Not long ago, a Diné (Navajo) friend of mine, Lyla June Johnston, sent me a one-line email: “I am not going to Harvard… I am going to plant corn.”
Her statement signals a profound divergence from the path she’d set out on when she was an undergraduate at Stanford University. She is choosing instead to learn the lifeways of her culture, to become fluent in her language, to relearn traditional skills, to be intimate with the land. The dominant American culture does not encourage such a path.
We’d talked about it before, her decision to take a prestigious graduate course at Harvard. The usual themes came up: the doors that might be opened, the credibility that might be turned towards a good cause. I remember observing how common it is to adopt the values and mindsets of the environment in which one is immersed – to become a creature of the very system one sets out to subvert. We appreciated the toxicity of the story, “See, a Native American woman can make it big too and go to Harvard.” Toxic, because it celebrates the very same system of status and privilege that has marginalised the worldview, culture and value system she comes from.
It is often said that people like Lyla are role models for others of like background. Role models for what, though? For being bribed into complicity with the oppressor? For joining the world-devouring machine?
I think the whole essay may resonate with many of the farmer/homesteader types here who may have made similar, if perhaps less dramatic, choices.