Sitting outside Grimaldi’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn, New York, just east of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, Precious Benally examines a tattoo on her bicep. It’s of her sister, Princess.
She’s got 15 tattoos.
“I use them [like] stamps in a passport,” she said. “People will see where you’ve been. … They represent my culture, my beliefs, the important people in my life, general philosophies.”
Benally, a Navajo Nation citizen, graduated May 22 from Columbia University School of Law. She’s currently on the job hunt, but frets little that employers will misjudge her based on her tattoos.
“I just figure I’m a hard worker. I know my stuff, and if people don’t want to hire me because of the way I look, that’s on them,” she said. “They’re going to miss out on some top-notch lawyering.”
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Benally said that as a kid growing up on the Navajo Reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico she wanted to be a surgeon.
And it goes back to her grandfather, Lee, who was stricken with diabetes. Benally said he had one foot and multiple fingers amputated—all removed by non-Navajo doctors.
“A lot of Native folks have diabetes and they’re getting their limbs amputated by non-Native surgeons. … I just wondered what it was like, somebody who didn’t know that much English, to go to this doctor who looked nothing like [him], who really couldn’t understand where he was coming from, didn’t empathize, and to cut off all these vital parts, you know?”
Benally said she wanted to be the surgeon from Indian country who comforted suffering and frightened Natives slated for surgery.
“I wanted to be that friendly face, that familiar face, that came in, spoke to them in their Native language, reassured them that everything was fine and that this is what has to happen in order to save their life,” she said.
That dream changed for Benally when she realized the sacrifices that come with a career in medicine.
“In my mind success [is] having a happy and healthy family. I want to be able to raise my own kids, I want to be able to be home and see them grow and help raise them. Being a surgeon, you can’t do that,” she said.
Though we won’t see Benally in a white coat prepping for surgery, she said we will have the pleasure of witnessing her run for political office.
By 40, Benally said she will be on the campaign trail with her sight set on the Navajo presidency.
In the meantime, she’s working toward learning more about business—grocers, specifically.
“I’d like to bring a legitimate railroad through [the Navajo reservation] to bring in fresh produce,” she said.
One of Benally’s objectives is to establish an “amazing grocery store” like Whole Foods on her reservation, including other reservations located in the Southwest where the soil lacks fertility.
“I really want to hit up the Fairway [grocer] guy [in New York City] and ask him, ‘How did you do that? Do you want to start up a partnership?’ … Think of all the jobs that’ll bring!”
In the meantime, Benally continues to study for the bar exam and weigh her professional options.
“At this point, I’m fully not picky. I was picky, and then now I guess I [just] want a job,” she said. “Plus, I have this travel bug in me. I guess being a Navajo I’m just naturally a nomad, so I want to travel; I want to see new places and I want to see a lot more of Indian country.”
What advice does she have for budding Native American law students?
“Don’t go to law school; go to business school,” she said. “[There are] too many lawyers; the market’s saturated. And there’s not enough Native business people.”
Whether interested in law or business school, Benally said you’ll go farther with a smile and friendly disposition.
“People aren’t as nice as they used to be,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many nice things that have happened to me just because I was nice—simply because I talked to people.”
Benally hopes to encourage amicability in Indian country, especially in today’s youth.
“I feel like a lot of Native people, at least from where I’m from … everybody’s too shy or there are some very rude kids. I feel like [that] whole being nice movement—I’m trying to bring it back in whatever way I can. Just be nice. Be nice to the person next to you. They may look differently, they may talk differently, they may not know the kind of things you know, but they are a person with their own little story. You’d never know if you didn’t talk to them, so just be nice. It’ll bring you lots of good things.”