Saving the young people

(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Miss Navajo Nation Tashina Nelson, left, speaks to Seba Dalkai Boarding School students about positive thinking Feb. 4 during a weeklong suicide prevention and awareness training called Native H.O.P.E. (Helping Our People Endure) in Seba Dalkai, Ariz.

Miss Navajo Nation tackles taboo topics of depression, suicide

By Erny Zah
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Feb. 11, 2010

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Sometimes dreams really do come true, literally. Just ask current the Miss Navajo Nation, Tashina Nelson.


Educators learn the warning signs

But it's the events that led to her dream that drives the 19-year-old to advocate awareness and prevention of depression and suicide.

When Nelson was in the eighth grade, she developed depression severe enough to occasion thoughts of suicide. Fortunately, her mother took notice.

Her mother, Kathleen Atene, was in nursing school at the time. She understood the importance of getting timely counseling for a depressed teen, and scheduled an appointment for Tashina.

"It's not OK for someone to feel like that," Atene said, adding that she was frustrated and scared as she went about helping her daughter, who was not appreciative, at least not initially.

"I was mad," Nelson recalled. "I didn't need help. I was OK."

Then her great-grandmother came to her in a dream, Nelson said. Her great-grandmother spoke to her in Navajo and told her "it wasn't my time. 'You still have a lot to live for. You have something big to look forward to.'"

Nelson admits that soon after she was crowned Miss Navajo last September, she thought about the dream and realized her great-grandmother may have been referring to the year awaiting her.

"I would like to think that this is what she meant," Nelson said.

Though her dream may have heralded the title awaiting her years later, at the time it sparked a journey into recovering from depression. She learned a lot about the condition and about herself and now is using her own experience and her title to fuel her drive to spread the message of awareness to the Navajo people.

"It's personal to me. It's something I can relate to," she said about her campaign to save young Navajos from depression and suicide.

Challenging taboos

Recently Nelson sat at her desk in her dimly lit office in the Navajo Nation Museum. She wore a full set of turquoise jewelry complete with a cluster-style concho belt, bracelets and even collar pins. All of which matched her silver and turquoise crown.

Though she might look like the stereotype of Miss Navajo as a vintage Navajo woman transported into modern surroundings, when it comes to Nelson's platform, she's challenging some ancient Navajo taboos.

She understands the people's reluctance to engage in discussions about death or mental illness.

"The reason you're not supposed to talk about death is because you're asking for those things to come to you" in traditional Navajo thinking, she said.

As the traditional people see it, by talking about it "you're allowing it to happen."

Despite her knowledge and respect of some longstanding aspects of Diné philosophy, she openly advocates talking about depression and suicide saying that it's the only way to reach people who may be in danger of slipping away from their family and their people.

Dinah Dahozy Wauneka, supervisor of the Office of Miss Navajo, said it's the first time in her experience that a Miss Navajo has tackled a subject regarded as taboo. Nevertheless, she added, "With each generation, things change. At this day and age we have a different set of problems than we did 20 years ago."

Atene said she is helping her daughter to also assert the preservation of Navajo language and culture, a key part of the Miss Navajo mission.

"It's a really tough issue she is approaching and we're trying to add culture too," Atene said, adding that suicide prevention is a form of culture preservation.

Nelson hopes that by talking unashamedly about her own bouts with depression, she'll encourage people to seek help.

"You become dark. You're always thinking negative. You think about death a lot, or you wish to end your own life," she said.

It doesn't matter how successful you seem to others, she said, noting that she struggled with unhappy feelings even as she made the honor roll and seemed in every way a model student.

But she was lucky. She found professional help and explored the roots of her depression, in her case lifelong issues relating to a father who abandoned her when she was a toddler, and learned how to put words to her pain.

"He left me a bad memory," she said, adding that she would secretly seek him out in crowds and was never successful. "It stuck with me."

Eventually, she transformed the pain into a driving desire to find new challenges and to finish what she starts - two qualities that are almost always found in people who are able to create a good life for themselves.

Day to day

Nelson uses her past afflictions to drive towards an ordinary life in which she can relish small pleasures.

She drinks two cups of coffee to start her day. She prefers regular coffee over lattes and other sophisticated coffee drinks.

Most days, she reads her horoscope on Facebook, because Facebook seems "more professional" than other social Web sites, and she usually likes what the horoscope says.

But finding the time to enjoy those small pleasures is a task unto itself on most days.

"I am always on the road," Nelson said.

During her five-month tenure, she has traveled as far as Phoenix, and as close as Window Rock. However, even if her events are near Window Rock, in one day, she has attended as many as six events.

"It all depends on the number of requests," Wauneka said, adding that the Miss Navajo office does its best to honor all requests.

When Nelson thinks about the future, she is adamant she will complete her college studies and earn a nursing degree. She also hasn't closed the door on continuing her studies to become a medical doctor.

Despite having high goals, "she's really easy going," Wauneka said.

When Nelson gets to her office, her title can seem not much different than other tribal positions.

Miss Navajo puts in her time much like any employee of the Navajo Nation. She has access to a tribal vehicle, an office, a salary.

Unlike most tribal employees, she also has a hefty scholarship waiting for her when her reign is over.

Wauneka explained that Miss Navajos get $7,500 for undergraduate studies and if the outgoing Miss Navajo is in graduate school, she gets $15,000.

Wauneka declined to say how much Miss Navajo gets in salary and benefits, saying she wants to keep the focus on the title as a way to preserve culture and language, and not a means to a paycheck.

For Nelson, the crown is also an opportunity to learn about being Navajo and to meet people, including young people.

She said in some classrooms the children are "awestruck" by her presence and one student asked if she knew Jasmine, a character from Disney's movie "Aladdin."

"They think I'm a Disney princess," she said.

Any group interested in having Miss Navajo, Tashina Nelson, address them are asked to contact the Office of Miss Navajo, 928-871-6379 or 928-871-7249, to schedule a visit.

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