by Erica Kleinman (Diné and Rincon Band of Luiseño)
Tohono O’odham Community College
Shí éí Erica Kleinman yinishyé. Rincon Band of Luiseno nishłį́. Ta’neeszahnii bashishchiin. Lok’aa’ Dine dashicheii. Naakai Dine dashinalí. I recently graduated with an Associate of Arts Life Sciences degree from Tohono O’odham Community College in the Class of 2023. Since storytelling remains core to our people, I wanted to share some words about my grandmothers: Grandma Ruth and Grandma Myra.
Grandma Ruth is my Shinálí, or paternal grandmother in Diné. She was born into the Ta’neeszahnii (Tangle People) clan for the Táchii’nii (Red Running into the Water People) clan. She was one of 12 children born to Ason Chee Begay of Many Farms in Arizona. In those days, Diné girls were brought up to herd and butcher sheep; plant corn, watermelon, and squash; and weave rugs all in balance and harmony with the universe, which we say is Hózhó.
The earliest memories I have of her were waking up to the smell of her early morning coffee while listening to Nalí jams. That was our alarm clock. She spent her days weaving, sewing, gardening, and instilling in us the importance of understanding our language and culture. When she was done with her work, she would treat herself to an afternoon of soap operas or a late Saturday morning of WWF wrestling. She always encouraged us to work hard in school and earn good grades. “T’áá hwó’ ají t’éego.”
During the summers, she would take us to the Navajo reservation to visit family. They would put us to work by having us help out with the garden, clean the house, help to haul water, and with other chores. Everyone was expected to help out. Although there was very little money left after food and bills, Grandma Ruth always made sure we had what we needed. She made the best tortillas and frybread. She was the backbone of our family.
Grandma Myra is my Shimásáni, my maternal grandmother. She is Rincon Band of Luiseño Indian and was born on the Rincon Reservation in California. She graduated from the Sherman Indian High School where she met my grandfather, Perry Tso. They fell in love, got married, and had six children. Soon after, she would become single and worked labor-intensive jobs to support six children on her own.
She, too, was an avid coffee drinker, to fuel her as she kept busy every day. As a long-time employee of the Phoenix Indian Center, she would introduce us to all sorts of activities like helping to build floats and walk in the yearly NARD parades, take us to fancy and shawl dance classes, and take us to pow-wows to practice our moves. She also loved to spend her spare time crafting, making beautiful jewelry, doing needlework, and knitting items for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She wanted all of us to be good people, so she would try to make sure we made it to church on Sundays. She was an exceedingly kind woman, and her door was open to anyone that needed a home. She had the best advice, forewarning her grandchildren of lessons we would eventually learn the hard way.
Both grandmothers worked hard to take care of their families. They were pretty much right about the people in our lives and always had sound advice. They would tell us to be respectful, responsible, and resourceful, and always speak up for ourselves and others. They were always there for us, and we had the best conversations. They always stood out and were well-liked by everyone they met. They endured and persisted through life’s struggles as single, Native mothers. They demonstrated how important it was to be grateful for what we had, even if it was only each other. The older I get the more I realize I am beginning to look, act, and speak like them. I understand and admire them now more so than before. I am beyond lucky to inherit their strength, beauty, intelligence, and sense of humor. They were perfect grandmothers in an imperfect world.
Read more from the Elder Story Series here.
The College Fund is inviting TCU students, faculty/staff, leadership, and community elders to share their stories. Learn more here.