The Beauty of Intersectionality
Renee Begay, ministry leader and co-founder of Nations Ministry, joins us this week on the podcast. Renee is a member of the Zuni tribe and shares with us her journey of holding and honoring her Indigenous cultural identity within the Western cultural context of her Christian faith. This conversation is a beautiful reminder that we are invited to know our stories, value our unique identities, and know that we were each created to reveal the image of God in unique ways.
About Our Guest:
Renee Kylestewa Begay is from the Pueblo of Zuni, located in the southwestern part of New Mexico. She is married to her high school sweetheart, Donnie Begay, and they have three daughters. She is the national director for Nations, a conference speaker, and manages a resource website called The Talking Circle. She co-founded the Nations movement—a national ministry that seeks to build good relationships with Indigenous communities. You can find Renee on Instagram: @reneebegay
Dan: Linda Royster, We get the privilege, I get the privilege of playing together again. And it is so good that we are in this conversation about how communities different than the white community can open our eyes to something about the wonder of the gospel. And today, I have to admit, I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation, and I’ll just give a teeny little bit about Renee Begay and let you introduce her. But Renee is, as I said before we began, had the privilege of hearing her a few times in interacting far too briefly, in certain settings. But she is hilarious, playful, honest, and in one sense, just absolutely brilliant. So, as we open the door to the category of what Indigenous people invite us to engage with regard to truth, with regard to America, with regard to the gospel, it’s an incredible privilege, Renee, to have you with us. So, Linda, I’ll let you more formally introduce our guest.
Linda: Welcome. Welcome, Renee. We are privileged to have Renee Begay join us today, and met Renee a few years ago through the Allender Center, and Renee and her husband co-founded Nations Ministry. And you also work with CRU specifically gearing your work toward caring for Indigenous students and student leaders within your community. You are again, wife, mom, phenomenal leader and you have brought such wisdom to our communities. You’ve brought such wisdom to the Allender Center, and so I have deep, deep gratitude for you, but I would love for you, thank you to, to introduce yourself to this audience.
Renee: Yes. I would love to introduce myself. Thank you for having me. I’m gonna introduce myself in Zuni, which is the tribe that, I am a member of, and then I’ll introduce myself in English afterwards…[speaks in Zuni] and I said, Hello, My name is Renee Begay, and I introduced my clans, which is the way we relate to one another. We find out who’s related to who. So it’s matrilineal. So I belong to my mother’s clan, which is the Sandhill Crane clan, and then I’m a child of my father’s clan, which is the Eagle Clan. And so that’s how we find out who’s related to who, who’s auntie of who or whatever. But that’s how I introduce myself, so thank you for having me.
Linda: You’re welcome and what a kind way of remembering.
Dan: It’s a great way to even begin the, the question of how you introduce yourself. And so beautiful and important that you begin with your mother tongue and yeah, to link yourself into the matrilinear, but as well, your father’s clan. And even that to say, how do people respond as you introduce yourself that way?
Renee: I’ve had most, I mean, all good. I think, it pulls at the heart strings of people, to hear me introduce myself and my language, because I think there’s this desire that, you know, people want to really know who they are and where they come from, what they are rooted in. And so I think when, when people hear me introduce myself in Zuni, who are not Zuni, it just kind of pulls at their heart strings and their desires. Like I, people come up later and say like, Oh, I wish I knew where I was from, who I was related to and I agree with, I grieve with them in that. But on the other hand, if it was like, in Zuni, it’s just more of like a formality of like, who, who’s your mom? Who are you related to? Like, where, where does your family live? And that’s the way of finding out who’s, who you’re connected to and, who your family is and where you’re actually located in proximity to, like, on the land. And so, yeah. I get those, those two, two responses.
Dan: Well, and the, the power of, of the connection of identity related to whom you are indebted to and to the land that you inhabit, again, you know, the privatization and individualization for most Western people, it cuts us off from both land and ancestors. And, just to kind of invite you to put words to what is for you the meaning, and it’s just such a difficult question to ask, but the meaning of land. Yeah. And especially the intersection of land that has been stolen and land that you have arrived at was in one sense, not your land, but land that was forced for you to take, and yet is your land. So, there’s a lot of complication with these questions.
