Lessons I've Learned From Spending One Year in Native America

Though I come from a family of European Jews and was born and raised among the cities of California, I have spent the last year living and working in Native America.  I first moved to the Navajo Nation to do farm and irrigation work in a small town called Ganado. After four months, I headed up to Standing Rock for just as long, protecting the water through the fall and winter months. Now, I reside in New Mexico and my work is primarily based in Native communities in the Southwest.

I've been ruminating on some of the lessons I've learned over the past year.  They may not be groundbreaking, they may seem trivial and obvious, but because I didn't know what to expect coming in, they have all been powerful and profound. I hope that what I share contributes to a growing understanding that we humans are all interconnected and do best when we support one another. 


  1. Listen.
  2. Really listen.
  3. When you talk, tell the truth.  
  4. Trust is earned over time.
  5. Wounds from the guns of colonization have not all healed, but they are healing.  There is a lot of trauma that exists from historical and current events and policies that are, on their face, anti-Native. But there is an ever-growing tolerance towards non-Natives and events like Standing Rock have allowed for healing, compassionate, and collaborative energy to flourish. 
  6. Sometimes, when you are the only non-Native in a room full of Native people, you get the uncanny sense of what it’s like to be uncomfortable in the color of your own skin.
  7. If this discomfort doesn't intimidate you, you will more than likely be treated like family. Which means you'll get made fun of a lot.
  8. You will learn how to take a joke. Native humor is second to none. It’s best to thicken your skin and sharpen your wit. 
  9. The best antidote for cultural appropriation is common sense and self-awareness.  Appreciation is not appropriation.  Participation is not appropriation.
  10. Even if you have terrific common sense and good intentions, you will almost inevitably brush up against or blunder into some cultural taboo. Be sensitive, be sincere, and don't take it too hard. Whatever you do, don't argue and try to prove you’re right (this goes back to number 1 and 2). 
  11. It is good to ask questions, but not too many questions.  There are some stories and teachings that are never to be revealed to non-Natives. If you listen carefully, you’ll know how to honor this and respectfully keep your mouth shut.
  12. Native people have been leaders in the environmental movement since it began and probably before it.
  13. There is a reverence for the land that the rest of America can learn from.  Colonization has promoted detachment while decolonization promotes reattachment and realignment. 
  14. Native people, to this day, steward some of the most beautiful lands on Earth.  It makes sense because they know them better than anyone.
  15. Reforms such as these would be welcome on most reservations: better access to healthy food, access to clean water, stronger and more well-funded education (both traditional and the usual subjects), programs that promote creativity for kids, better health care, clean energy solutions, education on how to resist predatory federal legislation, and good internal governance. 
  16. There are many Native people who devote their lives to the things I've listed above.  There are many ALLIES who can bring their background and experience to help shoulder the burden of creating massive waves of change in a place that’s neither seen nor heard by most in the main stream. 
  17. There is visible, virulent racism in many towns that border reservations.
  18. Native people are some of the most resilient people on the planet because they stick together and stand their ground.
  19. Stand with them and listen.  I’ve heard many Indigenous leaders say, “Standing Rock is everywhere.” It is true. There will be ample opportunities to support the growing movement with some of the strongest people in some of the most beautiful lands.
  20. No book will tell you what life is like for all Native people. No documentary on Netflix, no VICE special, no nothing.  Go out and talk to as many people as you can and you’ll see the beauty and complexity that lies in the big beating heart of this country.
Alex Simon