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Joseph Austin, Navajo Nation


Published April 23, 2020

“Renewing indigenous economies requires repaving the roads to the old trade hubs and re-engaging in business the Native way: internationally.”

Joseph Austin, Navajo Nation
CEO of Olea, Solorzano & Austin and cofounder of the ACES School (Austin, Crepelle & Ernest Sickey’s School for Wards and Domestic Dependent Nations)

Joseph Austin is a member of the Navajo Nation and cofounder of the ACES School (Austin, Crepelle & Ernest Sickey's School for Wards and Domestic Dependent Nations), a nonprofit corporation established to help the Native nations and Native people move past wardship and shift toward the path of nationhood.

Austin earned his BS in business administration and management, JD and certificate in Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy, and Master of Laws (LLM) degree in International Economic Law and Policy at the University of Arizona. Austin practices in state and tribal court; his areas of practice are federal Indian law and tribal law, specializing in nation building, customary law, business, and economic development. He is currently pursuing his doctoral degree in the field of law with a focus is on international trade among Native nations.

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[Introduction in the Navajo language with the following subtitles: Hello, my name is Joseph Austin. I am from the Many Enemies People and born for the Water-Flows-Together Clan. My maternal grandfather is also from the Many Enemies People and my paternal grandfather is Salt Clan. In this way, I am a Navajo person. I am from a place in Navajo Nation called Chilchinbeto. My father is Navajo and my mother is Dakota from South Dakota.]

The non-Native people have said much about my people, about who we are and what we do. They study us, write articles about us, and look at us with their microscopes. I guess this is all part of the experience of European conquest, cultural genocide, and western imperialism. Rarely does someone actually come to us and ask us about our story. We can tell you exactly who we are and where we come from. I just did that when I started speaking.

Everyone can pretty much agree that when Europeans came here, they took everything from us. But what a lot of people don’t say is that the Europeans also gave us things in return, and I think what was given to us was more damaging than what was taken. They came here with their weapons, pointed them at us, and told us, “You are not Diné [what we call ourselves]; you are Navajo. You are not children of the Holy People; you are wards of the federal government. You have no rule of law; you are savages. You are not nations; you are tribes. Your songs, prayers, and ceremonies are heathenish and the ways of a conjurer; from now on, you are Christians and this Bible is your religion.” The worst part about all of this is that a lot of us actually believed them, and if we didn’t, we were massacred or put in boarding schools to brainwash us.

They stripped us of all that we knew and gave us a new identity—the loyal, noble savage. Then they rewrote our history so we would not be able to find our way back to our roots. But despite European conquest and colonialism, we survived.

The Navajo people are not what the Europeans said we were. We were military strategists and skilled in the art of warfare. Our earliest contact with Europeans was with Spain. They couldn’t exterminate us and that’s why we have over ten treaties with the Spanish. The United States couldn’t even kill us, and that’s why they waged a Scorched Earth campaign against us and sent us on the Long Walk. We survived that and now have the Treaty of 1868 with the United States and the largest reservation out of all the Native Nations.

My ancestors were herbalists and doctors; people from all over came to see our medicine people and we cured many diseases. We still do so to this day. We traded with other nations across the Southwest and down into what is now Mexico. We met the Mayans and the Aztecs. The evidence of our trade dealings is in places like Chaco Canyon. Our stories also tell of a time when we traveled up to the Great Plains to engage in international relations with the Dakota people.

Today, the effects of colonialism are still being felt on reservations. We are struggling because of federal Indian law cases from the United States Supreme Court, long-standing assimilationist policies, and outdated legislation. We lose more of our culture and language with each passing generation. This is why we—myself, Adam Crepelle, and Ernest Sickey—started the nonprofit the ACES School, not so much to tear down a system, but instead to rebuild ourselves as Native people.

My advice has always been the same: Before we even begin to think about economic development, governmental reform, and drafting legislation, we need to first look within ourselves, and ask ourselves in our language, who we are and where do we go from here? Because within the language lies the truth of our identity and our destiny. With language comes culture, and with culture comes a new way of thinking. And that’s the Native way of thinking. If we start with that, then everything that follows with fall into to place and not only do we rebuild as nations, but we survive as a people. And I think that should be our overarching goal in our path to nationhood.