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Indigeneity and Disability: The Teachings of our Ancestors and Being in Relation Towards Harmonious Outcomes

Indigeneity and Disability: The Teachings of our Ancestors and Being in Relation Towards Harmonious Outcomes


Sandra Yellowhorse


I have been journeying through life in relation to disability for as long as I can remember.  What I also remember are all narratives I was taught about disability growing up and how those would collide with how I came to understand my own worldview of disability and madness. These narratives, like many of us are exposed to, commit to biomedical, functionalist constructs of disability—a thing, or a condition that impacts a particular person. This prevailing view of disability is always focused on the individual and their body/minds rather than a collective understanding. This point is exactly where Indigenous perspectives of disability depart from conventional understandings found across all sectors, academic discourses, and even within some progressive spaces. 

What if I told you that in my Indigenous community, Diné (Navajo) ancestral teachings of disability are a relational concept that embodies a sophisticated value system of care? It may be difficult or a surprise to learn this! I certainly was surprised when I began recovering Diné ancestral stories of disability and grappled trying to make sense of what I was learning from these stories. They have departed from all the ways I was socialized (across medical, liberal and radical spaces) to know disability.

It is challenging to describe such a shift because society is saturated with the prevailing narratives of what disability is. However, much of the prevailing view has grown from singular worldviews that are historically rooted. They are grown from histories of harm. 

A prevailing view of disability permeates all sectors—the health, education, disability and beyond— and erases the rich knowledges about disability from diverse communities around the world. We must remember that Indigenous peoples are still impacted by the history of forced assimilation through colonialism and capitalism. This history has shaped our collective adoption of wider social narratives of what disability is within our own Native communities. However, although assimilation has profound impacts on our understandings of disability, our ancestral knowledges are not lost.  Ancestral stories of disability are found in our land-based knowledge systems, our oral histories, in our art, and within our songs and prayers. They are kept safe within our ancestors’ careful planning and refusal to let these important teachings perish. As a Diné person, I know there must be a space to hold them into new life, even if they are difficult to make sense of. 

In order to conceptualize this complete shift to understanding disability as a relational concept nurtured within a value system of care, it starts with understanding the power of Diné ancestral stories. These stories carry our language and customs that shape our worldview as a distinct people. When I first started engaging with Diné stories, I realized that the language I used to interpret these stories were irreconcilable. Disability wasn’t an interchangeable concept that I could easily translate. 

 In fact, Diné people don’t have a universal word for disability.

Although, it is clear that the social language of disability used across sectors Diné people utilize today conveys the impacts of socialization and assimilation into dominant American culture. This includes how Diné adopt and utilize conventional definitions of disability.  However, after talking with family, community members and language revitalization experts, they all had different words for describing disability. Diné language is a descriptive language and as such, it uses a variety of phrases and words that can describe an array of illnesses, impairments, challenges, and health concerns. These are all diverse and depend on the style of communication, worldview, and socio-political orientation of the person talking about disability. Disability will mean different things to different people depending on the context and perspectives of the person communicating. Yet, there is no agreed upon term for disability that is widely used. 

However, there is a word that Diné people unequivocally agree upon and that word is k’é. 

K’é refers to a way of life—a universe of both intention and practice that are rooted in relationships. Many Diné people have loosely translated this word to mean ‘positive relationships’ or ‘relationships oriented towards harmonious outcomes’. It is vital to state that when anyone approaches Indigenous languages and the knowledges they carry, that they don’t try to find an easy English exchangeable equivalent. Indigenous concepts are distinct and need to be understood within their own cultural contexts. Therefore, by relationship, I don’t mean the typical Eurocentric or American dominant understanding of interactions or connections. Relationship in this context is more aligned with the concept of interdependence. For Diné, interdependence is more than merely mutually dependent, but rather, intricately and infinitely interconnected with the intentions for positive and harmonious outcomes. Care, as a philosophy and practice, is contained in the concept of k’é, and through practice, k’é becomes a lifeway of caretaking. 