Renee: Yeah, there is. I think in introducing myself and then also sharing where I’m from, and then for those that are from Zuni, knowing where my family’s located, that brings a theme of actually responsibility when I actually do introduce myself in that way, because there is a responsibility I have to take within my identity, that it’s not just a haphazard way of saying like, you know, this is who I am, but it’s like, it’s actually, a theme of belonging, who I belong to, but then also the responsibility that I have to the rest of my family, and then my community. So there’s a sort of heaviness for me that I have to, I have to weigh in that, because there are almost like, there’s eyes watching me of like, how, how I conduct myself, how I relate to other people, how I, and, and that’s what it really is, being in a community, even though I’m not living in Zuni, I’m living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, there’s still this responsibility of, you know, how I relate to everyone else around me and a big marker of that is, how respectful am I of other people, how considerate I am of other people, all those things. So those are always kind of like the things that are weighing heavy on me, especially being a mother to three daughters. Like, how, how do I bring them up to do that also and to remember those things. And then you mentioned, you know, stolen land, you know, just that, um, the tension of having to really live out my Indigenous experience every day. It’s almost daily. Um, I mean, there was even just a recent experience like a couple weeks ago where there was this really good teaching, really good biblical teaching about how to, I guess, kind of cast vision for people. The teaching was so good, but yet at the same time, there were, the example that was used was a movie, a about the Civil War. And I, as soon as like the clip was starting to show, I was just like, Oh no, I know where this is going. And the message that was used to kind of like, uplift the person to, hopefully use this, you know, method of vision casting was like, there was still this romanticized myth of, you know, during the Civil War the speech in the movie was like, this land is for everybody, and there’s a place where people can build their land. And, but I knew watching the clip of the film, like the backstory, you know like, almost wanting to shout, like, no, it’s not, it’s not free. You know, Like, it wasn’t, you know, so many Indigenous people were displaced as a result. So that, and then they were categorized as, you know, savages or uncivilized in order to, justify their means of like, taking the land. And so even that in, in just the movie clip, I was just, there’s just all these things coming up for me, and it’s a daily thing. It’s like, and, and I’m sitting there trying to regulate my feelings at the moment. Cause I know that this is just the work teaching, you know? So I’m just trying to be like, realistic and like trying to just regulate my emotions. But like, there was, there was some, like, tears that were coming, and I couldn’t, you know, it was just this thought of like, this happens every day. There’s always this reminder of our erasure. And so it’s a daily thing.
Linda: Yeah. It’s ongoing.
Dan: It’s the exposure of Christopher Columbus Day and the reality of the wickedness of the, no one had discovered it before he arrived. And, you know, now there’s at least the, the shift, into Indigenous people day, along with Christopher Columbus Day, which, again, at one level, I wanna say, oh, at least there’s some acknowledgement. But when you blend those two together it makes my skin crawl. And it, so there is theft, there is a form of massacre, and again, the underscore realm of the broken promises over several hundred years. Just reading recently about the Treaty of New Echota, and that the promise was made, to the Cherokee Nation, that there would be a representative, in the House of Representatives, non-voting, but still there in 1836 ratified and 200 years, no Indigenous person has been seated, in that position. And yet we’ve got six other locals where representatives from New Samoa, again, not to go through each and every one of them, but DC, Puerto Rico, a number of others have that. And you go so personally, but corporately, h how, how have you lived into, a Christian so-called nation, and the brokenness of one hell, and, I don’t know a better word, one hell of a, a long litany of broken promises.
Renee: Yeah, that’s a good question. Um, that I ask myself every day, how do I live into, I think just, yeah. And I don’t, identify, I guess as like Christian, because there’s just so much heavy heaviness to that. I mean, even just being careful of like, the way I identify, you know, I, I follow Jesus, and I’m fully Indigenous. Um, I know that he cares about my Indigenous identity. When I first started following Jesus, I didn’t, I thought that in order to be kind of accepted or what the right thing to do was, was to cast off my Indigenous identity, my Zuni identity. Um, but as I was going that route, that extreme route of like, not talking in Zuni anymore, and not doing even the cultural stuff, the Holy Spirit really got my attention saying like, this is not why I made you, I didn’t make you to take on… At that time I had just, you know, started listening to the late Uncle Richard Twists and the things that he was saying, you know, that we don’t have to assimilate ourselves into another person or another culture, sin-stained culture, that our cultures can be redeemed also, and, and that we can, live into who we are and follow Jesus. And so at that time, I was, you know, listening to those words and then the Holy Spirit catching my attention of like, This is not why I made you. I made you Zuni. I could hear that very clearly. And I was just like, Okay. He’s made me Zuni, you know, and, and what does that look like for me to follow Jesus in that way? It’s been hard, from both sides, you know, from the church side and from, you know, family side. And so, I think that question, has a lot of emotions to it.
