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Everyone Has a Story: Emily Nephrateus Staley

Student Emily Nephrateus Staley, a Semester at Sea Fall 2023 voyager, is a passionate advocate for indigenous youth and travel. Emily is also one of the first Navajo to sail with Semester at Sea. Already working to make a lasting impact on the program, Emily helped draft the first paperwork that allows accommodations for indigenous students to bring items like sage and sweetgrass onboard. I sat down with Emily to learn more about her life, her advocacy work, and her goals for the voyage and beyond.

Can you introduce yourself? 

[In Navajo] Yá’át’ééh, shí éí Emily Nephrateus Staley yinishyé. Tseníjíkíní nishłį, Totsoni’ báshishchíín, Tó’áhaní dashicheii, Ta’néészahnii dashinálí.

Hello, my name is Emily Nephrateus Staley. I am born for the Honey Comb Rock/Cliff Dweller People. I am born from the Big Water People. My Grandfathers are Near the Water and my Paternal Grandfathers are Tangled People. I’m currently going to school at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado [and am] a double major in political science and public health.

Can you tell us about your childhood and where you grew up?

I am Diné/Navajo. I grew up in Chinle, Arizona, so a small, tiny little town on the Navajo reservation. So I say that I’m from the Canyon de Chelly and the mountains of Black Mesa. 

In my family, I grew up herding sheep and being very much farm-to-fork. The way that our Navajo tradition works is that we don’t say [Navajo] is like a religion, but it’s a way of life. It’s something that has always been prevalent in my way of living as well as being on the reservation my whole life. Growing up without water and electricity was something that was normal, and that wasn’t something that was out of the norm for many people on the reservation. I’m very blessed to have grown up in both Navajo and English. Being able to speak [Navajo] is something that I’m very passionate about…to upkeep what’s considered a dying language.

How did travel become a part of your life? 

I am a fifth-generation tour guide so I do jeeping, hiking, and camping tours up in Canyon de Chelly. My family business is called Beauty Way Jeep Tours. My nalí or paternal grandfather, created the business back in 89…and eventually the business will get passed on to me in the years to come.

“Beauty Way” is essentially a way of life. It’s a way of living. When we end our prayers, you say: 

[In Navajo] Hózhóogo naasháa doo. Shitsijí’ hózhóogo naasháa doo. Shikéédéé hózhóogo naasháa doo. Shideigi hózhóogo naasháa doo. T’áá altso shinaagóó hózhóogo naasháa doo. Hózhó náhásdlíí’. Hózhó náhásdlíí’. Hózhó náhásdlíí’. Hózhó náhásdlíí

In beauty, I walk

With beauty before me, I walk

With beauty behind me, I walk

With beauty above me, I walk

With beauty around me, I walk

It has become beauty again

[So] you walk in beauty, you surround yourself with beauty, you see life in beauty. Being able to grow up in tourism, I was constantly meeting new people from all over the world, from different cultures, from different religions, and from different perspectives. But a lot of people from my area on the reservation don’t get that exposure from the same age so that [experience] made me very curious. 

I get the question asked frequently, like, how was it like growing up on the reservation? And personally find that question a bit funny, because I can’t really tie [my experience] to anything else because that’s all I’ve ever done. But…I do understand that living on the reservation, there were certain things that we did have to overcome, there were a lot of factors that played against us in terms of opportunities– traveling being one of them. So for me, as a kid, I wanted to find programs that were going to be geared towards travel…that are gonna give me these different perspectives that I’m not used to seeing. I see myself as a huge advocate for indigenous youth and travel because I always get asked, “How did you do it?” Or my parents get asked things like “This is something that’s so expensive, how did you do this? What was the process?” 

(Some of the items Emily brought from home include her collection of jewelry (including heirloom earrings from her grandmother and handmade jewelry from her family), sage, and corn pollen.)

What are your goals for being an advocate for indigenous youth and traveling? 

One of my biggest goals in life is to have a scholarship in my name. In Navajo, you kind of speak it as if it’s already done. It’s almost like you speak into existence. So, for me, I keep saying it’s going to come, it’s going to, eventually you will get there, I will get there. 

In this [Semester at Sea] adventure, I’m constantly documenting and journaling. One of the things that my grandma always told me was “Yéego Shíyazhí.” Yéego Shíyazhí comes from the heart meaning you can do it, keep going, and keep pushing yourself. So being able to do [this] *pause* oh, sorry, I’m getting emotional thinking about it. 

