Deon Ben spoke to a small group of SIA students on the current state and future of Native American traditions in the Midwest on October 24. Ben is a member of the Navajo Nation, with members in parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. He is studying for his masters in environmental science and policy at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. His vision is to incorporate traditional Navajo ecological practices into community policy in order to improve community and environmental issues.
Ben explained the disconnect between the elders and the current generation within the Navajo community. Ben said at family events, the older generation is reserved and often has little interaction with the English-speaking children. Out of Ben's 36 cousins, only 2 speak Navajo.
“At the rate the elders are leaving and dying off, we are not obtaining knowledge fast enough,” said Ben.
The Navajo people face environmental problems such as uranium water contamination and mineral extraction. Ben provided a background on traditional Navajo beliefs and explained how environmental pollution is viewed as a breach of the Navajo covenant to live in harmony with the earth.
Ben said during hardships like fires, floods, and tornados, it is traditional to look to the elders for guidance. Unfortunately, with the divide between generations, it's hard for the current generation to understand the traditional fixes and know what the future may hold.
“With the current conditions we are in, it's very difficult to reestablish our traditional philosophy or understanding – especially with the younger folks,” said Ben.
First-year SIA student Jeremy Rupp heard great things about Ben's previous discussions and wanted to learn more about Native Americans in the United States.
“I was interested in hearing what Ben had to say about the future of Native Americans,” said Rupp. “I thought it was interesting to hear about a matriarchal society.”
Ben's visit to the School of International Affairs was part of a trip to University Park on which he spoke with students in the Presidential Leadership Academy.