Linda: Yeah. Yeah. There’s been such a loss of place. Loss of face or identity, Loss of name. And it’s not ended as you describe the experience of being in a workspace, and you are watching a film, and it’s the, it’s an assault that happens in real time that happens presently and that brings up a lot of heartache. And so it’s like the wound gets opened again and again and again. Yes. Right. And yet you hear the Spirit calling you to be who you are, to be who Spirit has created you to be. And so, part of what I wonder for you is then in light of who Spirit is calling you to be, how does that expand or open up your understanding of the gospel?
Renee: Well, even in the good intentions of what the church, you know, was trying to do in molding me to be a good, you know, Jesus follower, I’ve actually seen Jesus, more in the Zuni faith, what I grew up with, you know, because I didn’t decide to follow Jesus until I was in high school. And so I had that experience before, birth to, you know, ninth grade, following the Zuni way of life. And then, remembering all of those experiences, like, and then now like, kind of, putting it side by side to like, you know, the, what the church, the American church is saying, especially. I’ve just seen Jesus represented more and more, in the Zuni faith and like, and what was shown to me in the culture. Just even simple things of like how reciprocation, happens within the community, like how everyone’s taken care of. If you, if you participate in that reciprocation, like there’s, there’s always a way that, like you’re taken care of and you’re taken care of someone even in the way of like, how sacrifice is modeled within the Zuni culture and prayer. Oh my gosh. Like how prayer is modeled within the Zuni way of living. I just, yeah, I see so much, good examples of what was taught to me, and the reflection of Jesus and the gospels within that, I mean, we even have a, a flood story connected to our sacred mountain. And so, like, even just, and my grandma would tell me that story of how, you know, there was a flood and there’s a serpent and there has to be a sacrifice. And, you know, just like all these things within our flood story, realizing that, oh, wow, like we do have, we have a creation story. I have a creation story. And Creator has shown himself to me in that creation story. And so even just making distinctions too of like the, the scriptures like the scriptures, the creation story of Genesis one, like that’s, that’s the Hebrew creation story. And so being able to say, Well, I have a creation story too, and Creator has, you know, he’s, he’s been active in that creation story, and I can see creator’s movement in that. And even up till today, the role of the Holy Spirit in my life is just completely, like, I really have to rely on the Holy Spirit on what to do next. Cause there’s some things where like, if the church saw me, you know, like doing these things, like I don’t, I don’t know if I would be labeled something we have been labeled, of course. You know, that’s just the daily that’s just a daily, like, Indigenous experience. Like if we, if we, if we do something with a drum, or like if I smudge, or like if I burn cedar or whatever, like you know, you run the risk of being labeled a certain ways. But even in just those things, like really relying on the Holy Spirit, praying to the Holy Spirit waiting for, you know, word from from Creator has, it really is crucial for me, in the everyday.
Linda: And it sounds like there’s been a radical self acceptance of who you are and, and a radical way that you have come to value your community in light of how you might be perceived in western culture or in Christian communities. So I, my sense is that, that that is no small feat or no insignificant choice.
Renee: Yeah. No, I would say that the radical self, self-acceptance, and then a lot of times that, trying to, trying to muster the self-confidence, that that doesn’t come easily. Like I’ve, I’ve cried a lot, you know near the river, just asking, you know, Creator to just help me because there was a time where I felt like I was outside of, the ecosystem of Creator. And every week I would just go to the river just to go sit there and, and I would feel like I was outside of the ecosystem, and just wanting to be really present in that moment and be part of the ecosystem. Not wanting to have to like, try to think about being part of the ecosystem, but just being part of it. And it took a couple years of just like really wrestling through my thoughts, praying, asking, you know, asking the Holy Spirit to just help me. And so that, that radical, I think self-acceptance, it doesn’t come easy. You, you really have to, or I’ve had to really fight for it, even in the midst of like, opposition. Yeah.
