Carrying the Torch

Tracing a diverse lineage, Watson ‘Morning Star’ Whitford preserves the customs of his indigenous ties

Episode 1: Watson 'Morning Star' Whitford

A Before We Could Drink Series

“During the pandemic, I came across an article that explored Native American communities, and how they’d had to move their powwows – national events – online. As I found myself cruising through these stories, the people I encountered got progressively younger. I became fascinated with these dances, and eventually I stumbled upon Watson.

“Something about his presence was very gravitating. He was a natural leader; an old soul. He had this desire to give back and teach his community, as well as bettering himself and his own expectations. A go-getter, with no ceilings. During our pre-interview, we explored the importance of culture, and how the death of elders can be something of a burning library. As those stories smoldered, Watson felt like something of himself was being lost, so he set out to protect it.”

– Leah Judson, Before We Could Drink Creator

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

For those living in pluralistic, cosmopolitan societies, the word ‘identity’ can be a complex conundrum, multifaceted and deeply layered. Finding a sense of self stretches far beyond census tick boxes and evening cuisine – it informs the way we interact with our world, and perhaps more significantly, the way the world interacts with us. Go back far enough and we’re all amalgamations. Complicated mixtures of traditions and ethnicities – balancing one aspect with the other, getting to grips with what makes us unique, but also what makes us connected.

Watson Whitford has been exploring the branches of his heritage for years. With practices stemming from both the Chippewa Cree and Navajo tribes, he’s grown up with an ethos as distinct as it is intricate. It’s mapped out in beliefs, ceremonies, and various expressions, all of which he’s come to know as an essential part of life.

Although well-versed with a fair proportion of said rituals, he recently chose to delve deeper and investigate the particulars.

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“There’s two paths that a lot of indigenous people walk,” he explains. “One is our way of life. The other is the modern way. For me, it’s important to find a balance between the two. I’m trying to offset these teachings with my Western education, but also retain the native characteristics. If we lose too much of our cultural beliefs, the character of the population is eroded, and the idea of home is gone.”

Who am I and where do I come from? These are valid questions, but they’re especially relevant when contending with a multitude of identities. Does one component take precedent over another? How do we gauge the ratio of our social makeup, and dedicate time accordingly?

Unprejudiced and even-handed, Watson approaches his blind spots with an attentive curiosity.

“The morning star… A close connection to everything. The great outdoors conjure these feelings.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“My dad is Chippewa Cree from Rocky Boy Reservation, Montana. My mother is Navajo from The Nation, which consists of parts of Utah, New Mexico, and of late, Colorado,” Watson summarizes. “I was born here, in the US, and I’ve grown up more in the Chippewa Cree way. Rites, the language, practicing the principles. I recently had the opportunity to come here – to the Navajo Preparatory School in New Mexico.

“That’s given me a chance to learn, to come into contact with the Navajo side. At present, I’m undertaking quite an involved journey, with lots of moving parts.”

Acknowledging a lack of educational prospects in Montana, Watson ventured to the Land of Enchantment – specifically the city of Farmington, San Juan County. In one fell swoop, he was able to expand his schooling capacities alongside his Navajo tuition.

“Moving here – away from family – that’s been quite an adjustment,” he admits. “Even still, I’m so grateful. One of our main doctrines is to give thanks, so I always try to remember that.

“The morning star… A close connection to everything. The great outdoors conjure these feelings.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“Love is family. I value them above all else, and the happiness we share.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“Love is family. I value them above all else, and the happiness we share.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“We should all strive to be appreciative of everything we come into contact with. Every living thing, every situation. Many have lost that way. I try to stay mindful.”

The selflessness of Watson’s outlook is reflected in his aims. As he became acquainted with Navajo conventions, one observation stood out as principally significant – the importance of imparting philosophies through speech, and the sanctity of experiences bestowed.

“The Navajo language is the basis for all things we practice,” he outlines. “It’s also a difficult language to learn – I’m trying my hardest!

“Most of our history has been passed down verbally. We don’t really have any written documents detailing these processes, as it’s all taught orally. That almost makes it more vital – we can’t just consult a book. The spoken word is sacred, because it keeps this civilization alive.”

“The sacred process.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Eager to embrace the internet’s publicizing forces, Watson envisages the web as an extension of this verbal tradition. Rather than be mistrustful, he’d prefer to adopt cyberspace as an instrument of communication, distributing messages to the misinformed masses.

“I firmly believe that we can incorporate our teachings with these new technologies. We could create something helpful to Mother Earth, instead of harming it. In the end, what we’re doing to the planet is only damaging us. It’s self-inflicted.

“I compare it to fire, which has always been a sacred thing for us,” he continues. “Technology is powerful, just like the flame. It has a life force, a spirit. Of course, it can be misused for negative purposes. But it can also be employed with righteous aims. Both are tools, and their effects ultimately depend on the intentions.”

Watson’s objectives are passionate reproductions of a core, unshakable belief in the importance of one’s roots. It’s a celebration of his daily life, examined with an infectious zeal for the beauty of culture. As he skips and saunters through the customary ‘Prairie Chicken’ dance, this mentality is unmistakable – an object lesson in commemoration, pride, and dignity.

“It’s healing to watch,” he remarks. “We usually perform that style at powwows. It’s much more contemporary now. It’s got old origins, but morphed and changed over the years. I started dancing at three, and stopped when I was about six. I picked it up again at 13. I do it for those who can’t get up and dance, so they can feel that sense of togetherness, that joy.”

“The sacred process.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“With these pictures, you understand and appreciate the beauty of the land, and the majesty of Mother Earth.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“With these pictures, you understand and appreciate the beauty of the land, and the majesty of Mother Earth.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

In the Cree vernacular, ‘ahkamêyimow’ means to persevere; to endure. The underlying message of Watson’s story lies in the personification of this idea – one of fortitude and resolve, channelled through his heartfelt dedications.

“So many horrible things have happened to my people over the years, but we’re still here. We’re resilient. We always bounce back.

“Our codes have been with us for thousands of years. It’s a part of who I am, and I want to maintain that for future generations, however I can. To conserve the character of the Chippewa and Navajo. That’s my main goal.”

 

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