Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series of stories about Indigenous people living and working in the Moab area. Kristen Marsh provided translation assistance for the Navajo words in this story.
Take one of the many tours offered in Moab or talk to enough people about the ancient petroglyph panels on public lands, and you might hear someone say that Native Americans don’t live in the Moab area anymore. The nearest Indigenous culture that still exists is several hours to the south along the Utah-Arizona border — the Navajo Nation, some will say.
Morganne Sutherland was born and raised Navajo near the Utah-Arizona border in Monument Valley, Utah. It’s an area people may recognize from the famous landmark scene in the final leg of the run in the film “Forrest Gump,” but for Sutherland it means home. It’s where her great-grandmother made her home and where her family members still reside.
Sutherland has been living in Moab for a little more than a year, where she’s connecting with other Native people living and working in the area.
At an Indigenous gathering of Native people at the Youth Garden Project on May 2, Sutherland mixes baking soda and sea salt into a bowl of flour on the counter in the kitchen. She’s making náneeskaadí, a Navajo word that she says means “over the ashes bread” or “bread over fire.”
Once the dough is mixed, it’s flattened and cooked on the ashes of a cedar wood-burning fire. Mutton is being prepared in the kitchen as peppers are roasting over a gas grill outside.
Within a couple of hours, the food is served on the patio at the Youth Garden Project. The cooking, the shared meal and all of the storytelling and education in between is all a part of the Nourishing Traditions Indigenous Gathering Circle. The gathering circle, exclusively for Native people, meets every first Thursday of the month at the Youth Garden Project.
The gathering circle was founded and is organized by Kristen Marsh, an advocate for victims at Seekhaven Family Crisis and Support Center, as a way to bring Native people together in the Moab area. Not only does the group facilitate cultural celebrations and gatherings and provide a way for Native people to learn from one another, but it’s helping Native people to develop their voices and educate others — people who may not realize that Native Americans live in the Moab area.
“Part of our mission is we want to educate people, non-Natives, and we want them to know we’re still here,” Marsh says. “There is a huge Native population in Moab.”
Not only is there a population of Native people living and working in the Moab area, but the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa is located about 85 miles south of Moab and is closer to Moab than the Navajo Nation near the Utah-Arizona border. Members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe are the descendants of the Indigenous people who once lived in the Moab area, creating some of the petroglyphs included in tours. According to historical accounts, Navajo people didn’t make a lot of rock carvings.
Back in the kitchen at the Youth Garden Project, Sutherland and others at the gathering circle talk about what it’s like to be a Native person in the Moab area. Several people explain what it feels like to be frequently mistaken as a Hispanic or Spanish-speaking person.
“As far as being culturally blind, I’ve had people come up to me and speak Spanish, and then they get mad because I don’t know Spanish,” Sutherland says. “I’m Navajo … it’s different.”
When Native people hear comments from people in Moab such as, “Oh, you must be Mexican,” they try to explain that they are Native American. Not only that, but also that their culture pre-dates the colonization of the area by Europeans.
“This used to be Navajo territory,” she says. “You look into our songs and our ceremonies and … songs about the Colorado River and the San Juan River are integrated into our history. Who wouldn’t want to live here? But then it’s like, we did live here.”
For Sutherland, experiences like those have created a sense of “culture shock,” she says. At home in Monument Valley, traditional gatherings happened at her great-grandmother’s home every month, sometimes more often.
DISMANTLING CULTURAL BARRIERS
“It’s like we have this big kinship and really strong relations,” she says. “And then you get out here to Moab and you kind of miss it, you know, it’s really, really hard to kind of establish an identity or even just that sense of community.”
“K’é,” Marsh says. K’é is a Navajo word meaning “kinship.” “We are a relational people.”
Sutherland, who says she had a “domestic violence issue” in the past, says Seekhaven Family Crisis and Support Center in Moab is now helping her to access support through various programs and services. The Nourishing Traditions Indigenous Gathering Circle, founded by Marsh, is a program offered by Seekhaven Family Crisis and Support Center.
“Because of Seekhaven and because of people like Kristen Marsh, I’m able to access things like mental health [services],” she says. “Mental health affects my job, it affects my life and I want to go to school.”
She worked as a retail clerk and cashier at a local store last year, where she greeted and assisted customers with understanding how to use new check-out counter technology, despite not having grown up near similar stores in Monument Valley, where rural services and conveniences are miles away from home.
“You come to something like this and you feel like you don’t belong because it’s so different from back home,” she says. “I probably didn’t grow up as hardcore as somebody else, but I know what it’s like not to have running water, no electricity, having to haul wood and coal in the winter, kind of take care of the whole family.”
In Moab, she says she has “a hard time cooking on the electric stove.”
“It’s just so — ugh, I miss the flame,” she says with a laugh.
“Maybe to some people it just looks like we’re roasting some meat, and making some bread, but it’s more than that,” she says. “There’s like a history and a sense of togetherness about it.”
Building on the word for kinship, k’é, Marsh says, “K’é bee nihidzil dóó.”
“It translates to ‘through kinship we are strong,’” Marsh says. “Community is paramount in our culture.”
The choyoołʼįįh — traditions — are continuing.
Sutherland and Marsh, like other women at the Nourishing Traditions Indigenous Gathering Circle, are talking about the importance of traditional and authentic food, clothes and other customs. Marsh is Apache, and explains that her experiences as an Apache woman has made her work as a victims’ advocate at Seekhaven more successful and the care that people are receiving more impactful.
When Sutherland first came to Moab, she says she was “depressed” and searching for someone to talk to. She says that people in Moab began to says things to her like, “’Oh, maybe there’s some ceremony you can go out and connect with the wilderness or something’ … and I’m like, it’s not really like that, it’s not that mystical because there is some functionality and there is rationality within it, too.”
Eventually she was told that there is someone in Moab to talk to, someone who may understand her Native culture and perspective.
“And I’m like, OK, they’re probably going to get some city slicker or something,” Sutherland says.
The person turned out to be Marsh.
“We just clicked. She’s so passionate about what she does and she’s so caring and it was so comforting to find someone who knew my cultural background and what to say,” Sutherland says.
A recent research study on overcoming barriers for Indigenous people receiving medical and mental health care indicates that clinicians who received cultural training were better able to communicate and give useful medical advice and were more successful in treating Indigenous people.
The research, co-authored by Lewis Mehl-Medrona, a Native doctor based in Maine of Cree, Lakota and Cherokee traditions, immersed trainees in Indigenous culture where they learned about traditional Native relationships and interactions, the role of ceremony in everyday life and the significance of stories and storytelling. The study says Indigenous people reported feeling more comfortable with the trainees discussing their care.
“Kristen knew what it was that I needed and she knew how to talk, and she and I have been talking ever since,” Sutherland says. “[W]e were able to talk about not only how hard it is to find other Natives but what’s going on in our communities.”
Things, Sutherland says, like having a voice about what “a lot of people want to slide under the rug and not talk about.”
“We have to get used to it and realize the voice we have,” she says. “We still exist, we still live in this area. … If you were to take all the Natives in San Juan County, we’re a big percentage, and all of a sudden all of these things that were able to slip by before, all of a sudden that’s not happening now.”
“Who wouldn’t want to live here? But then it’s like, we did live here.”
Indigenous people gathering in Moab talk about cultural barriers