FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Sonya Thompson’s busy life is a reflection of the Diné philosophy of sa’ah naaghaii bik’eh hozhoon — to live in a beautiful, harmonious and balanced way.
By day, she’s a professional working as assistant director of the Twin Arrows Navajo Resort and Casino Food and Beverage Department. In the evening, she’s a Northern Arizona University Hotel and Restaurant Management student completing final classes toward her degree. And on countless weekends, she is at home in the traditional Navajo world she grew up in on her family’s farm deep within Canyon de Chelly.
“I love my job and I love my family,” Thompson said. “It’s extremely important that I’m close to home. Our farm still functions during the summer. My mom does two harvests.”
Her summers were spent herding sheep and tending the family cornfield and garden among the downy cottonwoods, coyote willow, tamarisk and Russian olive trees of Canyon del Muerto, the northern arm of Canyon de Chelly. In winter, her mother and siblings still drive their sheep up the cross-bedded slickrock sandstone of the Bare Trail to their winter camp on the canyon rim near Tsaile.
Thompson said her family has lived within the canyon walls for many generations. Navajos have thrived in this canyon home since the mid-1700s. The earliest Native people moved here where the streams flow and the land is fertile to grow crops at least 2,000 years ago. Sonya’s clans are Kinyaa’áani (Towering house clan), To’ ahedlini (Water flows together clan), Nakkai (Mexican clan) and Honágháahnii (One that walks around clan).
Thompson said she cherishes the opportunity to have a job in her chosen field that’s close to home and within her Native homeland, to be able to work alongside other Navajos, and to serve her Navajo people and the Navajo Nation all at the same time.
“It’s how we were brought up, together, helping each other out,” she said. “It’s families. It’s home to me. It’s a part of me.”
Over the past 10 years, Navajo Gaming and its four properties across the Navajo Nation have served as a cultural anchor to allow some 1,400 Navajos to remain home for employment and, in turn, perpetuate their Navajo language, culture and way of life. Sa’ah naaghai bik’eh hozhoon describes the relationship Navajos have with the natural environment, the four cardinal directions, their family and clan relatives, livestock and all animals.
It’s four aspects taught to young Navajos by their grandparents comprise thinking, planning, doing/living and reflection upon the wisdom gained from their experience, skills, knowledge and understanding. It embodies having a plan for one’s life and implementing it with skill, grace and determination, as Thompson has done. Everyone who knows her describes her with remarkably similar superlatives: exuberant, enthusiastic, a natural leader, spirited, boundlessly energetic, fun and happy.
“I love working with Sonya,” said Twin Arrow’s Food and Beverage Director John Barth. “Sonya’s one of those positive, fun people who always smiles, always asks questions, doesn’t have an ego, which is great for our industry.”
Together, Barth and Thompson manage 186 employees in Twin Arrow’s six restaurants, catering service and 10,000 square foot banquet area. While he’s known her for about 10 years, he hired her as his food and beverage supervisor in 2015 and watched her grow in that job.
“Eventually she worked her way up to my assistant,” Barth said. “She’s just a pleasure to be around. When it’s time to get business done, she takes care of it. She’s awesome. We’re grateful to have her. We have nothing but great things to say about her.”
Northern Edge Casino General Manager Cliff Ehrlich agreed. When his casino needed to hire a new food and beverage director, Sonya traveled across Navajoland to Upper Fruitland, New Mexico, to step in until the position was filled.
“She came over here and basically ran the department,” Ehrlich said. “She took control of the entire organization.”
Ehrlich said he admires Thompson as someone working her full-time job while taking advantage of the NNGE Educational Reimbursement Program that helps pay for her college education. The policy provides employees with both college and professional development opportunities to increase their skills, prepare them for promotion, and enhance their contributions to Navajo Gaming.
It pays for tuition, courses, training, membership fees to professional organizations, registration fees for meetings, conferences, workshops and seminars, fees, subscriptions for professional journals, books and computer-based resources.
“That says a lot about her ambition,” Ehrlich said. “She’s not only good for the other employees to see and aspire to but the fact that she’s going to school, too, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. She understood the needs of the casino. She was good for us. Now there’s going to always be a bond between her and Northern Edge.”
Not only has Thompson thrived on the job, her professors say she is the kind of student they love to have and will never forget.
“She’s got it all!” said Dr. Frances Hill, associate professor of Leadership and Ethics at the NAU School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. “She has heart. She has knowledge. She has passion. She has presence.”
Hill recalled that Sonya once texted her to say she would have to turn in that week’s assignment late. She and her colleagues were returning from a work trip to Phoenix when an object crashed through the windshield and injured some in the van. Sonya was one of those who helped take care of people, arrange for hotel rooms and contact family members about the accident.
“They had to take care of this terrible emergency,” Hill said. “So I wrote back to her to say, ‘You have completed this week’s assignment, dear. You demonstrated leadership with everything you did in taking care of your team.”
One of the highest qualities Sonya displays as a leader is humility, Hill said.
“She just goes about being a fantastic human being and encourages that in all the people who are around her,” Hill said. “It’s so Sonya. She’s one of those students that the faculty talks about. She’s one of the ones everybody knows and everybody admires.”
For her final exam, Dr. Hill said “Sonya earned an A+++.”
“Every single assignment was over the top with excellence,” Hill said. “I made a note about her having grace under pressure which I think is another leadership quality.”
Information provided by the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise