The Pain of the Earth: an Interview With Duane “Chili” Yazzie

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Chili Yazzie Photo by Robert Esposito.

Duane “Chili” Yazzie delivered the keynote at The Red Nation and UNM KIVA Club’s march and rally in Albuquerque on October 12, 2015 in celebration of the city’s first Indigenous Peoples Day, formerly known as Columbus Day. Yazzie is the President of the Shiprock Chapter of the Navajo Nation. Withal, Yazzie’s keynote received scant mention in the establishment and alternative presses, including the Indian press, which is disturbing.

The crux of his talk was a provocative challenge to Washington and Rome regarding the abolition of the Vatican’s Doctrine of Discovery. With his speech, in part prepared as testimony for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in September, Yazzie has thrust his people into an ongoing national conversation about the ideological underpinnings of, as he terms it, Columbus’ voyage of “conquest by destruction.”

“Yá’át’ééh,” Chili Yazzie called, commencing his address, is the Navajo expression of greeting and literally means: “It is good.”

A useful précis on the current movement within Christianity to confront the Doctrine of Discovery can be found in “Scandal in Plain Sight” according to the National Catholic Reporter. When asked to account for the Vatican’s non-engagement on this vital issue, Steve Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Project characterized the Vatican’s stance as one of “denial.”:

“There is a difficulty for the church in reconciling those documents and that language to the teachings that are attributed to Jesus in the Bible,” he said. “How in the heck do you have document after document after document [like the papal bulls in question] and then claim that you have this beneficial enterprise that you’ve been promoting throughout the world?”

Those documents had consequences, he said. “It’s not just a bunch of words on paper. When you understand the way in which language constitutes reality — that words and their meanings form the very basis of reality — then what form of reality was being constituted by the issuance of these documents?”

Reality was very much on Yazzie’s mind when we met to discuss the thoughts he’d laid out in his remarks on Indigenous Peoples Day.

On Indigenous Peoples Day you greeted us in the audience at Civic Plaza as “five-fingered humans.” Is this usual?

It’s one of the ways we describe ourselves in our Native tongue that fits everybody. I wasn’t there to speak solely to Indigenous Peoples, but to everybody. I wanted to make everybody feel I was talking to them.

You referred to our human relationship with the Earth as a mother-child relationship.

That’s the truth. In the creation story, we were formed of mounds of earth into which the Creator blew spirit. That is our composition. That is what we are. That’s the reality. We are literally of the earth. The Earth is our mother, the Spirit is our father. This is the foundation of who we are. Why we are, what we are.

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