Women leaders gather, share stories

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi Bureau

FARMINGTON, Oct. 17, 2013

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(Times photo -- Cindy Yurth)

TSunny Dooley, right makes a point at the Women of Navajo Land and Minority Women's Roundtable Oct. 4 while Theresa Becenti-Aguilar and May Kelewood look on.

If you've ever herded sheep, you know the ram is not always in charge.

"My great-aunt used to say, 'Watch the sheep. Observe them,'" New Mexico State Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage recalled." 'When the male goes off somewhere, one of the females takes over until he comes back.'"

Clahchischilliage, who ran for Navajo Nation President in the last election, thinks now is one of those times the rams have wandered off.

"I think our men have been beaten down so badly, it takes me back to what my great-aunt said," she commented.

In the spirit of women taking up the mantle, New Mexico Public Regulation Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar on Oct. 4 called a "Women of Navajo Land and Minority Women's Roundtable" at Navajo Preparatory School.

"In my travels, I've met so many impressive women," Becenti-Aguilar explained. "I wanted to get them all together in one place and see what we could come up with."

So Becenti-Aguilar invited 11 Navajo women leaders in politics and industry, and one Latina, Rebecca Carter of New Mexico Gas (she's the "minority") for lunch and an exchange of ideas.

Becenti-Aguilar had envisioned the meeting as a sort of think tank, but the women had a lot to say just introducing themselves and telling their stories of how they got to where they are now.

By the time they went around the table, and guest speaker Sunny Dooley had given her address, it was late afternoon and time to leave.

Not that anybody felt it was wasted time.

"I thought it was great just being with all these women and getting to know each of them," said Cathy Newby, tribal relations administrator for PNM.

There was a lot of diversity in the room.

Carter and Newby are in the energy industry; others are environmentalists.

Rhonda Ray works for Fire Rock Casino; Dooley confessed she's not a fan of gambling.

But many common threads ran through the women leaders' stories.

Most had grown up poor and remember an almost painful yearning for a better life.

Clahchischilliage was raised in Gadiahi, N.M., so close to the glamorous metropolis of Shiprock she could practically smell the burgers frying at the Chat N' Chew.

"I wanted to be in Shiprock," she sighed. "I wanted to go to the chapter house dances. I wanted to have a boyfriend. I wanted to get a hamburger at the Chat N' Chew."

If she lost a sheep, her mother threatened her that there would be no money for school clothes, and she would have to wear the brown high-tops from the trading post her first day of school.

"I hated those high-tops!" Clahchischilliage exclaimed.

Others had challenges besides poverty.

Newby and San Juan County Commissioner GloJean Todacheene are half Anglo and grew up being denigrated as "half-breeds."

Todacheene got her revenge when she could give it right back to them in more fluent Navajo than most of the full-bloods could speak, and Newby's tall, lean frame found its home on the basketball court.

"Once they discovered I could play basketball, that was it," she laughed.

She didn't hear "half-breed" so much after that.

Like Newby, several women discovered their leadership ability in sports.

Others found it in extra-curricular activities like 4-H, Girl Scouts or Girls State.

"We should make sure there's Girl Scouts or Girls State on every campus on the Navajo Nation," Dooley, a Girls State alumna, opined.

Each of these women, at one point or another, was thrown a lifeline and grabbed it with both hands.

Nevina Kinlahcheeny had just completed her AA at Diné College when she realized in a panic she had no money to go on for her bachelor's.

She marched herself up to one of the deans and demanded, "I need a job!"

"There's a representative from Lawrence Livermore Laboratories visiting today," the dean replied. "Why don't you talk to him?"

She tracked down the rep and again bellowed, "I need a job!"

He gave her one.

Eighteen years later, she's still there, and she managed to get her bachelor's too.

Some women have leadership thrust upon them.

First Lady Martha Shelly said she got married while still in high school and really never aspired to be anything but a wife and mother.

She was aware her husband was rising through the political ranks, but "I never paid much attention," she admitted.

"I never thought I would be first lady."

After the election Shelly suddenly found herself a shy person trapped in the limelight, with a full schedule of speaking engagements.

She tapped her mom skills.

"When I visit schools, I try to talk to them in Navajo," she said.

"I try to tell them about love - how they should respect their elders and their parents."

Since then, said her assistant, May Kelewood, Shelly has found her stride.

She founded the Next Level program to help kids get into college, helps out with Toys for Tots and established a women's commission for the Navajo Nation.

All the women at the roundtable agreed they wanted another meeting, perhaps more action-oriented, and Becenti-Aguilar said she would try to find a date in late February when most people could make it.

The tentative location will be Sanostee, N.M.

Becenti-Aguilar said she's not sure what the group will evolve into, but the energy level is undeniable.

"A lot of the women have excellent ideas," she said. "I believe we can make positive changes."

Dooley put it more bluntly.

"If you're a chizhi Rez girl who's herded sheep and wiped her bottom with newspaper," she noted, "you can do anything."