K’é is a lifeway of caretaking because k’é embodies an ethical framework. It is committed to the principle that to be in relationship with someone is to be accountable to that person. Again, accountability is not a Eurocentric or American understanding of accountability as a slew of checkmarks and regulations one follows. Accountability in a Diné context could be seen as a kind of service— a critical understanding of how our relationships are prioritized through our understandings of interdependence. We think, act, respond, and live to care for the relationships we all have and honor this inherent interdependence we all share as human and non-human beings in this world. Tewa educator Gregory Cajete reminds us that “nothing exists in isolation”. We all impact one another. Our actions or inactions shape the world in some profound way, whether we acknowledge it or not. K’é is a tool that teaches people this realization, and it also becomes the ethical framework to live an accountable existence in relation to all life and land.  

You may be asking at this point, what does this have to do with disability? Well, it has everything to do with disability from a Diné perspective!

K’é is the foundation in all our ancestral stories about disabled people. Although people and communities in our stories are described as disabled and/or impaired, Diné stories are not solely about the ways they are disabled or impaired. They are not focused on what caused one’s disability or impairment, or how disability is defined (because these descriptors change across stories!). Rather, the stories about our disabled relations are about k’é—specifically, its unique way of caretaking all our relations—both human and non-human. Within this, there is an understanding of diversity, need, traits, uniqueness, and differences that we all have. Yet, those are all framed within the context of a community. They are held within a system that recognizes that vast scope of inter-relationships and interdependence between us all. Therefore, disability is a relational and collective concept.

Through k’é, both the human and non-human subjects are relations first and foremost before they fall into any other identity category. Before someone is labeled, or categorized, they are a relation first and they have a place and an orientation that connects them always to land, people, and ancestors. K’é is a powerful teaching that brings someone into relation with the person who is relating to them. However, to relate is not merely an action. It is also an intention that positive outcomes will emerge from our relating. Such a relation is a value system of caretaking. It opens space to know of others, to establish our relation to them, and also calls us to our individual and collective commitment of care through accountability. This way of knowing constantly opens space for critical reflection to consider how one’s actions and thoughts of this relationship will lead to positive outcomes for both the person/community relating and the person/community who is related to. 

As a Diné person I understand disability as a relation because of these principles. K’é is the model of caretaking within my Diné community and is integral to our knowledge system, how we live and identify as Diné, and how we are instructed to care for one another and the land. Our ancestors were careful in their planning to consider all our relations, and provided us these blueprints, as both an understanding and a practice, to caretake one another with radical love.

Disability Justice has opened pathways to explore these depths of radical love by holding space for the socio-political and historical positionality of Indigenous communities’, and our ancestral knowledges of disability. As a people, we are still fighting for visibility and the right for our stories to be held with care within their own right. Because of this, Disability Justice can support aspirations for Indigenous liberation. It is a space to re-write the narratives of disability grown from Indigenous ancestral wisdom for the futurity of disabled relations, Indigenous lands, languages and generations to come.  I believe, that it is our stories that can radically shift understandings of disability. It is all about relations! Understanding our vast scope of relations is the first step in collectively caretaking one another towards harmonious outcomes.



Photo of Sandra Yellowhorse. Sandra is smiling at the camera. She is outside and next to a Māori (Indigenous to New Zealand) timber carving of a taniwha (water spirit, powerful leader). She has long brown hair and is wearing a black sweater and turquoise skirt with black, red, orange and yellow woven bands. She is wearing turquoise earrings, a turquoise necklace and a large beaded ring that matches her skirt.
Photo of Sandra Yellowhorse. Sandra is smiling at the camera. She is outside and next to a Māori (Indigenous to New Zealand) timber carving of a taniwha (water spirit, powerful leader). She has long brown hair and is wearing a black sweater and turquoise skirt with black, red, orange and yellow woven bands. She is wearing turquoise earrings, a turquoise necklace and a large beaded ring that matches her skirt.


Shí ié Sandra Yellowhorse-Kapeli yínishií. Kinyaa’aani nishłí adóó Bílligáana báshíchiin. Tachiinii dashichei adóó Kin’łichní dashináli. Tāmaki Makaurau Aotearoa déé naasha. Kótʼéego amá nishłi.

Sandra Yellowhorse is Towering House People born for the French of the Diné Nation. She is a grateful guest on the lands of Ngāti Whatua in New Zealand where she completed her PhD at Te Puna Wānanga, School of Māori and Indigenous Education at the University of Auckland. Sandra’s work is committed to Diné storytelling which examines philosophies of ‘disability’ emergent in land-based pedagogy, ancestral narratives and story. She supports the revitalization of Diné land-based knowledge and oral histories to advance teachings of relationality and belonging, to care for all of our diverse relations.

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