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Remembering How to Pray

Shaina A. Nez


35.1989, -111.7454

WE LEARNED TO BE TRAVELERS AT BEST DURING THE EIGHT-HOUR STRETCHES OF ASPHALT. We rode in a Ford Windstar, spacious enough for my sister and me to indulge in leisure activities. My companions with whom I shared a seat were my composition notebook, my favorite BIC, and my cassette player. Being one with the road was almost home-like; the road, as I took it, was a place to dream of endless possibilities.

When we traveled back to our ancestral homeland, we chose between two routes: the first going through Hoover Dam on US 93 to Kingman, Arizona; the second route took us south on US 95 to Searchlight, and further to Laughlin, Nevada. We passed state lines that lasted a TLC’s ‘CrazySexyCool’ album and arrived in Kingman, Arizona. The idea of lines dividing up mother earth juxtaposed our teachings. I was unaffected by these divisive lines; for instance, anytime I saw Arizona road signs, my heart was at ease. Over time, I had come to understand that the land wasn’t ours to claim. I would whisper place names, Lukachukai, and T’iis Sinoyeli, as a soft greeting, remembering home was there.

After Kingman, we continued on I-40 passing towns like Seligman, Ash Fork, and Williams. I knew this route so well by observing my parents' gestures while my ears were preoccupied with singers like Selena, Usher, and Mariah Carey. Whatever tape my sister wasn’t listening to, I'd sneak into my cassette player. Our friends from Vegas were sisters living with their abuela, Azule, they called her. Together, we danced to Selena in their driveway; the girls were beautiful. Their locks were wavy, hues reflecting desert sands, and their bodies slim—my sister was just as enamored, and she fit their group well. I was the youngest of the group, dressed in cutoffs and t-shirts, my hair was too thick to do anything with, and my skin darkened the more I was in the sun. When the song, “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” played, my feet would follow the motions the girls taught us. 

When we were close to approaching Doko'oosliid, the sacred west peak, shima would lower the stereo volume, and I would see her arms and shoulders moving about, the opening and closing of the dash compartment, and light smoke filling the air. On cue, my sister and I removed our headphones and listened to my mother praying, these words in the air motioning for beauty. I loved listening to the soft tones of her voice as I peered up at the sacred mountain standing there greeting us.

Because we were travelers, shima doo shizhe’e told us stories experiencing the outside world. My sister and I knew we were different from the other children by sharing our heritage language and culture at school, but we blended our contemporary knowing and shared some of the traditional knowing whenever we could. Our traveling stories became our connection to the teachings. “Whenever you traveled outside of the homeland, you must pray to the sacred mountains—in that way, the mountains knew their child was leaving and they would protect you on your journey there and back,” they said.

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SHAINA A. NEZ is Táchii’nii born for Áshįįhi. She serves Diné College as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and English. She is a doctoral candidate in Justice Studies with the School of Social Transformation and Inquiry at Arizona State University. She earned her MFA degree in Creative Nonfiction from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her work has appeared in A Gathering of Native Voices (The Massachusetts Review), Nonwhite and Women: 131 Micro-Essays on Being in the World, winner of the 2023 Silver IPPY award in the category of Adult Multicultural Nonfiction, Between Pleasure and Pain: An Authentic Voices Anthology (Sunday Dinner Publishing), and Issue 14: Indigenous Ecopoetry (Green Linden Press). She is an alum of Tin House, VONA (Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation), WNDB (We Need Diverse Books), AV (Authentic Voices Fellowship) by the Women’s National Book Association, and a recipient of the 2021 Open Door Career Advancement Grants for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) women writers.
Shaina is a two-year Blanchard Pre-Dissertation Fellowship recipient with the American Indian College Fund for years 2022 and 2023 and a College Fund Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship recipient.


When I became a mother, possessing Diné knowledge (in the forms of storytelling) became a way to implement all I was taught by my maternal and paternal families. My role as a daughter changed; I couldn’t lean on my mother to teach me our ways of life. My childbirth experience taught me how to pray to these sacred peaks, talking to them as an offering, and being open to hear their advice. Eventually answers came from my prayers. Observing my mother pray to the peaks is my most cherished memory; allowing me to carry and pass this form of knowledge to my daughter. Prayer and place carry me toward understanding the deeper notions of Diné philosophies and our ways of life, such as Hózhó and Sa’ah Naaghai Bik’eh Hozhoon (SNBH). 

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