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Leland Becenti, MSW ’08

Leland Becenti, who is Navajo and Apache, describes growing up immersed in cultural teachings. Becenti is doing his best to pass on the traditions, not only as a father of five, but also as a consultant providing cross-cultural training in schools, behavioral agencies and his community. He and his wife also are craftspeople, weaving rugs, doing beadwork and teaching traditional crafts as a coping mechanism.

Leland Becenti teaches traditional crafts as a coping mechanism. Photo by: Marc Piscotty

Leland Becenti teaches traditional crafts as a coping mechanism. Photo by: Marc Piscotty

Becenti has been working to keep Native traditions alive since he was a student. In 2004, he helped dedicate GSSW’s new building, Craig Hall, with a Navajo blessing. Using tobacco, spring water and corn pollen, he made offerings to nature to acknowledge what had been given and “to have the social work building as a good place for learning.”

He commuted for hours each way to Durango to attend the Four Corners program and has gone further with his education than any of his immediate family members. He says eventually he’d like to pursue a PhD, but now he’s busy researching Navajo history and passing along traditional knowledge. He says he’s surprised at how little people know about American Indian traditions.

At a prenatal development conference last year, he spoke about the father’s role during pregnancy, such as being supportive and positive toward the mother, being disciplined and respecting cultural taboos to avoid harming the unborn child. For example, to keep the umbilical cord untangled, the father isn’t supposed to tie anything during the pregnancy.

But it isn’t just in special times that traditional behavior matters to the Navajo people. It’s important in everyday life, Becenti says, explaining that family meals were traditionally served on the floor where everyone sat together and ate from one dish. “They’d talk to one another, make eye contact. Now a lot of children eat alone in their room while their parents watch TV. Even cooking was seen as spiritual. Nowadays they’ll just go to KFC.”

Becenti says many of the struggles facing his and his children’s generation can be blamed on a lack of cultural knowledge. When he talks about the growing threat of diabetes to Native populations, it’s clear that he believes ignorance is dangerous. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, American Indians and Alaska Natives are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than non-Hispanic whites, and there’s been a 68 percent increase in diabetes from 1994-2004 in American Indian youth under the age of 19.

Fry bread, which many consider a traditional American Indian staple, actually was introduced in the 1860s, Becenti says, during the Navajos’ internment at Fort Sumner, N.M. White flour, baking powder and salt are fried in grease to make the tasty, but unhealthy, snack. Before Fort Sumner, Navajos made their bread from corn and roasted it over an open fire.

“Nowadays everybody wants fry bread. When you look at it in the historical context, that’s when a lot of things changed for us. Generational trauma affects pretty much everything,” Becenti explains.

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