Luce Fellow Spotlight: Steven A. Darden

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is excited to partner with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) for a second year of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. In 2020, First Nations and Luce awarded 10 $50,000 fellowships to advance and support the work of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. In 2021, we expanded the fellowship award to $75,000 and 13 new fellows committed to preserving and sharing Indigenous knowledge with future generations.


Steven A. Darden (Diné/Navajo and Cheyenne) is using the fellowship to share sacred, end-of-life practices with his tribal community.

Steven A. Darden (Diné/Navajo and Cheyenne) is an artist, human rights advocate, business owner, and traditional practitioner.

He is currently the vice-chair of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC), a Native-led organization that seeks to protect and promote the human rights of the Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the United States with a population of more than 400,000. The Navajo Reservation spans more than 27,000 miles across three states: Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

Darden was raised by his fourth-generation grandmother on the reservation near Steamboat, Arizona, in a traditional way. “For the first five years of my life, I lived on the dirt floor, no electricity, no running water. It was the best thing that ever happened to me because I was able to really learn about my identity and our relationship with the sacred elements of earth, air, fire, and water,” he shares.

Darden has spent a lifetime learning Diné stories, prayers, and protocols that he shares with his community. With the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship, he will work with tribal elders and traditionalists to learn more about “Diné perspectives on the life cycle with attention to the end-of-life concepts of death, the afterlife, and preparations for returning loved ones to the earth.”

This sacred cultural knowledge is especially important during the current health crisis. In 2020, the Navajo Reservation was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, the Navajo Nation had the highest rate of COVID-19 infections per capita in the United States.

The pandemic exposed many socio-economic inequities across the Navajo Reservation − ranging from a poor infrastructure, a lack of access to water and poor sanitation, to inadequate healthcare and housing. Such inequities left the Navajo Nation particularly vulnerable to the virus, both in life and in death. The high number of virus-related fatalities revealed a troubling disparity when it was time to bury loved ones ─ a process he describes as “replanting” or preparing to return the body to earth.

How the Luce Fellowship will help with this sacred obligation

Mortuary services are few and far between on the Navajo Reservation. Consequently, many grieving families are forced to purchase funeral and burial services from nearby border towns and cities, which Darden says are not always respectful to the remains of loved ones.

Darden offers a blessing at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society National Conference.

Diné families are unable to practice traditional Diné burial rites and properly care for bodies of deceased relatives.

He recalls numerous stories about racist and discriminatory practices at nearby border towns and city mortuaries, including high fees, fraud, and deception. The NNHRC details many of these concerns in their 2020 report, Mortuary Services and Funeral Planning: Advocating for the Return of Navajo Traditional Burial.

According to the report, the two greatest expenses for Diné citizens living on the Navajo Reservation are transportation and burial costs. “I was stunned by that statistic,” says Darden. “I can understand transportation, but burial costs? That shocked all of us.”

Darden plans to use the fellowship to revive traditional burial practices on the Navajo reservation so Diné citizens no longer must rely on high-cost mortuary services that don’t respect traditional Diné concepts of death and the afterlife.

For Darden and the NNHRC, revitalizing traditional death practices is an act of decolonization. They are committed to ensuring that Diné citizens have control over how they live and die.

Plans to share traditional end-of-life knowledge

During the fellowship period, Darden will interview 18 Diné elders and traditionalists to learn more about Diné perspectives on end-of-life practices and stories of the afterlife.

Unfortunately, the community has already lost several tribal elders and traditionalists because of COVID-19. Darden recognizes that learning and sharing this knowledge is a race against time.

The fellowship allows Darden to pay travel expenses to conduct these interviews. He drives as much as six and a half hours one way to rural areas not easily accessible by paved or even dirt roads. However, he says that the time and effort are worth it.

The Luce fellow met with Davis Filfred, special cultural advisor to the Navajo Nation president, at the Four Corners region of the Navajo Nation.

“As a traditional practitioner, I think I know quite a bit,” says Darden. “However, some elders have taken me way back and shared stories about the first death and other deaths that occurred in the second, third, and fourth worlds. I am learning so much from those willing to share with me.”

Darden acknowledges that gathering this information is a sensitive process, as Diné elders and traditionalists will only speak about death during certain times of the year when the stars are properly aligned. What’s more, others are unwilling to speak with Darden on camera because of cultural beliefs or gender differences. He is always respectful of these concerns and is working with the NNHRC to address these issues in thoughtful and culturally appropriate ways.

At the end of the fellowship, Darden will share these insights as a facilitator at two proposed community gatherings co-hosted by the NNHRC. His long-term goal is to develop a curriculum to distribute at tribal high schools and colleges on the Navajo Reservation so tribal youth can pass on this traditional end-of-life knowledge to their families and other Diné citizens.

Sharing practices about the Diné cycle of life and death with Navajo youth and young adults is important because many contemporary Diné people view death as taboo. “It wasn’t always that way,” he says. “We want to help our people return to those respectful, traditional end-of-life processes.”

Darden hopes his work will spark change across the Navajo Reservation. He firmly believes that it is time for Navajo citizens to take control of how they care for their loved ones’ remains when life ends.

Darden heads to Colorado with a friend for a fellowship interview.

Words of gratitude

Darden says he is extremely grateful to First Nations and Luce for bringing together this cohort of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers. He says it would have been very difficult to find the time or funds to conduct these interviews or share this knowledge with his community if it weren’t for the fellowship.

Darden especially appreciates the opportunity to come together with other Luce fellows to discuss their work. “I met other Indigenous people who shared how they honor their traditional funerary and burial practices. I didn’t ask them. It just came out during our discussions.”

Darden also learned how other tribes helped to enact policy changes in their legislature to honor their relatives. He would like to share these findings with tribal leadership to enact similar policy changes on the Navajo Reservation.

“These fellowship meetings have been uplifting,” says Darden. “They have helped us grow professionally.” He says he will use the tools and resources he acquired over the past year to meet with tribal leaders and continue to share this important cultural knowledge with the rest of the Navajo Nation.