Dan: Sure. Well, and there have been systems, ie. churches and others who have labored, either directly and very consciously or indirectly and maybe unwittingly to take away name language stories, including origin stories, including stories to make sense of the nature of life itself. So again, you, you’ve lived in some ways, not in one world, not in the other, in some ways, in the borderlands between systems of oppression and an oppressed people and yet you still live in both worlds. How do you do that? And it’s really back to that question, how do you bear the broken promises? How do you bear the reality that, certain context, like I know we say a church, but I mean particular churches and particular denominations, and people have wanted to erase your culture and have you amalgamate into what could be called a Christian culture but most of the time is a white defined system. Which is presumed to be biblical.
Dan: And I don’t think I did a very good question there, but does that just, just love to have you react.
Renee: Even in your words, like, thank you for naming that. Cause even if I, said that there would be, you know, I would run the risk of, you know, being even labeled something by even just saying what you said. So for you to say it, there’s even just that dynamics of power, you know, present. And so there’s so many levels. There’s power levels, there’s cultural, there’s, there’s like church culture, all these things. And so I think the how of living in it, like, for me, my main prayer a lot of the times, like I’m, I’ve always been very tenderhearted. And a lot of times I used to be so upset at myself that, you know, even right now, like my, my voice is cracking, you know, like, and I just, I hate it that about myself, but then I had to just be like, that’s who I am. Like that’s, it’s, it’s good to be tender hearted. It’s good to have the, a heart that’s kind of vulnerable. And so for me, my prayer has been like, please don’t, you know, let me have a hardened heart, help me to continue even though it’s really hard, even though, like, I cry a lot about, you know, just so many things on the daily of being reminded of our erasure, all those things. Like, it’s just, my prayer a lot of the times is just helped me not to get a hardened and heart, help me to continue to just feel those things, but just to be able to, regulate them, I think regulate them in a good way. And so, I don’t know if I answered your question, but we can, I think just keep going along that, that line of talking about it.
Linda: Well, I think it’s extraordinary, Renee, that your heart has remained tender in light of, of the amount of violence that you in your community have suffered over time, and it’s not ended, it continues to unfurl and it continues to play out. But your, I’ve experienced you as such a kind woman as such a tender, present, humble woman. And I don’t mean humble as an a wallflower that’s so bowed down and walk over. I mean, no, I mean, steady, I mean, having an, an accurate, honest assessment of who you are and what you bring into a space, and then inviting others into goodness. That’s my experience of you. So it is, it is remarkable to hold on to yourself when you have met, been met with such violence and degradation and dismissal.
Renee: Thank you.
Dan: And as we’ve said a number of times, and the podcast that we’ve done, you know, the scripture is addressing a people of God who are profoundly oppressed, who are under the boot of multiple systems that are violent, that are degrading that erase et cetera. So that kind of supremacy, is not unique merely to a particular age in the American history. This is part of the fallenness of the human heart and systems to create power structures where there is victimization, where there is exploitation, misuse, failure to hold promises. But we have a long history in America of wanting to erase our own history. The example being again, that, you know, a promise was made in a treaty and it’s not been fulfilled in 200 years. And how is it that the House of Representatives is not putting a non-voting, but still significant presence, of an Indigenous person into a house of Representatives. But then when you go further and you just go look between, I think it was, um, 2019 and 2021, the expectancy of life for an Indigenous person dropped from 71.5 to 65.5. Like when you talk about life expectancy. And a drop in one 10th is considered to be like, worthy of significant, but we’re talking about a 7 year drop. And so healthcare, the level of poverty, the issues in terms of the trauma that Indigenous people have suffered for centuries I dunno how to, again, ask it well.
Renee: And we’re still here.
Dan: Yes. And the question of how, how are you, and part of your labor and life engaging the trauma, in the midst of your people.
