Navajo students visit ISU

May 31, 2011

The dark-haired eighth grade boy sat facing a circle of Indiana State University students, speaking of his town on the mesa in northern Arizona with its one gas station and mini-mall of three stores. Shopping for anything more than the basics is two hours away. A major city lies five hours away.

"We have land," he said.

Twelve Navajo students from that land in the Piñon Unified School District spent a week exploring Indiana State and Terre Haute as part of an on-going cultural exchange. That exchange began with Kristin Monts, a 2009 ISU graduate, who student taught at Many Farms on the Navajo Reservation.

"I fell in love with the culture and the area and the students and everything that it had to offer," she said.

She remained on the reservation and has taught at Piñon for the past two years. During the summer of 2010, ISU Honors students along with ISU President Dan Bradley, First Lady Cheri Bradley, Linda Maule, general education program director, and Greg Bierly, Honors program director, visited Monts, a former Honors students, and her students.

That visit provided the spark for bringing the Navajo students to ISU, according to Bierly, who also is an associate professor of earth and environmental systems.

"By far, in an otherwise fairly exciting trip, this was a really transformative experience," he said of the ISU students' time spent on the reservation. "I think just the cultural exposure and the ability to interact and sort of sample the circumstances and the different perspectives of these students was really a rich experience for our students. When you think of experiential learning, this is the highest caliber. When I think of it, just being in an environment and interacting with a group of younger students teaches much, much more than you could get from a course or a seminar."

Monts and Bierly hoped that the transformation would also work by bringing the Navajo junior high students to ISU. ISU's Honors students planned the Navajo students' schedule and travel logistics. For some of the Navajo students, the trip took them off the reservation for the first time.

"It's important for my students to get exposure to opportunities off of the reservation, especially when it comes to higher education," Monts said. "Being able to leave, meeting new people and seeing what's out there in the world definitely, definitely opens up their eyes to the possibilities and their futures."

It also showed them a different landscape than the red earth mesa of home.

"It is really amazing because I never see anything like this where I come from," said Shevon Badoni, an eighth grade student. "Here, there's a bunch of trees and it's all green."

"Piñon is like brown, nothing but dust. And when it gets dusty and when it gets too windy, the dust starts blowing. It starts to hurt," Antonio Yazzie, a Piñon eighth grader said. "But over here, it's nice. The weather's calm. It's not too rainy. And it's just green."

To come on the trip, students had to have a 3.0 grade point average, take pride in the Navajo culture and have limited opportunities to leave the reservation and pursue higher education.

"I wanted to come on this trip because I've never really been anywhere," said eighth grader Diandre Francis. "I realized if I'm stuck on the reservation that I can't escape. This trip really makes me think that I can go places."

On the trip, the students attended four classes at ISU: a math class; a videography class; a literature class, in which they discussed "The Giver" that they read in Piñon; and a science lab, where they ran EKGs and tested blood pressure. They shadowed their pen pals at North and South Vigo high schools. They visited the Terre Haute Children's Museum, Clabber Girl and CANDLES Museum.

But they also passed along information about their culture, sharing their lifestyles with the college students.

"I hope that they learn that we're not just another people out there," Francis said. "We are proud. We're survivalists. We're not just here, we're going to make a voice. We're going to be heard."

ISU students, faculty and Terre Haute community members gathered to listen to the Navajo students during a special seminar the students gave on Navajo culture.

"I hope, and we hope, that they know our culture, the way we live, and we've taught them enough for them to know what we experience," said Dante Corum, eighth grader.

Yazzie spoke about the Navajo way of life, including the circle of life with the four sacred mountains around Piñon.

"We're in the middle so we're telling them how it protects us, how the holy ones guard us and how the medicine man helps us," he said.

Francis gave a presentation on "A Navajo Boy," which comments on a boy living on the reservation and his interactions with an Anglo teacher.

"They all have their hopes and culture on their side," he said. "But when they both meet, they clash. One has high hopes for him and the other is like, ‘How can I do this?'"

By standing up and speaking in front of the crowd, Monts said the students departed from tradition.

"In Navajo culture, they're taught not to speak out. They're taught that they are all one and it's one voice in a group," she said, adding the students are not used to speaking in public. "This is a huge, life-changing experience for them."

Students agreed that the trip provided new experiences for them.

"I'm going to tell them that it's amazing and that we should all try something new every once in a while," Badoni said.

"When I get back on the reservation, I'm going to tell people about the nice, caring people of Indiana and how they've changed my life," Francis said. "And I hope that one day I'll come and go to school here."

Photos:
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Students from Piñon Unified School District in Arizona experience the Terre Haute Children's Museum during a visit to Indiana State University and Terre Haute. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking

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Linda Maule, Dante Corum and Kristin Monts discuss "The Giver" during a combined class of ISU Honors students and Piñon students. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking

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Ashley Mahkewa from Piñon performs a jingle dance a seminar led by the Navajo students. ISU Photo/Holley Myers

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or Jennifer.Sicking@indstate.edu