The Story of A Grownup Navajo Woman
Updated: Mar 9
An interview with Grownup Navajo founder and member of the Navajo Nation, Jaclyn Roessel, by Elizabeth Harris.
The Navajo Nation is one of the many indigenous communities, cultures, and peoples of the United States. Their historical lands span across much of the current American southwest. The Navajo, also known as the Diné, have a rich culture full of beautiful customs, nuanced knowledge systems, and profound philosophies. Despite hundreds of years of colonization, many of these customs and thoughts still continue. One Navajo woman has continued these traditions and sought ways to integrate them into our modern world.
Meet Jaclyn Roessel. Jaclyn is part of the Navajo Nation. She worked 11 years in museum curation and started many blogs and enterprises, including Grownup Navajo. Since leaving the museum life, she has worked with various organizations, tribes, and people to educate and integrate indigenous systems and philosophies. Through her work, she has helped numerous people begin their journey of decolonization while supporting the development of a more connected and just world.
I got to speak with her about her story as a Navajo woman and how we can use indigenous teachings to create a better world.
Jaclyn, you do a lot. You’ve started multiple blogs, multiple companies, how do you describe yourself?
I am a proud Navajo woman who is dedicated to the advocacy, promotion, and celebration of indigenous culture and values.
You were at the Heard Museum in Phoenix for 11 years. Then you left to focus more on Grownup Navajo and educating the public and working with companies. Can you tell us about your experience starting and growing Grownup Navajo?
What’s interesting about Grown Up Navajo is that it started as a blog. The blog began in 2012, and it started as this process of grieving for my grandmother who passed away very suddenly. When I started Grownup Navajo, it was simply a way for me to process how youth would learn about my culture and about my people without my grandmother in my life.
Initially, for those first few years, it existed solely as a blog. As I began to invest more time in my museum career, I realized the impact of institutional racism. Being the only indigenous person at the senior management level of an organization was incredibly isolating, lonely, traumatic, and tiring. I had so many comp hours I never took. It was so hard for me to take vacation time.
However, at the same time, Grownup Navajo was growing in a way that I couldn’t have predicted. We were doing collaborations with people and planning in-person events. There was this wildly beautiful culmination of growth that was happening.
It came to this place where it was in opposition to my work. It was competing for time with my day job. I knew I wouldn’t get the support to do all the things that I wanted to at the museum, and there were a series of events that led me to decide to move on and let go of my position and bet on myself.
Leaving the museum, I also decided to leave Phoenix. I was in a long-distance relationship at the time, with my now-husband, and I decided to move to New Mexico. It wasn’t far away, but it was a world away in terms of my network and a new environment. This move was a way for me to invest in myself and build out what I thought could be possible. Working in a museum was really slow to move and change. Now, I could actually make an impact by building a company that could support the integration of indigenous ways of knowing, practices, and knowledge systems.
It was at the beginning part of the diversity and inclusion wave that has just continued to grow. I have always seen the possibility and recognized it. We have our own languages as indigenous people to describe how we inherently value every individual's perspective and their being. Everyone has sacredness as part of them. Through these different lenses, we achieve what in English we call diversity and inclusion.
Starting Grownup Navajo, the company, was this interesting evolution. It became a way to introduce people to these systems and models and to work with the community better. I worked with a lot of non-indigenous institutions, both museums and arts and culture organizations, and now government entities, non-governmental organizations, and nonprofits that really want to embed indigenous teachings or learn how to work better with indigenous nations and communities. I even work with indigenous organizations that want to focus on the integration of their own principles and values into their organizations too.
It’s become a company that I describe now as a digital media and education company because we do the education part around our training that focuses on inclusion and intersectionality and anti-racism, but we still have the content of having a blog, video channels, and our social media campaigns for a more personal perspective of these ideas and thoughts at an everyday level. Within this past year, I have become a certified personal coach, and I’ve integrated coaching techniques into my practice, facilitation, and work with one and one clients.
You talked about integrating Indigenous knowledge systems. How are they different compared to very Euro-Western-centric America?
I start from a place that I know and grown up with, which is the Diné culture. In Diné culture, we have philosophies and principles that guide our every day, that place us in the order of the cosmos, and that instruct us on how to be respectful, contributing members of community and society.
