This is Part I in "Reporting Hate," a four-part Fronteras Desk series that takes a look at the roots of intolerance and prejudice in the Americas today. Each piece is a unique profile on an individual exploring specific kinds of conflicts and tensions in their lives arising from their identity.
Tommy Rock has had three graduations — high school, college and graduate school. And no one from his family was there — no one to cheer for him, no one to take his picture. And when he came home to Monument Valley, no one really cared
“I didn’t get no congratulations or nothing,” Rock said. “It was like, ‘Oh, you think you’re better than us?’ I was like, ‘Wow, OK.’”
Rock, with his broad shoulders and warm smile, is the kind of guy who stops to help a stranger change a flat tire on a hot day in the desert.
When a Navajo baby is born it’s custom to bury the umbilical cord in the ground. The Navajo believe that ties the child to the land forever. But a new generation of Navajos are defying this belief as more and more young people leave the Navajo Nation to go to college or to find work. Elders encourage their return, but often that transition home is brutal.
Rock said his community is like a bucket of crabs. One crab tries to get out and the others pull it back down.
“Anytime Navajos want to go improve their quality of life like through education or work and they go back to the reservation,” Rock said. “They try to bring em down like a crab.”
Half of the Navajo Nation is unemployed. After high school there are few opportunities. About 50 percent of the tribe chooses to live off the reservation, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.
After Rock graduated from high school, he did what everyone else does in Monument Valley. He worked in the tourism industry. People come from all over the world to see Monument Valley’s quintessential Southwest red rock formations that look like giant mittens and elephants. But Rock had his sights set on something even bigger — college.
“One day I just grabbed my bag, started walking, hitch hiked out to the junction and stuck out my thumb,” Rock said. “There was a person driving back to Prescott.”
That’s where he enrolled as a freshman at Yavapai College. The first semester was hard. The cost of books, housing and food quickly ate up the money he had made as a tour driver. And no one back home was willing to help him out.
“I used to weigh like 180-85,” Rock said. “By the end of first semester, I dropped down to 140-135. After that though I found me a job and started working and stuck with it. But to this day though I do not like ramen noodles.”
Rock transferred to Arizona State University, where he got his bachelor’s degree.
Then he worked for a small firm in Scottsdale. After growing up on the vast stretches of high desert, he found his cubicle claustrophobic. So he landed work in construction.
But Rock still felt a tug of responsibility back home. The voice of his grandfather, a constant, reminded him to come home and use his education to help his community. So he took a job with the Navajo EPA.
“My idea working for Navajo EPA was here’s my chance to help my tribe my community and other communities,” Rock said.
Once again, his fellow Navajos treated him differently. Many people who work for the Navajo government haven’t left the reservation. And it’s no wonder. Most don’t have degrees, let alone electricity or indoor plumbing or often a parent to encourage them to find opportunities. Rock felt like an outcast, left out of meetings and training sessions.
“The people that work there that’s their job security,” Rock said. “If someone tries to do more or make things better, or make changes in general, they’ll get blackballed or shoved off to the side. So I think that’s the reason why a lot of recent graduates they don’t last that long.”
Rock didn’t last that long working for the Navajo government. He eventually found the right fit back in academia at the University of New Mexico. He got a job studying Navajo drinking water.
At chapter meetings, Rock often used his first language to communicate with Navajo elders. The research team found several unregulated wells that had toxic levels of uranium, including the water pumped into the drinking fountains at a Navajo elementary school in Sanders, Arizona.
For the first time, Rock felt like he fit in and like he could make a difference on the reservation.
“Hearing some of the positive message that the community say to me like, ‘Hey, thank you, Tommy.’ So that’s a way of I guess giving back,” Rock said.
Now a Ph.D. candidate at Northern Arizona University, Rock is still studying the impacts of uranium mining. He’s committed to the cause.
“In Navajo there’s this thing, it’s one of the philosophies,” Rock said. “What it means ‘no one’s going to do it for you. You have to do it for yourself.’ When I do talk to my nephews or my brothers or anybody that will listen, they’re probably like, ‘Tommy, shut up.’”
Rock rarely visits his family now. But when a relative passed away this summer, he was called to come back home to Monument Valley.
His cousin Nathan Holiday and uncle Gary Holiday teased him about becoming a doctor.
Gary Holiday is also considered a black sheep in the family. Years ago, he left the reservation to get his bachelor’s and master’s in Salt Lake City. Gary Holiday said no one showed up for his graduations, either.
“I’m not going to get hurt and cry about it,” he said. “They don’t know the significance in a person’s life. I value education. They kinda don’t. It’s like livestock and land comes first.”
Gary Holiday came back to the reservation after getting his master’s degree and stayed. But he said, it hasn’t been easy.
His son, Nathan Holiday, didn’t go to college. Instead he launched a successful Airbnb business in Monument Valley.
“I think everybody should have that opportunity to leave and come back and not feel discredited or feel any different,” Nathan Holiday said. “There’s just some type of stigma. And I got that. They think that maybe I’m better than them in some way. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been able to achieve what it is that I wanted to do. I don’t think Tommy’s lucky. I think he has the drive. I think everybody has that. They just become lazy.”
Rock certainly shows no signs of slowing down. After he gets his Ph.D., he plans to go even farther away from his birthplace, this time to Australia to study new strategies for cleaning up uranium contamination.
As far as his family goes, they can catch his Facebook posts. Rock said that way they’ll see another world is out there — a world of possibility.EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been updated to correct numbers on graphic.