Scripps College’s Garrison Theater was completely silent as a petite woman took to the stage Nov. 4. Smoothing her yellow cardigan, Dana Eldridge cleared her throat and introduced herself, not in English, but in Navajo.
“These are my four clans,” she said, explaining her lineage and how the Navajo people identify themselves in the context of their ancestors.
Brought to the college by Scripps’ first-year Core I program, the Navajo community organizer and Brown University graduate went on to lecture about colonization and how its continuation has caused serious issues in the economy, environment, health and public systems on the reservation and around the world. The Core program, a required, three-semester sequence for Scripps students, is focused on the theme of violence. Eldridge’s lecture spoke to the violent nature of colonization, emphasizing both its history and potential solutions for the future.
“It’s one thing to read about and talk about what is happening, but it really helps to make issues less abstract to bring a speaker in,” said David Roselli, the director of the Core I program at Scripps.
For some students in attendance, the lecture instilled a message of hope and perseverance in combating the influence of colonization.
“I liked how she talked about a lot of different indigenous movements and fighting colonization, how they’re able to have a form of resistance despite everything,” Prisma Herrera SC ’18 said.
Last year, Eldridge left her job as a policy analyst for the Diné Research Institute to return to the Navajo lands to work as a community advocate, farmer and independent researcher. Eldridge’s ties to the Navajo land and people were in the foreground throughout her presentation.
“What I’m going to be sharing with you is the work I’ve been doing at home,” she said. “It’s not just work; it’s the struggle.”
Eldridge’s lecture centered around taking a critical look at colonization and its affects on the current state of public life in various communities. The title of the event itself covered several topics: indigenous resistance, environmental movements, feminism and food in the 21st century. To supplement her lecture, Eldridge used a mix of images of the Navajo reservation, charts and statistics to convey the implications of colonization. Eldridge began with the legacy of American colonialism to explain how the problems within the Navajo community came to be.
“Colonization is a tough thing for people to hear because it is an ugly thing,” Eldridge said.
European conquest, the takeover of land and natural resources, the removal and relocation of indigenous people from their lands and policies of assimilation are the United States’ legacy, Eldridge explained. When the Navajo people were removed from their lands in the 1860s, the United States government took the opportunity to make the Navajo people dependent on the western food rations they allowed them.
“There is a connection between colonization and our health,” Eldridge said.
The traditional Navajo diet consisted of game meat, wild plants and the corn, squash and beans that they grew themselves—food sources that all came from within the local boundaries of the four mountains that border the Navajo lands.
“If we still had this diet, I believe we would have superpowers,” Eldridge said.
Now, a long legacy of burn campaigns and livestock reduction efforts, which still continue today, have left the Navajo people dependent on grocery stores for food. Fry bread and soda are among the most popular foods on the reservation, the likes of which contribute to the many health issues Navajo people face today. For instance, in 1937, 1 in 6,000 Navajo people had diabetes; the number today is 1 in 3 who are diabetic or pre-diabetic.
“When you have control over a people’s food, you have control over the people,” Eldrige said.
The vast majority of Navajo lands are considered a food desert, which is an area where there is limited to no access to healthy foods to eat. Around half of the people leave the reservation to shop for food, and some must travel as many as 150 to 200 miles, round-trip. Eldridge said that the statistic would be higher if not for limited access to vehicles.
Today, the effects of colonization are also apparent in continual resource extraction on Navajo lands, which lie on one of the richest natural resource corridors in the United States. Fracking, uranium-mining and coal-mining are common practices on Navajo land, which expands across northeastern Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, for the profit of big corporations.
Navajo coal is used to power the generators that enable big cities like Tucson and Phoenix to provide clean water for drinking and recreation, while one-thir of Navajo people do not have access to running water, including Eldridge herself.
At any given time, 50-70 percent of Navajo people are unemployed, the main jobs being those working for the coal and power plants. These resources, however, do not benefit the community, and they are still low-income, correlating with extremely high numbers of cases of violence against women.
Eldridge does not believe that the answer to the problems of her people lies in engaging in capitalism, but in food self-sufficiency and education. In coordination with the environment, she suggests the use of traditional dry agriculture methods to successfully grow food in the arid Arizona climate.
“We have to talk about resilience too, not just trauma,” Eldrige said. “Decolonization is about healing from colonization; we have to go back to our food because food is medicine.”