In a first of its kind event, Steve A. Darden (Diné/Navajo and Cheyenne) will share his research on Diné traditional concepts around death, the afterlife, and burials in a presentation called, “Diné/Navajo Stories about Death, the Afterlife, Grief and Renewal.”

This lecture, part of Native American Heritage Month events, takes place on Nov. 17 at the UNM School of Law (SOL). This free event is open to the public in Room 2401, from 4 to 6 p.m.

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It will be hosted by UNM’s Institute of American Indian Research (IFAIR) in collaboration with the UNM Navajo Language Program, American Studies, the Alfonso Ortiz Center, the SOL, and the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission.

In 2021, Darden was awarded a prestigious Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship to continue the work of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission’s investigation into Navajo concerns about border town funeral home businesses and their possible deceptive and exploitative practices. The Commission’s report, “Mortuary Services and Funeral Planning: Advocating for the Return of Navajo Traditional Burial,” details their findings that Diné largely follows Western and Christian thought and practice when it comes to making funeral and burial plans.

As a Luce Fellow, Darden led the Commission in the next phase of their study by interviewing traditional practitioners who hold knowledge about the cycle of life with attention to the end of life, death. Darden hopes to reclaim traditional knowledge about how our ancestors thought about life and death, grief and trauma, and former burial protocols. For Diné, these topics are often considered taboo, making it especially difficult to address the monopoly that border town businesses have on funerals.

In his presentation, Darden will share his research in which he interviewed traditional practitioners who shared stories and prayers about death, the afterlife, burial protocols, and hope that have been passed on for generations. Darden describes returning a body to the earth as “replanting.” He observes that it is important to share this cultural knowledge with Navajo youth and young adults in order to return to respectful, traditional end-of-life processes.

This cultural knowledge that Darden is gathering is especially important during the current health crisis. In 2020, the Navajo Reservation was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, the Navajo Nation had the highest rate of COVID-19 infections per capita in the United States. 

The Diné community has already lost tribal elders and traditionalists because of COVID-19. Darden recognizes that learning and sharing this knowledge is a race against time. He hopes his work will empower the Diné community to remember their former knowledge and care about the Diné cycle of life and death. He firmly believes that it is time for Navajo citizens to take control of how they care for the bodies of loved ones once life ends.

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission will be available to answer any questions regarding Navajo funerary practices.

There will be a reception immediately following, which will be catered by Cleo’s Blue Corn Kitchen. Parking is available for free in the L lot at the SOL.

For any questions, reach out to Sarah Hernandez. For a full list of Native American Heritage Month events through UNM, click on the link here.