Renee: So I think my journey in the trauma realm or the learning curve for that happened working on campus meeting with Indigenous college students and no matter who it was, whether they were followers of Jesus, and just really excited, to know how to be Indigenous and following Jesus, all the way to meeting with students regularly who were, not even wanting to know about Jesus, but just wanted that, you know, closeness in the friendship and stuff, and were enjoying our relationship. No matter who, who it was, with these Indigenous students, there was this common theme that was happening that I couldn’t put a word to at the beginning because I didn’t even have any information about trauma, in regards to like my work in ministry. And so I had to really sit and kind of look at the patterns and think about, you know, why, why is the student self…. at that time, I didn’t know it was self sabotage, but like, when things are going so well, why did they put themself into the situation where it just completely like, took them out, you know, of the goodness of what was going, or, you know, of course, like in, like those instances of addiction or, harming themselves, things like that. I kept wondering what it was. And then later on I was like, Oh, I think this is like trauma. I think, you know, the, the effects of either intergenerational trauma from like boarding schools or like, it was either, you know, sexual trauma or, just, just different types of trauma that was playing out in each student. And I was just, I hit my ceiling ’cause I didn’t know how to, how to engage with the students in a way that would help them heal. And so, for a long time I didn’t say anything to them ’cause I didn’t wanna, like, I also knew that if you say something wrong, it could set them back too. And so I was like, I don’t wanna do that. And so I started putting myself into all these like, mental health first aid classes, asking my Indigenous elders, Is there anything that, you know, I was like stumbling around with my words, anything that to do with trauma that could help me in, in working with the students. And at the time there was things happening, but, you know, Indian time, it takes a while, like… And so for, as I was waiting, I started getting antsy because, you know, there’s these students that I’m trying to help, you know, help them, in their way of life. I was like, Okay, is it okay if I, you know, I asked my Indigenous elders like, is it okay if I take this course? Like with the Allender Center, it’s like a narrative focused trauma care level one while, while I’m waiting for, you know, the development of like this trauma program. And they said, yes, go ahead. And, and that’s, that’s how I got introduced into the, the level, level one. But even with that, I knew that I was gonna go into a predominantly white institution, because I work for a predominantly white organization, I knew the stuff that I had to, supplement to be able to…
Dan: That’s such a gracious word.
Linda: So kind
Dan: Excise, exorcise, and revise.
Renee: Yeah. So I had to I was like, Okay, I know I need to put these like supplements around me, And, and so I had, you know, an Indigenous counselor who got her schooling through the Seattle School. So she knew that she knew the lingo. And so she, she would meet with me every Tuesday after, our weekends together just to kind of help me, figure out, you know, is this, is this, a theme or concept that they introduced to me? Will it work for the Indigenous community? Do we, how do we, how do we use it? Like, what, what goes, you know, and what doesn’t work. I also met with my Indigenous mentors and at the time it was the pandemic, so we were meeting virtually, right? And, and at that time, all these, um, all these intelligent, you know, people were giving away their, teachings for free during the pandemic. You know, there’s all these webinars and stuff. And so I signed up for all the webinars, you know, it was like Indigenous based webinars, you know, activist groups that were like talking about how to heal with the land, you know, and then also like, Indigenous, scholars who were talking about, trauma healing and then also practicing resilience. So all these, all these webinars, I was like soaking up along with like the level one.
Dan: Yeah. Well, I would love to have just one example, and maybe that’s unfair to ask only for one, but where you had to go, that’s interesting, but not helpful. Not to my people.
Renee: Okay. So one that sticks out to me was the concept of, you know, the naming yourself as like either king, queen, a prophet, priest. And I think I had a conversation with Linda about this already, but like, I was just having a hard time like naming myself, whatever, you know, that that encouragement was based off of your story. And I was like, Linda, I can’t name myself because the, the community actually names me. They’re the ones that like, look at who I am, they’ve seen me grow up. You, you usually don’t like, you don’t name yourself. But there’s, there’s a community around you that watches you and what you do, how you were formed the story around you, and then they’re the ones that name you and kind of like, Yeah. And so that, even just that little one was just like, that was so hard for me to kind of wrap my mind around. And I think even just being in that predominantly white setting, um, a lot of the times like it, I felt like I was being either disrespectful or like, I don’t know of that narrative, but a lot of times I had to just remind myself like, this is a theory. It’s not the theory. There’s some things that I can like take that works for the Indigenous community, but I also, and I think being part of this program also helped me to see too, that like, it kind of started getting me curious about, okay, I see how, you know, like how you’ve done a really good job of like setting this foundation of like healing, using story work. I wonder what the Indigenous communities have been doing. And so that’s kind of what helped me get more curious of like, okay, let me look over here and see what… And so I’ve been exposed to like all these ways of how Indigenous people have, because you just mentioned all these centuries or a hundred years of trying to erase our, our culture, our language you know, our identity. And yet we’re still here. Okay. So if we’re still here, what are the stuff that we have been doing that is like, you know, that has continued our, you know, our presence here in a strong way. Not in a, you know, like haphazard or like just below low level way, but like, there’s actually, you know, really strong presence of who we are as Indigenous people. So that was one example.
