Navajo students, teachers share stories of self

VOICES curriculum improves behavior at school and at home

by S.J. Wilson
Ft. Wingate, New Mexico (The Observer)

Students and teachers got to know a whole lot more about each other – and themselves – thanks to a celebration of the completion of lessons in identity awareness. The event showcased work done through the VOICES Programs curriculum in place at Wingate Elementary. Much of what was shared during this fall included what it means to be a Navajo, but other aspects and interests that define an individual were also included.

For seventh grader Chelsea Ortega, her Hispanic ancestry also defines who she is – as well as her family, including a “naughty” little brother and an aunt often mistaken for her sister.

“I am trying to learn Navajo,” Ortega said. “My Navajo grandparents read to me in Navajo.” Kindergartener Emily Woody described herself through a series of drawings. Her teacher, Koreen Begay, helped little ones explore the question of identity through an exercise called Honey, Peanut Butter and Cocoa.

“We are all alike,” Begay said, meaning that in describing a Navajo person, one usually hears the same thing – black hair, brown eyes and skin.

“My students observed one another, looked at themselves in the mirror, and compared their skin, hair and eyes with honey, peanut butter and cocoa.”

Woody charmed the audience, speaking in her tiny voice.

“My hair is cocoa, my eye is honey. My skin is peanut butter,” Woody carefully enunciated.

Teacher Jamie Begay shared a discussion with student Ethan Sherman about his drawing – featuring Ethan and his grandparents carrying in wood.

“When I asked Ethan where he and his grandparents got the wood, Ethan said, ‘Duh, teacher, we don’t get wood at Wal-Mart.’ He explained that his grandfather chops the wood, his grandmother cooks with the wood,” Begay said. “As children you don’t realize that the best memories you will have is of time spent with your grandparents. I am glad that on the Navajo Nation we have the time for these experiences.”

First grader Galveston Nelson talked about helping to butcher a cow, and wants to be a policeman.

Second grader Erin Lewis admitted that she liked her family, and that she is glad to be herself.

“I have four sisters and two brothers,” Lewis said. “I like my dad. He helps me with my homework. I like my family.”

Daniel Belone spoke of having “Navajo pride” in his family who make and sell jewelry.

Fourth grader Nizhoni Alice Young approached the microphone dressed in traditional dress.

“I am named Alice for my grandmother,” Young said. “My grandfather is old but strong. My father taught me that horses are part of our culture, and are sacred.”

Young also spoke about the womanhood ceremony, Kinaalda.

Liseanne Yazzie spoke about the traditions of her Oglala ancestry, as well as her father’s position in the Native American Church.

“My father is Road Man. A Road Man is the leader of his family. My Lakota Tribe is separated into bands – they are horse people. When I am older I will learn about the sweat lodge from my mother,” Yazzie said.

“What makes me Navajo is what I do with my family,” Michael Clark, a sixth grader, explained.

About Respect
A young woman named Shelby reminded her school mates – especially those older students – about respect.

“Act the best way you can around medicine men. Do your best at all times. When you are in traditional dress, don’t run around, especially if you are a young woman,” Shelby said.

“Be wise, polite and respectful – so behave yourself!”

Chelsea Ortega said that she was just herself, and that she liked to be alone.

“I’m a girl who likes to dress like a boy – that’s just me.”

Teachers were asked to prepare their own presentations on who they are on very short notice, and many were surprised at the emotions felt in completing their task.

“If anyone wants to know what it means to be a Navajo, they can come out and spend two days with me,” Lorraine Kahn said.

She described herself as all-Navajo because she has four clans, but said that through family stories she believes there is Mexican blood in her background – as well as a White Mountain Apache woman who was adopted into the tribe as a child. She later married Kahn’s grandfather.

“Sometimes we have no choice in our background,” Kahn told her students.

Not Fluent
Explaining that she did not speak fluent Navajo as a child, Kahn remembered asking her great grandmother about her experiences at Hweeldi – also known as Ft. Sumner. Hweeldi was basically a concentration camp where Navajo from across their territory were imprisoned, ending with the signing of the Navajo Treaty in 1868.

“I didn’t know why she turned away from me,” Kahn said. “At the time I thought it was because she was ashamed that I didn’t speak Navajo. But I later I realized that she turned away to hide her tears – she had memories of being marched and being so hurt for four years. She saw her mother and father killed, and her baby sister sold.”

These memories molded Kahn’s great-grandmother, leading her to have no trust in anyone non-Navajo, Kahn explained.

“She told us never to marry anyone non-Navajo,” Kahn said. “She told us to remember our clans and prayers, and to always have sheep. Our ancestors gave us the chance to continue our culture.”

Eleanor Duffy said that her mother defined who she became.

“I am proud to have a mother who guided me on how to be a woman and a teacher,” Duffy said. “I truly believe that our parents are our first teachers. I am proud to communicate in Navajo both verbally and in writing.”

Charles Henderson recounted memories of his grandparents and a simpler lifestyle. But he also remembers important historical events that continue to mold Navajo history today.

“I learned a lot of Navajo by listening to people talking,” Henderson said. “They talked about John Collier and stock reduction – he was one of those who thought Navajos would have a better life living the white way – but he never changed my grandfather.”

Charles Sherman, who teaches math and science, told students that he was named after his grandfather, Charlie.

“I am a husband, father and grandfather,” Sherman said. “I am a learner, which makes me a teacher. I am still on the journey, proud of who I am and what I will become. I am who I am today and tomorrow hopefully I will be a better person.”

Likes Mutton
He also confessed to liking mutton, the feel of fat on the roof of his mouth and lots of salt in his blue corn mush – washed down with diet soda or hot coffee.

Jenny Lee’s description of her education as a child was painful to listen to.

“I attended school at Ft. Wingate,” Lee said. “We were not allowed to speak Navajo. I don’t remember how I learned English, nor do I remember a single positive learning experience.”

Lee later became a dorm aide, and was grateful to see improvement, and as a teacher she worries about the Navajo language.

“We are slowly losing our Navajo language – and that is our uniqueness.”

The assembly marked the completion of the VOICES Literature curriculum’s Theme I: Identity Awareness. VOICES tells the stories of people of color and culture, and features high standards, leading with literacy and character education, while preventing violence and substance abuse.