New teachers receive Navajo cultural orientation

From left to right, Gerrald Begay, Teresa Osborne, and Robert Harrison exploring a slot canyon as part of their Diné cultural education.

By Steven Law
Special to the Chronicle

Twenty-four newly hired teachers, and two newly-hired counselors, two weeks ago spent a day learning about Navajo culture and traditions as part of their new teacher orientation. About 78 percent of Page Unified School District’s student population is Navajo, and they come from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, home situations and lifestyles.

“It’s something we do to teach our new teachers where their Navajo students are coming from,” said PUSD Human Resources Director Terry Maurer.

A large number of PUSD’s students come from Navajo families who choose to live a very traditional lifestyle, and because of that they may live in an isolated place deep on the Navajo Nation. Some have no running water or electricity. Many walk a long distance to meet the bus and then ride the bus an hour or around 90 minutes to get to school. Then repeat the process in reverse at the end of the day.

PUSD Schoolboard President Des Fowler grew up on the Nation and attended school in Page. She remembers walking a mile and a half each way to get to the bus stop. She understands why many Navajo families choose to live a traditional Navajo lifestyle, even though it adds extra challenges to their everyday lives.

“To some of our new teachers it might seem strange that someone would purposely choose to live so far out on the reservation, many of them without running water or electricity, but once you understand where they’re coming from, it’s not strange at all,” Fowler said.

“A lot of our people who choose to live far out in the reservation still take care of sheep or livestock,” said Fowler. “They often still haul their water and gather wood. They have to get up early to tend to it, they have to work hard, but they do it because they’re proud of their roots, their culture and their family traditions. It’s what they grew up doing and they want to pass on the old ways to their own kids.

“It’s one thing to learn about respect for nature and for their heritage, but it takes on a much deeper meaning and importance if you actually live it.”

The cultural day’s events began with the new teachers taking a school bus out to the Nation where they explored Ligai Si Anii Canyon with Antelope Valley Tours, after which they ate a lunch of Navajo Tacos. After lunch they gathered in a Hogan on the Ligai Si Anii property and heard from four Page High School students who belong to the UNITY Club, which fosters the spiritual, mental, physical and social development of Native Americans.

After lunch the new teachers traveled to Navajo Village where they saw some Navajo Hoop Dancers perform, learned about traditional Navajo building methods, some medicinal and utilitarian plants. The day finished with the group gathered in a Hogan, where they heard from Navajo elder Wally Brown, who told them more about Navajo ways.

The four UNITY students shared with the new teachers personal examples of the challenges, and the rewards, that come with living on the Nation.

 Catherine Rasmussen, who teaches Kindergarten at Lake View Elementary, said it was very beneficial. Rasmussen came to Page from North Carolina and her brief time here has been her first meetings and interactions with Navajos.

 “I really enjoyed it, and I learned a lot,” she said. “Part of the training included Navajo taboos, and what interactions are acceptable and what aren’t. I have a better appreciation for their culture, traditions and family life. I think it will help me be a better teacher.”