I Became an Activist Today

Posted on: May 19th, 2011 by admin No Comments

My Name Is Cassandra.  I Am Navajo.  I Became An Activist Today!

1979 – 2009

Cassandra Bennie Yazzie


Cassandra braced herself against the towering rock wall in Navajo Land.  A dusty bead of moisture rolled down her light brown cheek into the empty expanse.  The hot air caught her salty teardrop in its cool current and swept it away to the canyon floor below.


Her dad had frozen to death when she was at the tender age of three.


She looked up the vertical, smooth wall, eyed the half inch crevice and planned her next hand hold.  Calves burning, knees trembling, she sucked in the hot, dry air, pushed up to the tips of her toes, and stretched her lithe body to grasp at what felt like the impossible.


Cassandra had wrapped her arms around her daddy’s knees.  Relishing the sweet, soothing aroma of the potato fields on his work clothes.  She would not feel safe in another man’s embrace for a very long time.


She considered her next move up the vertical chimney that reflected heat from the sun’s energy.  She was one with the wall.  Her people call this hozho.  A state of balance with the environment.  Pushing through her tears and the painful memories, she perfectly executed her next move.  A cool breeze rose from the dark shadows below taking her back to the rickety shack in the potato field they had called home.


Her mother had stumbled through the doorway into the dark night.  Abandoning Cassandra to care for her five younger siblings.  The winter night wind shivered through the cracks in the dilapidated wall.  Though bitter cold, it swept their home clean of the last remaining scent of alcohol.  Her last memory of her mother.  Cassandra was just six years old.


The thin, rocky ledge crumpled under her weight.  She plunged into the abyss rasping the skin of her finger tips against the abrasive rock.  Burning.  Red hot.  She jolted to a jarring stop at the end of her rope.  Her lifeline.  Trust.  Overcome.  Accomplish.  She evaluated her mistake.  Planned her next move.


The Mennonites had found the children one week later.  Huddled in a corner.  Fighting off the cold.  Staving off hunger.  Cassandra’s youngest brother clung to her waist. Clinging to hope.  Just a little boy aching for his mother’s warmth and embrace.  The children had spent the next twelve years split up among extended family, foster homes and state institutions.


Cool evening currents began to intertwine with shimmering waves of afternoon heat and wisps of her jet black hair.  Swirling into a dance of pungent sagebrush, pine and wild thyme.  A hawk screeched off in the distance.  Feeding off its strength, Cassandra lunged upward and thrust her finger tips into the rocky fissure.  She hung suspended over an eternity of burdensome, childhood memories.


An eternity of slave labor, emotional abuse and physical molestation.  By the time she was eighteen years old, she had given birth to her two sons, David and Dante.  Their fathers had only stolen pleasure for themselves.  During those teenage years Cassandra discovered safety and solace in an institutional padded safe room.  Safety from her own rage.  Safety from her own black out drinking binges.  Solace from the burdens she carried.


Enraged, she grasped for the canyon rim, pulled herself to solid ground, rolled on to her back and sobbed.  The cooling sand rubbed against her sun scorched back.  Her earthen, deep brown eyes reflected the shining moon as it slipped over the eastern ridge chasing the setting sun in the western sky as it cast yellows, reds and orange across the soapy white sandstone.  A distant thunder echoed down the canyon walls.  A fragrant desert rain washed away her tear stained cheeks.  Washed away the burdens of her youth.


Cassandra was born to the Navajo tribe of the Edgewater Clan, on her mother’s side, for the Black Sheep Clan, on her father’s side.


How many times had she sat in solitude high up in Navajo Land to fervently reflect and pray over a crackling cedar fire?  She would beg God to remove her burdens.  Stop this endless cycle of destruction in her life.  Answer her questions.


She knew that she was not alone in her plight.  Though she lived in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Cassandra’s burdens are a harsh reality among youth in Indian Country.


The conditions and environment that Native American youth experience are simply unacceptable.  Their communities are plagued by unemployment, alcoholism, diabetes, suicide, sexual assault and domestic violence.


  • Native American teens are twelve times more likely to commit suicide than the average American youth.


  • Eight out of ten Native American women will be sexually assaulted by the time they are fifteen years old.


  • 44% of Native Americans live in sub standard housing without running water or sewer.


  • Average unemployment in Indian country is 58%.


  • The survival of traditional Native American language and culture is dangerously at stake.


Cassandra found her answers in the red hot embers of the cedar fires.  On a rocky vertical wall.  On a raging river.  In the constellations above.  There, it all made sense.  She connected the stars, the dots, the events of her life.  It was hozho in sweet perfection.


  • She decided to become an activist for the needy and neglected.


  • As a single mom of two young boys, she adopted her youngest brother as her own.


  • Through the Native American Church, she made a personal commitment to sobriety that lasted the rest of her life.


  • She became a prominent student leader at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.


  • She was the first person from her family to graduate college with a BA in Political Science & Native American Studies.


  • She married Jason Hotchkiss, a wonderful dad, with children of his own.  They had met and fallen in love on the Animas River.


Together, as a blended family, they would create an institute to empower other Native American youth, like herself, with professional outdoor adventure training and inspire them to utilize these skills to create positive change in their own communities.

It would be called the Four Rivers Institute.






The Four Rivers Institute is an intensive, outdoor, ten month leadership program designed to develop strong, Native leaders, from “within” these Tribal communities, with the traditional skill set to preserve their language and culture, as well as to successfully lead their people into the twenty-first century.


Before outdoor adventure sports were embraced by popular culture, Native Americans mastered such traditional skills as rock climbing and running river rapids as a means to survival.  Oddly enough, Native American youth no longer have access to such outdoor adventures.  The Four Rivers Institute desires to return these youth to their native roots by creating nature pathways to hozho amidst the busyness of life.


Imagine what it takes to lead an expedition down a ten day Grand Canyon river trip that boasts some of the most dangerous rapids in the world.  It takes intensive planning, execution and evaluation.  The same leadership skills it takes to run a business or lead a community.


Planning: The ability to assess the objective and obstacles, as well as to identify the specific tools, skills and support it will take to reach those goals.  Years of American government welfare programs have eroded these skills in Indian country.  We plan to teach these skills in the context of achievable goals such as outdoor adventure expeditions and community service.


Execution: The ability to implement the strategic plan.  This is where hardships are endured and confidence is built as these youth leaders successfully realize their goals.  Many of the problems in tribal communities are so complex that there is a sense of futility.  Executing specific, achievable goals will lead these youth down the path of vision and hope.


Evaluation: The ability to effectively assess both the strategic plan and its execution so as to clearly identify what worked and what improvements need to be made.  This is the most important skill of the three.  This skill is typically ignored by most U.S. government training programs.


One year ago today, November 16th, 2009, Cassandra and our children dropped me off at the airport in Durango, Colorado.  I kissed her goodbye not knowing in would be the last time I would feel her embrace on this earth.  Driving home from the airport, a young Hopi youth feel asleep at the wheel of his pickup truck and struck my wife and children head-on.  Though Cassandra breathed her last breath that day, her strength and memory live on in our hearts.


The people of Indian Country need your help so that they can help themselves.  The situation is unacceptable.  Unfortunately it is perpetually ignored by the U.S. government.


It is the children who suffer the most.  We need to raise up leaders and mentors from “within” the communities with the skill set to independently plan, execute and evaluate, drawing on their own cultural traditions and values.


Please help us launch this exciting and innovative institute for the future of the children in Native America.


In loving memory of my dear wife, Cassandra,


Jason Hotchkiss, Director of Program Development

Four Rivers Institute