“Looking behind, I am filled with gratitude. Looking forward, I am filled with vision. Looking upwards, I am filled with strength. Looking within, I discover peace.”― Native American Saying
Shaylin Shabi-Young, Navajo, the First Miss Native American USA. Most people call me “Shay.” I am born from the Bitter Water Clan and Water’s Edge Clan. I come from the Navajo Reservation in the small town of Kayenta, Arizona, 20 miles south of the Monument Valley, Utah border. At the tender age of 2-years-old, I began singing. Eventually, I learned Bible songs sung by my mother. She was always on a stage somewhere, with a microphone in hand, as she belted out my favorite hymns.
My early upbringing took place in the inner-city limits of Glendale, Arizona, where we lived in a nice middle-class home. I sprouted as the only child of a humble construction worker and a school teacher. Spending most of my time alone, I dreamed of the day when I could escape the hot Phoenix sun to spend my time home, on Navajo land. Summertime on the reservation meant pickles and slush puppies, fishing with my grandma (maternal), slumber parties with cousins and water balloon fights. I remember crying hard for my grandma when I was taken back to Glendale, at summer’s end. Prior to the final move that brought my mother and me back to the reservation, I was a child who dwelled in the unsettling environment of a broken home consumed by alcoholism and divorce. I learned early, and too frequently, about 911’s hasty response for a domestic violence call. I collected teddy bears, provided by police officers each time they came to take my father away.
The pivotal moment in our home came after my 10th birthday. It was the last memorable birthday I spent with both my parents in one room. They invited all the neighborhood kids and even the ones from church to flood our home for the cake and games. Shortly after the fun was over, my mother and I moved to Ganado, Arizona (Navajo Nation), a town I had never heard of, two hours away from grandma’s house. I immediately began to have trouble in school. I did not fit in, I was not like the other kids, I looked different and was called names. Was it my dark eyebrows? Or, my big lips? I was the “black sheep,” and I couldn’t tell why the other 6th grade girls didn’t like me. One minute I was accepted, the next I was an outcast. This is where I learned to get tough — as if I wasn’t already from the rigid home I left behind.
I began to find my place in sports, my love for volleyball helped me develop a sense of belonging. Yet, it did not change the ongoing threats received, the vandalization of our property, and the slaying of our beloved dog, “Pudgy.” The bullies taunted me into high school, and they were winning. This was it, I knew I couldn’t live another minute with it, this was where the line was drawn. Begging to live with an uncle, my mom, though hesitant at first, finally allowed me to relocate. “Kayenta” was the fresh start I needed.
My life, our life, was beginning to turn around. The volleyball team was exceptional. I began to cultivate meaningful friendships with the crowds and established lasting friendships. My parents had even rekindled the flame that was their love. My father was taking strides to sobriety and my mother was living her dream of having a career and a family. We began to eat dinners together like the American families you see on TV. Little did we know, this short moment of happiness was coming to a halt when we learned my father’s life would be tragically taken. For years he battled hard with alcoholism and just like that, he was gone. I was only 15 years old. I didn’t understand life without a parent and instantly I remembered the mental snapshots of our relationship. I envisioned the piggyback rides, he was the bull and I was the cowboy. I recollected the poems he wrote for me that reiterated the “beauty” of his only child. I could almost feel the whisker kisses that greeted me “good morning.” His life was so coarse and rigid, nothing was ever obtained in a fair or easy way. Yet his hard-working hands gave me a life that was more privileged than his own.
At his funeral, everyone gathered around to pay their respects. It was a nice gathering of people I did not know. A quarrel was developing, and my mother and I could feel it. I had no idea that this day too would forever change my life. On the day of his funeral, I was publicly cast out of the family whose name I so proudly bore. My grandmother (paternal) placed her hand on me in and gently nudged my shoulder casting me away, telling me to leave. She uttered something in Navajo that I would never understand. In front of all the guests, I turned away and carried my 15-year-old self to the car where we drove away in tears. Overwhelmed with anxiety and shortness of breath my mother pulled the car over to check on me. Tears rolled down my cheeks, it was at that moment that I vowed to become someone great, someone they would regret casting out. I again felt like a black sheep – rejected, confused and now angry.
My life went on, I didn’t know how to deal with the grief, so I buried my head in Bible scriptures, prayer and volleyball. My mother and I sang songs to keep our minds at peace. I made it through high school fulfilling a promise made to my father while he was alive. This promise was to sing the National Anthem at my graduation. It was my first performance in front of a fairly large crowd. Without knowing, this promise to my father would spark a light that would shine strong into my future. That song would be one that I would eventually master for multiple outstanding opportunities.
College came around, I began to find my footing, taking jobs here and there while attempting school numerous times and failing. Becoming stuck, in and out of an abusive relationship, was another deterrent that seemed to lower my sense of self-esteem. I was battered emotionally and physically and was repeating the life my parents had, without knowing. Around my 23rd birthday, I prayed asking the Creator to remove the unwanted people from my life, the people who hurt me. I began to read scriptures my grandma shared to feel centered and to forgive my abusers. Worn-out from the multiple failed attempts at love, I decided to go back to school.
It was somewhere between my decision to go back to school and a few more scriptures that I found my saving grace. I began to dream again. Like a child renewed by faith, I was singing again. Foreseeing great things for myself and those I loved. In 2015, I worked hard enough to receive an associate’s degree and met a nice young man who I dated for several years. Still on a high from completing 2 years of college, I decided to go for a bachelor’s degree. I married that nice man, who is my best friend, and graduated with my degree in Communication. At 32-years-old, I was still searching to pull more potential and drive into my life. I decided, even though I had nothing to prove regardless of my 15-year-old angry girl vow, I owed it to myself to continue school and my dreams. Today, I’m a graduate student, at Grand Canyon University, halfway through a master’s degree in Leadership.
My life, like many, had an entire childhood that was built around adversity, which caused instability, feelings of rejection and little self-esteem. It’s a heavy burden to carry when you don’t love yourself as much as others love you. Over time, I’ve learned being the “black sheep” in the flock is not a bad thing.
The black sheep is one who shines out among the crowd, she’s different and special for many reasons. I credit the ability to stand out, to contribute to my success in winning the first Miss Native American USA crown, in 2012.
We can learn to trust in our experiences and course in life, but I truly believe all that has happened has given me the determination to withstand and push past the naysayers of this world, even if that naysayer is me. For me, life unravels in increments of songs, like a season that carries a heartfelt message. I remain fostered by nurturing music that’s cultivated by love. I’ve come to one discovery, the songs I’ve learned as a child would eventually come back to revive my spirit as a grown woman. They have become the beacon of light needed to drown out darkness.