When Emile Eich decided to move from Phoenix to Flagstaff to attend Northern Arizona University, she was aiming for not just a degree, but also for the culture she had never known.
Eich is half Vietnamese, half Navajo and said she decided to attend NAU to be closer to her mother’s family in Wide Ruins both in location and, eventually, understanding.
“At the time I graduated from high school, I didn’t know much about my Native American background and culture. So I thought NAU would be the perfect place to grow and learn more about myself," she said. "These last four years have really been about me trying to find my place and find my identity."
Eich graduates from NAU this week with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in law and society. She was awarded a President’s Prize this year and has plans to work in tribal law someday.
Eich said she really started to immerse herself in Navajo culture after finding a job at NAU’s Native American Cultural Center, where she was able to connect with other students and faculty with similar Navajo backgrounds.
“It’s been a completely immersive experience. In the beginning, it was more about trying to learn the social nuances, our humor and community thinking. Then I started learning the history and language,” she said. “I have definitely gained a deeper understanding of everything that happened in the past and how it affects us and myself today.”
Until she was 17 years old, Eich said she knew only the cultures of her Vietnamese father and the Caucasian family who adopted her Navajo mother when she was young.
Despite a lifetime of separation, though, she had no trouble fitting in when she finally met her mother’s biological family in Wide Ruins.
“It was super crazy to actually meet that side of my family and see people who looked like me. I could see the family resemblance,” she said.
Family connection restored, Eich plunged even deeper into her cultural exploration at NAU when she signed up for the annual Miss Indigenous NAU pageant her sophomore year – and won.
The competition required participants to wear traditional Navajo dress and accessories while reciting their traditional introductions, revealing who they are and their family’s origin, performing a traditional talent and giving a speech.
Eich’s maternal grandmother taught her how to dye wool naturally for her traditional talent.
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Though Eich worried that she “wasn’t Navajo enough” to win the title, her platform, which focused on providing support for NAU students with mixed racial backgrounds, resonated with other students.
“I have a very different perspective from other Natives. I used to think down on myself about it, but now I see myself as a bridge between two cultures instead of as a part of neither,” she said.
She described how she must sometimes bend the rules to honor both her cultures when they clash. Recently, she discovered that eating shark fin soup, a Vietnamese tradition, violated her Navajo half, where eating seafood is prohibited.
Instead of being overwhelmed by the cultural contradictions she faces, though, Eich said she appreciates the blend of traditions that are all her own. She has been eager to share this newfound cultural appreciation near and far, most notably with her own mother.
“In a way, my mom lost a lot of [our culture], too. She was not able to learn about these traditions when she was young. Unlike some other students, I couldn’t ask her for help during the pageant because she was removed from these traditions as well," Eich said. "She and I have actually been learning together and she’s been piecing together things she remembers from her childhood.”
As Miss Indigenous NAU, Eich spent a year traveling across the state, bringing her mother with her, to host events and meet Native peoples. She said one of the most memorable events was when she attended a sheep butchering competition.
Since then, she has also taken the opportunity to share her Navajo cultures with NAU students of different backgrounds.
In addition to her role at the cultural center, Eich works for Outdoor Adventures of Campus Recreation, where she said she is able to connect her love of nature with her findings about her Navajo heritage.
“It’s about understanding the land isn’t a resource. It isn’t an object or a thing. It’s living and it’s a part of us. We give to it and it gives back to us,” she said.
After four years of self-discovery and piecing together her ancestry, Eich said she now has a greater appreciation for her time at university.
“Even though you’re going to college and getting your degree, in a way, you’re doing this for a lot of people. I considered that a real motivation: taking all the resilience of my ancestors with me in order to obtain a higher degree and be able to go back to my community and support them,” Eich said.