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Native American Heritage Month Spotlight: Couple Reflects on Family and Navajo-Persian Roots in the Kitchen
12 MINUTE READ
December 20, 2021

Closeup image of a child's hand reaching into a bowl held by other hands
A picture of Rachael and Pooya’s child’s hands during the “first laugh party.”

 

As we reflect upon Native American Heritage Month, we would like to invite you to take a look at many families that shape the State Department, including ours—a Navajo-Persian family. My husband Pooya is an immigrant whose family came to the United States during the Iran-Iraq war. He began his career in public service by joining the U.S. Marine Corps. Since then, he has served in federal service in various capacities. Pooya often talks about how proud he is of the fact that only in America can a first-generation immigrant marry a Native-American and fuse our cultures for the next generation. Our family’s most shared platform is through food and our family kitchen.

Traditional Navajo (Din é’) introductions begin with sharing who we are and our roots. This allows one to establish relationships with others. Throughout the years, this practice revealed to me many relatives I had not met or didn’t know existed, including both blood relatives and clan relatives. For instance, I met many grandparents (those who share the same clan as my cheii (maternal grandfather) and even teased a friend of Jewish heritage that he was my nali hosteen (paternal grandfather) based on our shared relations.

Pooya often talks about how proud he is of the fact that only in America can a first-generation immigrant marry a Native-American and fuse our cultures for the next generation.

RACHAEL NOVAK FEDERAL EMPLOYEE AND MEMBER OF NAVAJO NATION

My identity and heritage are diverse. My Dine’ mother is from the Gap in the Rock Clan and Towering House Clan, and my father is of both Western European and Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. I never expected to meet and marry my husband, Pooya Rezai, who emigrated from Iran at a young age. I initially thought when we first met in a crowded DC restaurant, “He’s really nice, but what could we possibly have in common?” Famous last words.

Rachael Novak and Pooya Rezai on their wedding day in a Navajo-Persian Wedding Ceremony.

 

Rachael Novak and Pooya Rezai on their wedding day in a Navajo-Persian Wedding Ceremony.

 

Rachael Novak and Pooya Rezai on their wedding day in a Navajo-Persian Wedding Ceremony.

Fast forward six years and here we are today: we have two toddlers in tow and live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, close to my family’s homeland and closer to my husband’s family in southern California. We are happy, baa nihildahozho! Together, we find ways to navigate our diverse identities and preserve our roots as a family.

When we describe our family heritage to people, we are often met with wide-eyed surprise and curiosity. I actually made our differences a primary theme in our wedding vows a handful of years ago: “I may come from the West, while you are from the East, but the same sun rises in one direction and sets in the other. … Our mother tongues may be different, but they come from strong ancestors, and we know how to use our voices… I may take in the simple joys of food cooked by the flame of a campfire while you relish the flavors and textures of a fine five-star meal, but we know that food is so much more than mere sustenance, it is sharing and love and part of who we are.”

That last point about food has been a very important point of convergence for us. Our kitchen houses not just the staples from the local grocery store, but also the varying foods, spices, and implements from our ancestors that hold memories and reminders of our heritages. Another shared experience of our ancestors – both recent and a few generations back – includes displacement. My Dine’ ancestors were marched from our homelands within four sacred mountains to Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner between 1863-1866 (often known as “The Long Walk”). This, and the forced movement of so many other Tribal Nations onto reservations at the time, led to restricted access and connection to the land and food that had sustained Native Americans until then.

I may come from the West, while you are from the East, but the same sun rises in one direction and sets in the other.

RACHAEL NOVAK ON RECOUNTING THEIR VOWS

We draw similarities between the disruption of the cultural identity experienced by Native American communities and many immigrant communities, including Pooya’s. As a family, we try to integrate as many of our traditional foods (Navajo and Persian) into our kitchen and garden as we can. My husband has created a social enterprise, built around the concept of “Noosh” or enjoyment of the soul, that explores food and culture stories meant to help connect families and communities.

All in all, our lives began to be woven to one another on our wedding day. We had a traditional Navajo wedding in 2017, which includes the Navajo wedding basket, an essential element of the ceremony. The basket contains many teachings in its designs on living a good life and also holds the first sacred shared meal for the bride and groom. After we washed each other’s hands, we partook of the blue corn mush in the basket and then invited all the guests to partake. We now display our wedding basket in our kitchen as a reminder of its sacred teachings and that first sacred meal we shared as we began our lives together. A week later we again celebrated our union through the Persian customs which date back many millennia. A center piece of Persian weddings is the ornate sofreh aghd (table setting). There are over a dozen items on the table, each with special significance, including: a mirror (bringing light and brightness to our future), the apples (symbolizing divine creation), candles (symbolizing fire and energy), nuts (fertility!), wild rue (purity and health), and many beautiful flowers. Similar to the Navajo tradition of eating the blue cornmeal as part of the ceremony, the Persian tradition includes feeding one another honey to bring sweetness to our vows and new life together. Our sofreh table also included our Navajo wedding basket and the water jug that was used in our Navajo ceremony to wash one another’s hands.

Another convergence of our cultures includes the traditional first laugh party celebrating a Navajo baby’s first laugh, signifying they are choosing to live in this world (babies are considered between this world and that of the Holy People before their first laugh). We held a laughing party for our youngest son, born during the COVID-19 shutdown. It is traditional for the person who makes the child laugh to throw them a feast where they bless everyone by touching their food since they are very holy during this time. Our youngest son’s feast included a traditional Navajo mutton stew: a deliciously simple pairing of dehydrated corn, mutton, and salt, naniskade’ (tortilla bread), fry bread, ab goosht (Persian lamb stew), salad, and of course, the special salt that the baby gifts to all the guests to teach them to be generous throughout their lives.

Fry Bread in the family’s kitchen.

Are we the only ones? While people often assume we are the only Nava-Persian family in existence, I am happy to report that we are not alone! We have met other families, Navajo mothers and Persian fathers, who have combined their heritages and are raising children strong in both identities. These are a few of the meaningful things that connect and root our families together. While our pairing may seem unlikely and our family identity uncommon, I have started to reply that we are just a very 21st century family.

About the Author: Rachael Novak, who is Diné (Navajo), serves as the Climate Science Coordinator at the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Tribal Climate Resilience Program. She is also married to Pooya Rezai, who serves at the Global Engagement Center at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor’s Note: Launched by the Bureau of Global Public Affairs’ Employee Communication team, this story is a part of a series that gives State Department employees and family members a chance to share an intimate portrayal of how State families strengthen the tapestry of American diplomacy and foreign policy.