Growing up on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, N.M., Estelle Bowman aimed to one day return home, armed with a law degree, to work in her native community. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, Bowman’s experience on an Ivy League campus with a small American Indian and Alaskan Native enrollment evolved into an intercultural opportunity that eventually led to her string of careers serving American Indians and Alaskan Natives. Meet Bowman who, in June, joined the U.S. Forest Service as the assistant director of the Office of Tribal Relations in Washington, D.C.
You have an interesting experience about how you studied the Navajo language.
My first language is English. My high school offered everything under the sun, including French and Spanish, but not Navajo. When I had to fulfill a foreign language requirement in college, Dartmouth didn’t offer Navajo so I petitioned to study it on my own. After it was approved I went home to New Mexico. I studied Navajo at night and worked during the day at the Navajo District court. I used the language daily and I helped people who came to the court, especially many elders who still only speak Navajo. It was very challenging to make practical use of a difficult language. The court clerk really helped me. The elders would love that I would try and be affectionately made fun of when I messed up. For example, I might say a $180 fine was $1.80 and only collect the lesser amount.
I spent a whole semester in New Mexico and fulfilled my language proficiency requirement, which was validated by a teacher who was fluent in Navajo. I was the first student at Dartmouth to petition for Navajo to fulfill my language and since then, other students have also petitioned to fulfill their language requirement with various tribal languages.
You have an academic background in natural resources. From where did that interest stem?
My paternal grandfather was a huge influence on my interest in natural resources. I often visited his ranch where he would tell us stories of how to raise cattle and how to respect the land. He always gave us that background and knowledge from his experience as a Bureau of Indian Affairs Ranger. It was always important to respect the land and natural resources. It was a natural fit for me to maintain my cattle ranch in Tohatchi and graze the land left to my sisters and me by Grandpa Bowman.
I also considered becoming an archeologist. My mom’s land is north of the famed Chaco Canyon in New Mexico where they often did big digs. I was always very inquisitive and tried to figure out what they were doing. I did attend summer programs that interested me in archeology but when I got older I heard many Navajo elders consider excavations as disrespectful.
If you could have dinner with five people from history who would they be?
I definitely would have loved to speak with Geronimo and Sitting Bull as Native American leaders of the 1800s and Benjamin Franklin because he was an inventor. During modern times, I would have liked to meet Angela Davis and President Richard Nixon. Angela Davis would be interesting as she could share her perspective as a minority woman, and President Nixon was instrumental in ending the Termination of Tribes and recognizing the concept of self-determination. His developing policy eventually became the Indian Self Determination Education Assistance Act. I would have liked to ask him about the difficulties and challenges of the legislation since he was a part of it from the beginning.
I understand that introductions (in the native language) given among Native Americans hold a special significance.
For Navajos it is extremely important as it “places you” in the world. It’s who you are. You identify your Tribe, specify your clan and clans of your male relatives. Navajos are matrilineal so your clan is your mother’s clan. You are born for your father’s clan and you indentify your maternal and paternal grandfathers’ clans. You also indicate what community you’re from. When you introduce yourself, you’re not an attorney or an employee. It is your place on this planet. When I introduce myself among American Indians and Alaskan Natives, especially if there are elders, I always provide my traditional Navajo introduction out of respect.
On that note, you have quite a memorable story about helping President Bill Clinton prepare for his visit to Navajo Nation.
When I worked at the Navajo Nation’s Washington office, President Clinton was pushing his initiative to bridge the digital divide. At that time, connectivity on Navajo Nation was a problem; for example, we had lost several police officers in the line of duty because they were not able to call for back-up in remote areas. During a meeting with people from the White House, my Navajo Nation Executive Cabinet members and I convinced them to bring the president to Shiprock.
Right before President Clinton’s visit to the reservation, I was in a meeting with the Navajo Nation Branch Chiefs (the president of Navajo Nation, the speaker of the tribal council and the chief justice of the tribal Supreme Court) when I received an urgent phone call from the White House chief of staff. My Navajo Nation bosses and I were on our way to Capitol Hill when the President’s speechwriters needed to talk to me.
I had time for a quick question: “What’s the most important thing the President can do when he goes to Shiprock?”
Easy answer. I explained that “he needs to introduce himself in Navajo.”
That was crucial to winning over the community – from the elders to the smallest child. To hear our president speak Navajo would make him immediately accepted. I introduced myself to the speechwriters over the phone so they could understand what a Navajo introduction sounded like. We then got a tape recorder and helped script the President’s introduction.
Later at Shiprock, the President gave his ethnic background in Navajo. Once he introduced himself, the community knew he cared and respected our ways. The cheering was deafening. It was as if he were a rock star.
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person's name, work location and a bit about to Faces of the Forest.