One of the foundation pieces that I integrate into my life and practice is the principle of K’é. K’é kind of translates into kinship, but it has a more expansive definition. It's not just the kinship of being related to each other, like blood relations. It’s, in the way that I was taught, this responsibility through relationality. Because we are 5 fingered people, because we all come from a particular place or community, we are responsible to each other. We have this civic responsibility to be engaged with each other’s healing and each other’s health and wellness.
I think that a lot of indigenous nations have their own words for kinship, community, relationships, or philosophies that relate to this idea of being in connection with each other. I always caution people from making generalizations of indigenous people, but this is probably one of the safe generalizations that you can make: that indigenous people have a core concept, guiding principle, philosophy, or word in their language that relates to a sense of kinship, relationship, or relationality with each other.
The conversations we’re having around race, the conversations that we’re having around community care in regards to the pandemic, the way that communities have stepped up, all of these actions are practices that support relationality. They’re in stark contrast to capitalism and the way that white supremacy wants to make us all islands. Capitalism and white supremacy do not want us to be interdependent. These systems thrive on toxic individualism.
I see that it’s really important to recognize relationality as being something that isn’t counter to that. It’s not reactive to these systems. These concepts of relationality have been inherently embedded in the thriving, the surviving, and the continuation of indigenous culture all over the world. Being connected to each other is what made us stronger. It’s really important to contextualize it as a way of knowing that precedes these systems of oppression that have been introduced to these lands, specifically what is known as the United States.
You talked about this principle of interconnectedness in nearly every indigenous group. Has your work brought you in collaboration with other indigenous groups outside of the US? I know you have worked with various indigenous groups within the US.
Not yet. I hope that is part of the work that can grow and expand, especially when it's safe to come back together after the pandemic. I'm really excited about a lot of those possibilities. We have to look at global examples, not just regional examples.
Colonisations didn’t just happen here. Not everything has to be a reaction to colonization, but we can recognize that indigeneity is a global experience that can be shared and learned from.
You make a great point that this country (the US) has been colonized. I don’t just mean the European colonizers but also the American colonizers. That’s something that people don’t think about living in the US.
So, a couple of years back you started the Native Women Lead with other incredible Native American women. Can you tell us more about bringing that together?
It wasn’t until I moved here (New Mexico) fully that I was able to connect with some incredible indigenous women and entrepreneurs who are doing a lot of incredible work locally. We came together through an invitation from my colleague’s sister, and fellow co-founder. It was for a panel discussion that was part of this global economic summit that was in town.
Nobody came to that conversation. It was such a blow, we were so excited and really looking forward to this panel discussion and sharing what it's like to be an indigenous woman entering the entrepreneurial world. We had all levels of business owners on this panel. It was just amazing, but nobody showed up. It did allow us to recognize that we needed the space and the time to connect with each other.
We had a series of conversations over the next 4 or 5 months that shaped our desires. We felt there was a need for a gathering place for indigenous women and entrepreneurs of all levels of business to learn from each other so that we can create a community and connection with each other.
We put that event together in 2018, and it sold out. We were beyond capacity. It was such a phenomenal experience having all these incredible indigenous women, entrepreneurs on stage sharing their experiences, talking about investment, and talking about the challenges of balancing culture and business obligations. We had keynotes to raise money for a birthing facility and other entrepreneurial endeavors. It was just so amazing.
As co-founders, there are 7 of us, we were all just blown away by the need and by how people wanted this. We had no idea. Since then, we’ve continued the summit. We had another in-person event in 2019. Then last spring, we went digital because of the pandemic. In that amount of time, we have engaged close to 500 different women from all over North America.
It’s been a really profound experience to be part of a collective that has shown that women, that indigenous women can be collaborative. There are so many places where women are pitted against each other in a competition that capitalism has a setup where somebody has to lose. Our organization stands in contrast to that. We believe that we are stronger if we help each other. Like Congresswoman Haaland, how can we leave the ladder so that other women can climb up? She’s one of the biggest supporters of our work.
I think across the board we’ve created incredible opportunities. We’ve invested in indigenous women businesses, we have provided emergency fund relief, as part of the pandemic we’ve fundraised and supported indigenous entrepreneurs. It’s been amazing to be part of an organization that is saying that we don’t have to play by these rules that were never meant for us. We can completely envision and revolutionize a system so that our people and our women win. That’s really what Native Women Lead does.
You speak a lot about your grandmother in your blog, and the Native Women Lead has a matriarch fund. Can you tell us more about matriarchal culture in the Diné?
