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Custodians Of Breath

A Promise

We hear the first Thunder rumbling off in the distance before the forever sky comes tumbling down in to our valley to fill us with laughing floods. My mother ushers us outside, in between the smell of sage and sweet earth, she tells us to stretch like bugs, bugs coming out of hibernation; so we become ch’osh (bugs), stretch our stick legs and twig arms, small brown bodies communing with even smaller entities. Our muscles come out of the earth having hibernated there all winter long listening and waiting for the first Thunder. We drip drop tight muscles, stream flesh in to each other, bend cords of leg muscle in to the earth, and try to touch the black clouds. I remember this directive from my youth so vividly, mostly because of the sensuous and playful nature of it more than anything else.

Afterwards we might have played in the rain as it poured down, a welcome reprieve from hot and dry summers on the Rez. Sometimes we ran to the washes nearby and watched as floods carried logs down in to the valley–we could hear the force of the water moving through the wash, our bodies drenched with rain, slightly shivering, and in awe of the power of the summer monsoon. A couple of times we were herding our flock of goats and sheep back to the corral when we noticed a flood creeping down the valley floor behind us, a fan of dark brown fingers crawling across the light dusty sand. Above us the expansive blue sky was quickly disappearing under black storm clouds moving in to the valley from behind the mesa. The winds always reached us before the clouds and finally the rain. A promise of more…

The Horn Toad

Cheii runs along the ground, chest rising and falling quickly, and stops mid-stride having noticed our feet strolling by. We slowly make our way to Cheii and pick him up, place him over our heart, and ask him to bless us. He digs sharp nails in to our chest and leaves us marked with a scratchy prayer before we let him go, returning him where we found him, thankful for the prayer. If one of us had corn pollen handy, we offered it to Cheii who walked off with their scaly back covered in dusty pollen.

The Shards and Anasazi

My cousin Israel and I have time to explore a nearby mound, within view of the grazing flock, after we grow tired of our toys and have eaten our fill of cheese and tortilla we packed earlier that morning before following the flock of goats and sheep out in to the valley. I am digging aimlessly when I come across an arrowhead. Israel also finds one, a different color, shape, and size. Our individual discoveries excite us and we start an earnest hunt for more on the mound. We are both on hands and knees with quick fingers, examining every rock and looking under every brush. When we are done, we have an old Folger’s can full of arrowheads of every shape and size we could have imagined. We carry the can back to our grandma Chloe, who at first chides us for disturbing a mound that we didn’t realize we were supposed to stay away from. She asks us to give her the can and she begins to lay out the arrowheads on her round kitchen table. We sit across from her on a metal crate that my grandfather Billy sits on and a mismatched chair that visitors use. We watch as her hands carefully place each arrowhead on the table and she begins to tell us about each one. This one is a female arrowhead…this one male…and so on and so forth. We sit for several minutes as she tells us about how we were so lucky find so many of them but that we must return them to the mound because it belongs to the people who left them behind. She also tells us not to disturb a site that others had sense enough to leave no matter how long ago its ground-buried travelers might have left their homes. She tells us that we mustn’t dig up sites like this again, that their absence signals an energy that we don’t want to invite in to the present.


It is about 10 at night when my mother and aunt start talking about which hatałthii to ask to run ceremony. They had been sitting around the kitchen table after dinner, talking, laughing, gossiping when the conversation turned to dreams, running in to a certain person, noticing a couple of things out of order, some somatic ailments, enough signs to prompt a discussion to begin planning which singer might be the most beneficial for a consultation or ceremony. They discuss all options, and decide to drive over at once, in the middle of the night, to inquire about his availability. I ask to tag along because I get to visit grandparents who always are generous with their treats and compliments. My mother drives us out to see my grandpa off of Highway 160, across the valley, up the plateau, where he lives with one of his wives. We drive up to the house and dogs announce our arrival. We park outside and look to see if there is a light on. We notice one in the kitchen and we all get out and make our way to the front door where we are met by my grandmother. She is my grandmother by clan, also my youngest uncle’s mother-in-law. She welcomes us inside, in to the warm kitchen, and offers us something to drink. She is the coordinator of grandpa’s schedule which my mother and aunt have to earnestly and persistently engage to see my grandpa who is in another part of the house resting. Grandma tells us that he just finished with ceremony a few days ago and might not be able to help us as soon as we are hoping. My mother and aunt continue negotiating, letting the request lull while they engage her in conversation about her day, before starting up the request again. The whole time we are given water, coffee, and food. Finally, grandma relents and allows us in to the back of the house where grandpa is resting. He is very happy to see us and within the next five minutes agrees to hold ceremony for us–my mother gifts him tobacco and this lets him know the sincerity of our request. Grandma is slightly displeased but is unable to override his decision. My mother, aunt and I leave, both of them satisfied with their negotiating tactics. They begin right away to plan to meet the next day to figure out the details of the ceremony collecting itself quickly in the next few days.


