Culture Orientation Day introduces new PUSD teachers to Navajo way of life

Part of the Navajo Cultural Orientation experience is butchering, preparing and cooking a sheep.

Page Unified School District held its annual Navajo Culture Orientation Day for new teachers on Aug. 1. The purpose for the event is to teach incoming teachers about the Navajo way of life, traditions and culture so they’ll be better prepared to make connections with their Navajo students and colleagues.

The event is also open to returning teachers and other staff. About 40 teachers, admins and staff attended.

PUSD’s student population, grades K-12, ranges from 78-82% Navajo. Many of them still live on the reservation and practice the traditional ways. Three of the district’s school board members and numerous teachers and staff are also Navajo. 

“I believe our teachers need to understand where our students are coming from as far as their home life and way of living,” said PUSD Board President Des Fowler, who attended the Culture Orientation Day.

There are still many parts of the reservation that don’t have electricity or running water, and sometimes that creates a misconception that those families live an impoverished life, said Fowler. But it’s actually the opposite.

“To many Navajo families, it’s still very important to have a connection to the old ways and to the land,” said Fowler. “A lot of things about that life are hard. You have to haul water, chop wood, take care of your livestock, but that’s how we stay connected to our culture, our land and our indigenous knowledge, and our identity.”

Fowler lives on the reservation near Coppermine. She just got running water three years ago.

“It has certainly made our lives easier, but I have noticed that before, when we had to haul water to our property, that we were a lot more conscientious of how we used every cup of water,” she said.

This year, the event was held on the Navajo Reservation on the property of the Patrick Scott family, about 15 miles south of Kaibeto. The Scott family have been living on that plot of land for many generations. The property is now used as a ceremonial ground for Navajo families living in the Kaibeto and Bitter Springs area. The grounds contain a hogan and a building for gathering. And lots of wide-open range. 

Mr. Scott spoke to those in attendance about the intimacy that can develop between the land and the humans who care for it. 

“The connection between the humans and the land forms an ongoing circle and cycle,” he said.

“The land will grow everything we need. The food we eat, the herbs we need to stay healthy. Think about it. The sheep eat the herbs that grow here, and when we eat the sheep, those healthy herbs pass into us and keep us healthy through the winter. You can take the sheep fat and spread it on your wrists and elbows, and the healing herbs that are in the sheep now absorb into you, it lubricates your joints.

“And think about how it works with corn, too,” Scott said. “During the planting season, we plant the corn, carry water to the corn and nurture it. Then we gather it, and it nurtures us through the winter. It’s an ongoing cycle that has occurred here generation after generation. We take care of the land, and the land takes care of us. When you get really close to the land, it will begin to show you things that will occur in the future. Sometimes they come in dreams, sometimes through intuition. It might sound strange to others, but when I have thoughts that come from the land, I have learned to listen to it.”

That deep, intimate connection with the land is why Navajo families wish to raise their kids in the traditional ways, said Scott. 

“The other way is easier, but the traditional way is deeper,” he said.

This year’s Culture Orientation Day was organized by Carlos Begay, PUSD’s director of Indian education. The day included demonstrations on butchering, preparing and cooking a sheep, as well as other traditional Navajo food, including fry bread, blue corn mush and mutton stew. The teachers were invited to help. At noon, the food was served for lunch, along with corn on the cob, melons and zucchini.

The day also included demonstrations on how to create traditional Navajo jewelry, baskets, blankets and other crafts. Two Page High School students, who grew up on the reservation without running water or electricity, talked about the challenges and the rewards that came from living in the traditional Navajo way. Begay presented a discussion about the history of the ancestral Navajo land, the history of Navajo hogans, the value and care of livestock, and other traditional indigenous teaching.

One of this year’s new teachers who attended Culture Orientation Day was Revington Babu, a J1 teacher from India who will teach science at the middle school this year.

“It was fantastic,” he said, about Culture Orientation Day.

“It was great and very beneficial to learn about my students’ background. Before teaching the student, you must know the student.  And I have been really taken by the positivity of the Navajo students’ lives and their life experiences.

“The life lessons the kids shared today, from growing up on the reservation, really impressed me. You can’t teach those lessons in the classroom. They can only come from living that life.”

At this year’s Culture Orientation Day, the visitors were also given the option to camp on the Patrick Scott property overnight, and several employees took advantage of the offer. Those who did were treated to a presentation from Begay, who taught them traditional Navajo constellation names and stories while sitting around a campfire of cedar logs and hearing the pitter-pat of rain on their roofs that night.

Among the overnight campers was Barbara Shields, PUSD’s executive assistant.

“I loved it,” said Shields.

“I loved that it was far away from society. And it was so quiet. I loved sitting around the campfire looking at the stars, and I loved watching the sun rise this morning.”

School Superintendent Bryce Anderson also spent the night and joined the orientation and lectures the next day.

“First of all, I wish to extend our gratitude to the Patrick Scott family for very generously opening their land to us, and being such gracious hosts,” Anderson said.

“It was a wonderful event to allow our new and existing staff an opportunity to better understand a large segment of the community we serve. The staffs of our Indian Education Office, Student Support Services and Transportation Department put an extraordinary amount of planning and work into making it a great success. The ultimate recipient of the work that was accomplished will be our students and their families.”

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