Dan: Oh. It’s huge.
Renee: But there, I can give you some more later on.
Dan: Well, let’s just say with what time we have left, if we don’t carry on this conversation, it will be a loss for all of us. But to, to underscore that in what you’re naming is more Hebraic than it is white evangelical. The people of God would name people did not come to say, I’m at Enneagram seven, I’m a priest, it was part of family, part of larger cultural input. It’s only in the context of individualism that you’re left with, in some sense a loss of heritage, ancestors, community. And in that kind of, post-industrial, individualization where really the only unit that seems to matter is the 2.2 children with a supposed, you know, mother, father, you know, when that’s your community. And, and the body of Christ does not actually have that sense of bond to the communion of naming then indeed what you’re experiencing, what you have and what you’ve known in the context of the Zuni culture is closer to a Hebrew world than what most white churches or what most western churches actually know. So I think, think there’s again, a kind of, um, breadth and depth of life that you have suffered to return to restore, but never askew your relationship with Jesus. It you have grown both as a woman in your community and a woman in Christ. And that, I think Linda already said, has cost you, and the, the fact that, you know, the, in some sense, the supposed trail of tears, which is really, again, a trail, a trail of murder, a trail of betrayal, and a trail far more than just tears, no less. You’ve in one sense been called to continue. And I think as Linda has said, Wow, your tenderness, and yet the clarity of your voice, is in itself both a call to the gospel and a living out of the gospel. So yeah. From our vantage, may this conversation continue than to any last thoughts.
Linda: Yeah, yeah. My experience of you, again, it, it it’s been, you have both intrigued me and you’ve made me want to weep and to become more familiar with my own ancestry. You live, you practice what you believe. And I know that that’s a sometimes a hard choice. It shouldn’t be, but I recognize it’s a hard choice. But my experience of you is that you take who you are seriously. I mean, you take your identity seriously. And, and I know that there are moments that you cry and you may cry alone, and it comes at a cost, but you bring yourself with such beauty, with such grace and invitation. And that has been my continual experience of you, which has melted my heart, in being journeying with you for the seasons we’ve journeyed together. It’s… you are an extraordinary woman. And I am proud of you. I’m proud of you for choosing to lean into your identity. I’m proud of you as an Indigenous woman, as a woman of color that you are modeling for so many of us what it means to make the choice to say no to assimilation and yes to what it is to be who we’ve been divinely created to be. Yes. So, I don’t mean to be demeaning in any way by saying, I’m proud of you, but my heart rises with a, a yes. Like, yes, she’s doing it, she’s living into it. Yeah. And that, that’s, that’s the, that’s what wells up in me when I, when I consider what it’s been like to observe your life. So, thank you.
Renee: Thank you. Yeah. Yeah. And I think, I just also, even with just what was shared just a little bit ago of just that the naming, I’ve also seen that like for, for people that, you know, don’t have that, background to be named, you know, I, I’m not demeaning like that. You shouldn’t name yourself, you know, but like, just being mindful of like, who Yeah. Where I come from and, um, but also being respectful of others’ journey, and how meaningful it is for them to name themselves too. And so I think, yeah. So thank you Linda, for, for that. Just that is my desire that people would be, would see who, who Creator made them to be and that they would have that opportunity to just thrive in there and who they are. So, Yeah. As they follow, follow him.
Dan: To that what can be better said than Amen. Amen. And thank you
Linda: Thank you.
Renee: Thank you.