Tanaya Winder harvests the fruits of love through education and artistic expression
By Tanya Ishikawa
Tanaya Winder is not a mother, but she has many children. The 31-year-old Boulder poet, artist and educator has found her life’s calling in writing and teaching about love.
As director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Upward Bound Program, Winder supports the personal growth of 103 Native American youth from 15 high schools in five states. “She touches so many lives,” says Colin Begay, who grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and entered the Upward Bound Program in 2010. “Without her, these students wouldn’t get a chance to get away from their home backgrounds to visit a college campus and have a whole different experience. In a way, we’re her children. She’s that bright light for everybody.”
Begay, who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2016 and plans to start graduate school next year, believes he would not have graduated from college without Winder’s guidance. “We both come from Native American backgrounds and have lived on reservations, but I’m the first generation in my family to go to college,” he says. “She was one of the only supports I had going through college, and helped me get a scholarship. My parents and no one before could give me advice, but with her experience, whenever I needed help or was down, or didn’t know what to do, she was always there to tell me what I needed to hear.”
A Secret Language
Winder is an enrolled member of the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe; her heritage also includes Southern Ute, Pyramid Lake Paiute, Navajo and African-American. Raised on the Southern Ute reservation in Ignacio, Colo., she dreamed of becoming a singer or a musician. “But as I got older those ambitions changed into me wanting to be a lawyer. I wanted to help my people and also advocate for those who needed it,” she says. “It wasn’t until my grandfather passed away my senior year in high school that I started writing more to process and remember.”
Her grandfather had been like a second father, and he encouraged her to follow her childhood dream of attending Stanford University, where her parents had studied and met. “There’s this really embarrassing school newsletter article from fourth grade that said, ‘Tanaya is good at math, she’s a leader, and one day she plans to go to Stanford,’” she recalls.
“I was literally working for my entire life to go to Stanford. I did all these sports and clubs, was the president of my class, and had the extra job after school just in case I didn’t get scholarships,” she says. “If I got straight A’s, I was super excited and would send my grandparents my report card. It was our special way of communicating. I spent summers with them, and before I could go outside and play, I would have to do math. Education was like our secret language.”
Winder was accepted into Stanford and, with the goal of becoming a lawyer, declared a double major in psychology and political science. Taking poetry for her “fun” classes, she discovered that writing poems was an outlet to help her heal from loss. “It was mainly the loss of my grandfather, but then one loss makes you think of other losses. Though my grandfather died of old age, I thought of how many people in my community had died, how many funerals I had attended in my life. I had attended a lot of funerals for people who had died of drunk-driving accidents and other tragedies. I also began to think of historical loss and how a people can lose their land and lose their language in some instances,” she says.
She switched her major and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing, and went on to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of New Mexico. Her poetry has since appeared in many magazines, on stage, and in a published collection, Words Like Love, from West End Press. On Oct. 9—Indigenous Peoples Day—she released a new poetry collection, Why Storms are Named After People and Bullets Remain Nameless.
Healing Ancestral Memory
In addition to directing Upward Bound, Winder teaches Chicano and Chicana studies as an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico, has taught writing at CU, and has spoken at various events including TEDx in Albuquerque. She has also helped found many artistic organizations to empower Native Americans and women. The “Sing Our Rivers Red” traveling earring exhibit raises awareness about murdered and missing indigenous women and girls and promotes healing, and Dream Warriors Management promotes indigenous artists’ performances, workshops and speaking engagements.
“I want to support people in finding success. Everyone who is an artist is trying to make it, but let’s show that we don’t have to support just ourselves but each other. When I rise, you rise and we rise together,” she explains. “I love everything I do. I call it heartwork and it rarely feels like work.”
Hannabah Blue, her friend of 17 years and a former Upward Bound student herself, observes that Winder’s impact goes beyond the quantity of her work. “She’s incredibly thoughtful about what she does and how she does it. There is bigger meaning and greater purpose to how these different projects are going to impact people throughout the country,” says Blue.
Winder hopes to write books for young adults and children “to help them express their emotions and to help parents express words of affirmation to kids. I want to do more workshops, spreading messages of love and healing to our communities, and find other ways to serve youth.”
By healing, she explains, “ I mean I want to address historical trauma and the healing of that ancestral memory that gets passed down and impedes one’s ability to love oneself, one’s community and peers. That’s why everything I do is to uplift the kids, give my support, and let them know ‘I see you, I believe in your light.’ When I love them, they are able to love themselves and others.
“It’s the healthiness of that love,” she adds. “Through that love and healing, I hope to create more positive representations and ways of being for youth to follow. By doing that, I hope to continue serving my people and also get people outside the Native community to know we are here and who we really are. Just that we’re alive and real and still here and that we’re humans. We feel sadness, and we feel joy.”
Tanya Ishikawa has done a tandem skydive jump, jeeped and hiked up 13,000-foot peaks, scuba dived at night, rafted the Grand Canyon, ridden a horse into Canyon de Chelly, and had many adventures, but she spends most her days untangling words and sentences to share stories about people and topics she cares about.