When I was asked to write up something for this edition regarding decolonizing our spiritual sanghas, my memory went to many places, but these four were striking in what they taught me and continue to remind me of, especially being so far removed distance wise from daily reminders by family members much more connected to these teachings and practices.

I will do my best to connect them to the concepts of “becoming”, a concept put forth by Alex Wilson, Ph.D., and “verbing” within the use of language as introduced to me by Eduardo Duran, Ph.D., who visited the California Institute of Integral Studies in the fall of 2012. His visit was to talk about historical trauma from an Indigenous perspective. One concept that he conveyed to the audience that night was the idea of the English language being a “nouning” language, where one names things thus putting it in to stasis. This process of “nouning” presents a worldview that disallows a flow and/or movement that is every present in our lives, that English fails to align with this principle, except when we move in to music and poetry, or art and dance for that matter, where language is revived and moves, resonating with constant change. He mentioned that when we name something or someone using English, it is an informal, and rather damaging process, naming ceremony that captures a moment in time expanded out over the life of and across generations of communities. On the other hand, there are many languages that are “verbing” languages, where change is integral to the lived experience of thinking, speaking, doing, and interacting with one’s world. He made this point by offering us an example of how he spends some time “verbing” an article in a newspaper to get a different perspective on the story. He also offered a simple example using gender, that he was “manning” and others were “womaning” in the space. In my sharing of this I will extend the practice include transgendering, queering, Two Spiriting since he didn’t mention gender beyond the usual binary.

Extending this practice of “verbing” the English language, Alex Wilson, Ph.D., put forth in her article, “How We Define Ourselves: Identity Development and Two Spirit People,” the concept of “becoming”. She posits that we are always becoming something inside of the journey of our lives, whether it’s becoming older, moving from youth to adult to elderhood, single to partnered, and for her article, she focuses in on identity development of Two Spirit people. She describes how we are always becoming multiple expressions of gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation as we move along the span of our lives. She lays aside limited U.S.-defined notions of LGBT identity and reminds us that Two Spirit identity also includes gender, spiritual, and communal roles. Roles that monolithic identities of LGBT,  or rigid models of gender, sex, and sexual-orientation, often fail to capture. I feel that “coming out” multiple times to partners, family, friends, co-workers, in a way points to the ever changing nature of identity, but it doesn’t encompass, it seems, how encapsulating “becoming” is because it allows for a multiplicity of roles, representation, expressions, behaviors and holds it all as the Spirit being what it wants to be whether we want to recognize it or not.

Utilizing both of these concepts, I am drawn back to greeting the first Thunder as a bug/ch’osh, becoming an insect using my imagination, remembering that lineage of self as the Winter season became Spring. I say lineage of self because our Creation Stories have us as bugs/ch’osh in one of our worlds. We have since moved from being bugs to humans. We are always becoming throughout the seasons and through the worlds we have emerged from. Humaning…insecting…becoming.

We are always becoming our stories.

I am also drawn back to Cheii, Horn Toad, who becomes our Grandpa/Cheii, when we happen to cross each others paths and they bless us with their medicine. We offer corn pollen if we have it on us. For a moment, we are praying, asking, offering, and remembering. Cheii is patient with us before returning to being Horn Toad after we part ways with them. Moving from going about our day to prayer. We are always becoming throughout the day.

I remember sitting at my grandma’s kitchen table as she patiently told us about the arrowheads. The fiber of my consciousness, being, and sense of self in relationship to the world changed…I became more conscious of how I interacted with my surroundings, even in play. Play is a sacred and necessary process for children and I also remember it being prescribed to us by grandparents. They would even share with us their favorite places to play, to explore, to learn, and interact with the world. Always we were warned where not to play. Of course we went to those places and walked away with lessons, again, always becoming more aware of the world around us and how to interact with it. What struck me, as I sat at my grandma’s table, was the energy she described we had unearthed, interacted with and brought back in to our community. This energy had become a part of us now and our community and we had to be respectful of it for doing so. It was not static and here were two little kids unearthing it and playing with it. The way grandma told us about them it really felt to me that we had unearthed bodies that ought not to have been disturbed. We were like grave robbers. The thought of it frightened me. We promptly returned the beings to their homes and left them alone. I don’t know what grandma did to protect us from their energy afterwards. I remember walking by that mound days after that and remembering what energy inhabited that space. I didn’t dare return to to disturb it. Reflecting back on it now, I see how grandma was teaching us via stories, and how we became those stories. In the same way we are taught that we are made of stories, and we are returned to balance with stories if we become sick. It’s the stories that return us to health, put us on the path to wholeness. We are always becoming our stories.