It is emotional! You have lived this work for so long. And now you’re here and doing this and you’ve clearly been backed and surrounded by such an amazing family and community. That’s special!

I guess where I’m at right now as far as being an advocate…it’s something that I’m very passionate about because it’s always been prevalent in my life. Being able to share [this] with my community and other kids and to see more representation is beautiful to witness.

It seems that throughout your whole life you’ve been building a life of exploration and adventure and seeking those opportunities out. How did Semester at Sea fall into the picture? 

It’s actually a bit of a funny story. About four months ago now I was having a really tough day. That day I went to my therapist and we were talking about all these things. I push myself a lot where I don’t share the struggles that I am facing or I’m not very vocal towards even family members about it. Just being the eldest it feels like you need to be in control of everything. So I was sharing with her all of that and she was like, “You need to give yourself grace, you need to soak up everything, you need to be able to understand that you are doing a lot and you need to celebrate your wins.”

And she was basically saying, take today off, get yourself a coffee, and just allow yourself to feel everything that you’re feeling right now. I left the office and went through our little Student Union where we had this huge giant bulletin board. I typically don’t stop by the area, but it was on the way to the coffee shop. I’m looking and in the corner, there was this tiny little flier with a QR code that said something like, “study on a ship for study abroad.” I took a photo of it, scanned the QR code, walked to the little coffee shop, and made an account just to get more information. 

Reading about it was like, “This is like an actual program? This is insane!” It’s so cool that you get the opportunity to go to these places within that amount of time. I was looking at reviews from students and everything. I talked to [our study abroad director] and she’s like, “You should look at next year, a lot of people apply a year in advance. It’s a lot of paperwork, there’s a lot of things to do.” But I’m also very competitive. Very ambitious. 

[Like I said] in Navajo, you [speak] it into existence, so I was confident enough where I knew I wanted to do this, [so] I’m gonna do everything in my power to get me to Semester at Sea. This whole summer, I worked two jobs and I saved every last bit and every last tip. I also worked for a nonprofit. That was kind of my whole summer. I didn’t do a whole lot of traveling. But it was mostly just saving up for this big adventure, which I’m super excited to be a part of.

[Toward the end of summer, I learned that] I brought my scholarship all the way down to zero. I cried. My dad was on a run. I woke up my mom and I was just like, “oh my gosh, like, everything’s taken care of like, I’m like ready to go.”

Emily received a number of Semester at Sea scholarships including the Alumni Support Scholarship, Reese Family Scholarship, financial aid, and other scholarships including one from her community called the Black Mesa Scholarship.

How has the experience on SAS been so far? 

The past few days, [it’s been like], “Whoa, we’re actually doing this,” and we’re traveling, and it’s been very go, go go. But there was a moment where I was on Gozo (in Malta) and I was walking into the Citadel with one of my friends. We were going through the really high areas, and we didn’t really know where we were walking, but then we got to the top after climbing so many stairs, and it was just this beautiful 360 view of the whole city. It brought me to tears and I kind of laughed at myself! I’m like, “oh my gosh, I’m so overwhelmed!” But I looked over at my friend who was wearing sunglasses, and he pulls up his glasses, and he’s tearing up too! And it was this beautiful moment, I got to share with another student where it was like, “This is what it’s all about.”

As you look ahead to the voyage as a whole, what are you hoping to get out of it from a personal growth standpoint?

I think what I’m really hoping to gain is more confidence in myself that I can accomplish this…it’s so crazy to think that I get to be a part of this whole process, to be a part of [voyage] 132. I’ll have lasting connections with students that I’m making lifelong friendships. 

And I think that’s what I’m excited for as far as Semester at Sea because by the end of this, I will have visited X amount of countries and [in Navajo, it’s described as] Níhimá which is like Mother Earth. So you say you walk on her, but you walk in beauty. Before the voyage, I got myself a new pair [of moccasins, my shoes] and I was constantly wearing them to get that little bit of canyon sand in there, to get the little bit of herding sheep [in] them, and just grounding them with my home, essentially. Being able to walk in beauty into all these other countries – they have a lasting effect. It makes you a more worldly person [learning about] so many incredible different perspectives and viewpoints in how you carry yourself throughout life afterward. I’m excited for that part.

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