives including my Saniì have passed on. Every now and then, those heartwarming memories occur. However, I soon realize; I won’t get to relive the memories of waking up to my Saniì making dough in the morning with the door wide open as the sun is rising, or seeing my grandparents re-live the simple days of eating on a white sheet conversing with one another, or sitting under the Chaha’oh while I opened my birthday presents as I did that one warm August day with my family. After they all returned back to mother earth; all of these customs are now stories, stories to be told or written like this. Shimà said to me days ago before I began this piece, “The people change, but the land doesn’t.” Nahasdzaan Shimà (mother earth), comforted me and sang me to sleep under her night sky, she woke me up with bright rays in the morning, laid a good foundation beneath my feet, and gave me shade with her trees and branches. Nahasdzaan Shimà reminds me of who I am.