Finally, I remember a lot of trips to a hatałthii to inquire about ceremony. What strikes me about our interactions with each other on the Rez, and outside the Rez, is that it is directed by kinship, that relationships are valued over all else, be it day or middle of the night that we are extending kinship. And, we are always becoming one role to each other within each connection by virtue of our communal roles and our clan system. We are born inhabiting a system of kinship that allows for us to be related to our community in various ways. I recently met a Diné co-worker and I found out that she is my granddaugther by clan. Now I address her as such. I have another co-worker who is my son by clan, and various community members that are my grandparents or aunties/uncles. We are not just co-workers but relatives. My grandpa then was not my biological grandpa but a grandpa by clan. He was a grandpa one day, a healer the next, ushering many of my older female relatives into womanhood, ushering them from girling to womaning with the help of songs and stories. Our clan system allows for our relationships to each other to always become more intimate. Even far away from home, we become closer, and remember together what it means for our relationship to recreate being an auntie, grandma, sister, etc.

Inside of all of these examples, it’s the simple practice of allowing for beings to become more than what we know them to be, thereby allowing our relationships to each other, the world, and ourselves to be touched, shifted, and changed. I remember an elder once saying also that we are custodians of our Spirit and we must honor what it wants to become, even if it’s something we don’t understand or cannot easily tolerate. We can be touched, shifted, and changed. This is a simple yet profound practice in that our bodies, minds, and hearts are always moving towards healing and wholeness.  We must first become aware of the breath, of which we are custodians, to see how it’s moving towards that way of being. There are so many other practices that disallow change and movement; even moving our attention from our thoughts to sensations in our bodies can transform our way of being. Shifting from nouning to verbing we allow our soma to do that which it already is doing, becoming something else. Noticing our breathing is a language that allows us to begin the process of reclaiming our soma from the colonized and static spaces of being objectified as only thinking machines capable of producing. We are so much more than what our roles at our jobs say we do. We are so much more that any labels this culture has forced onto us. We are so much more than what we are fed and led to believe about what is right and proper and will get us what we desire. We are so much more than how we have been socialized and how we have had to adapt to our world shaped by such oppressive systems.

What is beyond all that has been prescribed for us, in the U.S. at least, is up to all of us to explore. I am excited to see what we become, how we move into allowing for movement, given these two simple concepts of “becoming” and “verbing.” I am grateful to Alex for her generous article in sharing about “coming out” from an Indigenous perspective and returning to the practices of her people who had teachings of “becoming” that included “coming out.” I am grateful to Eduardo for sharing about his lessons as a clinician in a community gripped with Spirits of colonization. Both were reminded by their respective communities of the possibilities of healing and wholeness when we accept our Spirits in forms that allow for change and movement. The power of language is important to mention: especially as Diné, we are taught that it is a gift from the Holy Ones. Our first laugh signals to our relatives of this gift. From that moment on, we are taught how to be in relationship to that gift, to that breath.

As such, I want to end with another lesson from an elder, Mona Stonefish, Doctor of Traditional Medicine, who reminded us one day during a teaching that “the only thing we have control over is our breath.” How we use that breath in service of others is what heals us all. May that ever-changing breath become us.


Duran, E. (2012). Fall Seminar at California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA.

John, C. (1980’s). Childhood teachings at Grandpa John’s place of residence, Black Mesa, AZ.

Begay, M. (1980’s). Childhood teachings at Grandpa Mailboy’s place of residence, Shonto, AZ.

Stonefish, M. (2012). Spring Seminar at Native American Health Center, San Francisco, CA.

Toad, H. (1980’s). Childhood teachings on Diné homelands, Navajo Nation, AZ.

Tom, D. (1980’s). Childhood teachings at childhood home, Black Mesa, AZ.

Wilson, A. (1996). How We Find Ourselves: Identity Development and Two Spirit People. Harvard Educational Review, 66, Number 2, 303-317.

Nazbah Tom, Diné, is a poet, somatic practitioner, and a proud member of a circle of redwood native tongues restorying their community to wholeness with their poeting presence. She is published in Turtle Island to Abya Yala: A Love Anthology of Art and Poetry by Native American and Latina Women, and in Rabbit and Rose, an online archive of poetry and writings by a variety of authors curated by Kim Shuck. Currently she is working on a biospiritual allegorical play called “Sacred Script” that explores and deconstructs “dilbaa,” the masculine-presenting women of the Diné. She performs all over the San Francisco Bay Area and does her best to capture poems haunting her at all hours of the day.

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Comments (3)

  • david

    We love greeting the toad on the land around our house

  • Dawn Haney

    Thank you for this gorgeous piece, Nazbah.

    It’s perhaps telling that the global spread of capitalism has gone hand in hand with the global spread of a “nouning” language like English. Being a (mostly) monolingual English speaker, as I read your words, I can feel the vacuum of imagination and possibility that a “nouning” language fosters. Maybe BPF needs to start some language learning groups as points of resistance to colonization and capitalism!

    I’m curious to hear from folks who speak other languages, if there’s a distinction between languages that are more “verbing” or more “nouning.” I know that Diné is in some ways a unique language (when I lived in the Four Corners region, I used to stop by the Code Talkers exhibit inside the Kayenta Burger King), and I’m curious how other languages compare to Diné and English.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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