Our community, the Navajo Nation, our people are a matriarchal society, and we’re also a matrilineal society.
A matrilineal society indicates the clanship system that we identify and find belonging. Our clans are passed through the mothers. My sons and my children will be my clan. That will be their identifying clan.
Then the matriarchal part is the belief that women have been and are the backbones of our families and of our communities. When we look back in time, we can see evidence of different women who took on leadership positions, who were involved in decision-making. It was often said in our society that the women were the ones who made the decisions around the acquiring of land through marriage, who kept an understanding of moving livestock, who held important conversations, and who gave input on who was going to lead our communities.
That’s not to say there wasn’t an imbalance. I think it's really important to recognize that when we talk about patriarchy, and how toxic patriarchy is, it is this imbalance. We use the word in English, matriarchy, but it's really beyond that in our own understanding as a community and as a culture. We believe that men and women have values. And beyond that, we even have 4 different genders. There was cohesion and harmony that was created and that existed prior to the settler-colonial America and other colonial forces coming into these lands.
This land has always been indigenous land. It will always be indigenous land regardless of what we call these places in English. It’s really important to recognize that this idea of matriarchy and patriarchy are really formed around our understanding of balance, gender, and the sexes. There was a lot of decision-making power that native women had. Because of colonization and the ongoing nature of colonization, there is oftentimes an erasure of the importance of women.
Within a lot of organizations that I support, they look at how to honor the contributions, leadership, support, and medicines that indigenous women have. It looks different depending on the organization, and it looks different on an organizational level compared to an individual level.
I think at the heart it's really about the practices. The way of remembering how we used to honor all communities, particularly women, and also recognizing that a lot of what work has to do with truth-telling around how we got separated from these ideals. A lot of that separation is through the integration and adoption of US governmental policies, and the impact of different churches and denominations that have continuously tried to convert us and persecute us. Those are all the ways that we’ve become separated from these knowledge and power systems.
What advice do you have for our readers to respectfully integrate Native cultures and work on our decolonization?
I think just being able to increase your intake of indigenous thought leaders, making sure you’re diversifying your feed, and you are reading articles about indigenous people by indigenous people. Media outlets, like Indian Country Today, are a great start. There are just tons of articles that you can enjoy and learn from that can point you to examples of other people to follow.
I think it’s important to learn about the importance of making land acknowledgments. So much of the continuation and perpetuation of settler colonialism is embedded in the fact that we don’t recognize that all the land, no matter where you are in the United State, is indigenous land. I don’t care if you’re in LA or Boston, everything is indigenous land regardless of how long you’ve been tied to that place or your family has been tied to a place. The history of indigenous people precedes all other histories.
We worked on a project with the department of arts and culture, and you can download our land acknowledgment kit. It tells you more about the importance of offering land acknowledgments and what it means. That in itself is an act of decolonization and truth-telling. There is so much that can be gained and garnered from. Think about taking on land acknowledgment as part of your practice and developing other action sets and tools where you are, whether that’s mutual aid funds or fundraising efforts. Some communities have land trust funds where you can pay for the land that you live on, just like you pay rent.
All of that is again part of this decolonial wave that has a lot of promise in dismantling colonization and other systems of oppression that suppress and erase indigenous people.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs?
I think that at this point in time any company that is just starting or a company that wants to be relevant has to recognize that it’s easier to do the work with the community than it is to do by yourself. Nobody does it all.
Also, you may be funding it all by yourself, but you’re still benefiting from settler-colonial actions because the land that you’re building your business on is only made possible by the stealing of indigenous land. That’s where our work around awareness and the development of being anti-racist is acknowledging the fact that nothing is accomplished all on your own. That’s a big myth.
Make sure to check out and download the land acknowledgment kit that Jaclyn worked on with the US Department of Arts and Cultures at usdac.us/nativeland.
To find out events, summits, and how to support Native women entrepreneurs, visit Native Women’s Lead, where Jaclyn is a cofounder, at www.nativewomenlead.org. You can follow them on social @nativewomenlead on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Lastly, if you want to get in contact and collaborate with Jaclyn, you can visit her website www.jaclynroessel.com. You can also follow her on social @jacroessel on Instagram and Twitter. If you love her work and want to support her, why not buy her a coffee at www.buymeacoffee.com/jacroessel.