Friday, December 4, 2015

TOP STORY >> Being Navajo: More than a name

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Letyraial Cunningham, a 19th Civil Engineer Squadron engineering apprentice, poses for a photo Nov. 18 at Little Rock Air Force Base. Cunningham, a Navajo Native American grew up in Cortez, Colo. She continues to practice her traditions while she is stationed at Little Rock AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Mercedes Muro)

By Airman 1st Class Mercedes Muro
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

There are a lot of things to take pride in. Some individuals take pride in something they create or something they participate in. 

Senior Airman Letyraial Cunningham, a 19th Civil Engineer Squadron engineering apprentice, takes pride in who she is every day:  a 100 percent Navajo Native American. 

“I grew up with a very traditional family,” Cunningham said. “They taught me a lot of things about my culture while I was growing up. Like the meanings behind our beliefs and to always stay connected to who we are. They wanted to make sure I knew my heritage.” 

Even Cunningham’s grandmother had some influence on how Cunningham connected to her roots. She used to live on a reservation with her grandparents when she was younger. 

“I lived on a reservation from when I was about two years old until I was in the third grade,” Cunningham said. “My grandparents owned land in Aneth, Utah, which is located within the reservation. In the reservation, they taught me the basics like numbers and the alphabet in Navajo.” 

Cunningham eventually moved off the reservation to Cortez, Colo., to live with her parents and attended public school. She continued to practice her heritage through avenues her school offered. 

“In junior high and in high school, I was pretty involved,” said Cunningham. “We had a Native American Club and I was involved with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. I also attended Navajo class where I learned more about Navajo culture.” 

Although Cunningham attended a public school, her parents continued to instill the proud traditions to keep her in touch with her heritage.

“My parents made sure I remembered all of the things they taught me growing up,” she said. “A lot of the younger generations won’t practice their culture and lose their language. I appreciate what they did for me because I believe it’s important for people to know where they come from.” 

Cunningham’s childhood has also led her to get in touch her artistic side. 

“My dad is a talented artist and I grew up watching him create his own arts and crafts. I ended up taking an interest and started my own thing,” Cunningham said. “I love doing all kinds of arts and crafts. I draw, sketch, paint and sculpt creations that are a part of my culture.”

Cunningham continues to connect with her culture through art and other aspects. However, being stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base has made it difficult for her to keep in touch with her culture.

Luckily, programs like Diversity Day and Native American Heritage Month have made it easier for Cunningham to associate with other Native Americans. 

“I was looking to connect with people like me last year and I was able to connect with a few during Diversity Day,” Cunningham said. “I’m not used to being around a diverse group. It’s hard to find people to connect with since I’m all the way out here and there aren’t very many like me.” 

In addition to connecting to other Native Americans, Cunningham enjoys participating a variety of activities. 

“I grew up as an outdoorsy person,” Cunningham said. “I enjoy going camping, fishing and hiking. I also like to travel to see new places. I’m a very open person. I like doing anything.” 

Being stationed so far away from home has also given Cunningham a new perspective about the world around her. 

“Back home, my nation is so big and there are people like me, all around me. Being out here is an experience and I have learned a lot about how people think and their perspective toward the Native American people.” 

Her encounters have inspired her to bring more insight about not just the Navajo culture but also other Native American tribes. 

“The experiences here have made me want to bring more awareness about Native Americans,” Cunningham said. “We didn’t disappear, we’re still here. I feel like people really need to know that.” 

In the meantime, Cunningham is expecting her first child. She plans on passing down her Navajo traditions and values to her son. 

“I plan on trying my best to pass down my heritage to my son and future children,” the soon-to-be mother said. “I hope that he learns as much as possible about his culture and who is. I hope he takes interest so that the teachings continue to pass down generation to generation.” 

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