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Fashioning Navajo Pride

Fashioning Navajo Pride: Graduation Day on the Navajo Nation 

By: Jaclyn Roessel

Graduation day on the Navajo Nation is more than cap and gowns. It is an expression of history and future meeting on stage in front of friends and family. At Navajo reservation schools, the graduation ceremony is more like a fashion show than a school event. The designers are grandmas, aunts and the students. The message is one of pride and tradition.

Senior years are often big productions. On the Navajo Nation, graduation day is the biggest. With senior pictures, prom, class ring orders and announcements a lot of time and money is spent planning the big day

I am proud to be a mustang. While that sounds like a bad country song, it is actually the mascot of my high school. Monument Valley High School is in Kayenta, Arizona approximately 25 miles from the “real” Monument Valley. I recently returned to MVHS on May 22, to attend my younger sister, Robyn’s, graduation.

There are two traditional types of outfits Navajo women originally wore. The more traditional of the two is called a beel, or a rug dress. The rug dress is essentially two rugs that have been woven in wool on two separate looms, and then upon completion are sewn together. The second type of traditional dress is the made from calico cotton, satin or velveteen and is two-piece. There is a contemporary long-sleeve blouse and a three-tiered skirt that grazes the ankle. This type of clothing originated during the Navajo Long Walk.

The Navajo Long Walk occurred between 1864-1868 and was the forcible removal of the Navajo people from their homeland to Bosque Redondo over 300 miles away. Being far away from home changed how the Navajo lived. This included the making of clothes. Since they were separated from their flocks of sheep, they used available fabric to make a new form of clothing. Through all the years, clothing has been integral to the expression of Navajo culture.

When I was in high school I began planning in Dec
ember what I wanted to wear at my graduation. I chose a rug dress. Being a cheerleader I wanted my dress to be MVHS’s school colors of white and red. I remember driving on a dirt road with my grandma looking for a particular weaver she knew. We sat in the lady’s hogan, a traditional Navajo home, and talked about what colors I wanted the dress to be. I was so excited to see the finished product.

Robyn’s road trip for the perfect dress was purchased at one of our favorite stores in Cortez, Colorado. Our grandma took a day off from work to help Robyn find a dress. They even had a chauffeur – our uncle. Robyn’s dress, while in the traditional style of rug dress, was actually made from a Pendleton Blanket. Once again, the Navajo have added their own take on the latest traditional fashion. This is a new phenomenon, within the past 15 years the number of dresses made from these blankets has greatly increased.

Robyn said that she always wanted a Pendleton dress. She decided on her dress because the palette of blues and hint of purple were the perfect fit for her personal style. It wasn’t girly but still possessed a stark femininity. She also thought that no one would have one like it – she was right.  

As Pomp and Circumstance played over the PA system at MVHS’s graduation, I was filled with pride by the amount of young Navajo girls who had made the choice to dress traditional. I could see their traditional hairstyle, the stacked double buns underneath their caps and the toes of their moccasins beneath their gowns. The twinkle of the turquoise and silver adorned the many personal fashion statements. Along with the best accessory any woman can have, a beaming smile, the ladies were stunning.

During the presentation of diplomas, as rows of students got ready to approach the stage, all the young ladies de-robed and headed to the stage with only their caps and traditional regalia. The ceremony was like a fashion show. There were more than 100 outfits and no two were the same.

I was curious to find out Robyn’s reaction to the variety of styles showcased in her graduating class. She said that, “ On the surface it looks like we lost our culture because the styles are so different from a long time ago. However, it is interesting to see how we as Navajo people are using our creativeness in changing the style by using new designs, material and color.”

I think Robyn is right. Navajos from the beginning of time have had an innate sense of integrating and adapting non-Navajo cultures into what became traditional to us. That inclusion of the new has transformed and really propelled the creativity of Navajo people in all art forms from jewelry, weaving and now fashion. 

In talking to Robyn after her graduation she expressed certainty about the style of clothes she wore, “I knew that I would never wear a formal dress because today our traditional clothes are more for special occasions. And my graduation was a very special event in my life. I wanted to celebrate that day in my traditional dress.” I think that there is a larger issue under the surface that explains why traditional dress has become even more relevant to young Navajo women graduating today.

Graduations are usually occasions that are filled with joy and pride. But I think in the case of graduations on the Navajo reservation, the students and in this case particularly, the young women have such pride in their culture. They all have made a conscious decision to accept their degrees in their traditional outfits and through this one move I believe that they are claiming, and in a sense re-writing, the history of our people.

Ironically, if you were to rewind to over 100 years ago, they would never have been allowed to do so. Actually, during the time of the Indian Boarding School, the mere fact that after they have worked to achieve their diplomas, and still identified themselves as proud Navajo women, in the eye of the Federal government they would have been failures. Failures because their traditional clothes represented the past which was marked by ignorance and was assumed to serve no purpose to them as they embarked on their journeys in the Non-Navajo world.

Seeing the number of Robyn’s fellow graduates walk across the stage in Monument Valley High School’s commencement ceremony fully embracing their heritage left me feeling moved. I thought that it was a monumental statement of perseverance. When I asked Robyn what it meant to be a modern Navajo woman she said, “Being a Navajo woman to me means, knowing who you are and where you come from. It means that you are strong and are able to make a life for yourself. It encompasses all the teachings of my grandmothers and that I must never forget to care for my elders and family.

I have no doubt that if each graduate was asked that day this question the answer would be the same. This is the spirit that exists in these Navajo women that illustrates just how strong the Navajo are today. Even through decades of trials, the fact that educated Navajo youth can say that they are proud to be who they are is triumph of the spirit of Navajo people.

                     Photos Courtesy of Jaclyn Roessel  All Rights Reserved

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