Scholarly Research on Navajo People (Guest Post #9)

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This is the Ninth in a series of Guest Posts written by Jianping (Corey) Yang. You can read an introduction to these posts HERE.

Having collected several dozen  scholarly articles on Navajo people, I am trying to find what the focuses of these studies are. The following categorization certainly cannot capture all the themes. However, it gives a general idea what social science studies are concerned with relating to the Navajo people. These focuses are education, health, identity, adolescence, and way of thinking.

The cultural aspect is emphasized in the studies on education. Studies on education involve not only students but also the superintendent and school administrators. Examples of these studies are the effects of bilingual education, superintendent turnover, and the cultural impact on school administrators’ career, etc. Although these studies were not conducted in New Mexico alone, they certainly provide insights into the education and administration of Lybrook Elementary/Middle School. Health is another major theme, which deals with obesity, drinking, mental health, and so on. Other articles look at Navajo adolescence focusing on cultural identity, pregnancy, etc.; and Navajo way of thinking, such as in terms of wellness.

These studies involve both urban and rural areas. They particularly emphasize the influence of Navajo culture on people’s lives. Jill, Randy and I already talked a lot about these topics which also apply to the area where we live. I believe they are valuable in providing insights into the transformation of Navajo community in this area.

Musings at the NM State Fair

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A few weeks ago I had the privilege of being a chaperone as students from the local school had a field-trip to the NM State Fair. I was responsible for 2 students (plus my daughter) and their 5th grade teacher joined us for the day as well.

“My” girls meet Smokey the Bear

We wandered the fairgrounds and enjoyed the usual things: shows, animals, art displays and 4H projects. The kids picked up lots of freebies and handouts from the Department of Natural Resources, and the various branches of the Armed Services, and Science groups, and Libraries, and more. (You can see photos from the day HERE.)

I enjoyed spending time with the girls. It was interesting to see what they found intriguing and what things bored them. It was fun to share my love of “agua de sandia” (watermelon water—a favorite drink from time in Mexico) with them. I was pleased to see that the tacky wares in the vendor booths were no temptation (at least to “my” girls—not talking about many of the other kids who returned to the buses as the end of the day with amazing money-wasters!)

Behind the up-front, oh-so-typical story of kids going to the fair is another story. It’s a story that I’ve been pondering. Let me share a few pieces with you…

I tutor one of these girls—let’s call her Dee. Many days she is sullen and withdrawn. It can be hard to engage her in what we are working on. At one point, she and I had an in-your-face argument. You don’t need to know the details…it is enough to say that I wrote an apology and an affirmation of the value and worth I see in Dee. I assumed our relationship, which was tenuous to start with, was irrevocably broken. The principal herself wondered if it would be more effective for someone else to work with Dee. I chose to stick with it for a little longer to see what might happen.

Imagine my surprise, then, during a tutoring session the day before the fair trip, when Dee asked me if she could be in my group. WOW! But I knew she was bringing money for a ride band…and I don’t believe spending the day on the midway is an appropriate use of a school funded trip to the fair. I gently explained that my group would NOT taking time for any rides, and suggested she would probably be happier in another group.

The next morning, I discovered that Dee was assigned to my group after all. I suggested that she might want to trade and be in someone else’s group…but she chose to stick with me. That made me both happy and worried that a no-rides-policy might yet again break relationship between us.

Our vote for “Best of Show” quilt

Once we got to the fair, Dee, Kay, and my daughter, were happy to follow my suggestions about which shows to see and which exhibits to visit. They asked to walk through the petting zoo—commenting that their grandmas had sheeps and goats, too. Dee asked once or twice about rides, but didn’t argue when I pointed out she was the only one in our group with money to pay for rides.

Eventually, Dee quietly asked if everyone could put their money together to share the cost of rides. That seemed totally unreasonable to me, since Dee had $25, my daughter had only $5, and Kay had no money to spend at the fair. However, Dee persisted. She quietly insisted that if the money was pooled together, she would be happy to share.

Sharing the rides…

I finally gave in, and the girls enjoyed a few rides together in the last 30 minutes before time to leave the fair to head home. Instead of a day full of unlimited rides, Dee had only 3 rides. But she was happy. After all, she had done the rides together with her friends. They had shared their money, and their fun.

I can’t get this picture out of my mind. In my Anglo world, it is only sharing if everyone is (somewhat) equal in what they contribute. Otherwise, it is either a gift or charity for one to pay for others. In my Anglo world, an expectation of “sharing” can become a burden, or can cause the giver to feel taken advantage of.

…sharing the fun!

But that wasn’t Dee’s world. She was happy: happy to spend far more than the others to pay for everyone to ride. As long as each person put everything they had “into the pot,” Dee felt that they had all shared the cost of the rides. It was a gentle, face-saving way for everyone to enjoy the special occasion.

It makes me wonder: we work hard to break the “dependency culture” out here. We see how the expectation of hand-outs from Anglos too often undermines the Navajo taking care of each other. But perhaps there is another way…a way to pool resources…a way for everyone to walk in mutual respect, taking joy in sharing with each other.

Pine Hill Church (Guest Post)

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This is the Eighth in a series of Guest Posts written by Jianping (Corey) Yang. You can read the introduction to these posts HERE.

(photo taken by Jianping Yang)

Having attended the Navajo-run Christian Church called Pine Hill several times, I noticed that the number of church goers fluctuates from a dozen to more than twenty. At the time when there were the most attendees, some of them were from outside New Mexico. One cannot conclude that the less frequently people go to Church, the less faithful they are. However, I suppose that if people go to Church regularly, they are probably devoted believers.

The church service is not different from that of any other church: music goes first, next the pastor preaches, and then donation and socialization follow. The difference is that the pastor occasionally uses Navajo language, although the primary language is English. The fact that Navajo language is used makes the church service unique and interesting. To me, the singing in Navajo at the beginning is attractive because belief is expressed in a different language. Someone even suggested I  learn to sing in Navajo, and I thought it would be interesting.

I talked to one family who frequently showed up. The husband told me that he was an artist before. He wasted a lot of money on alcohol. His sons would go to college later this year. When asked what motivated him to encourage his sons to go to college, he said he wouldn’t want his sons to repeat the mistakes he had made. I guess going to Church is a good lifestyle for him to follow.

At one time, food was provided. I asked a Navajo person what the typical Navajo food was. She said it would be the food with mutton. This reminded me of nomadic tribes that typically live on animal products. This characteristic of Navajo food apparently reflects the legacy of the Navajo nomadic tendencies.

Some studies argue that the church’s socialization function is more important than its spiritual one in contemporary American society. It is true that in addition to its spiritual function, Church is also an arena for people to maintain and expand social relations. It creates a space for people to communicate, socially and emotionally. However, I believe the extent the church functions spiritually or socially depends on the location and who the people are.

“Ethnic Heritage”

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I team teach reading two mornings per week at the local school. Mrs. M and I recently put together a variety of activities to celebrate the finish of a language arts unit on Immigration. We had two goals: help the students feel what it might have been like to be a new immigrant coming through Ellis Island in the 1800s, and learn about the ethnic heritage of the teachers and staff at the school.

For the first objective, Mrs. M and I spoke to the students only in Spanish–a language they do not understand. We marched them down the hall for a “medical exam.”

checking eyes and heart

When we returned to the classroom, each student had an interview (in Spanish) about their intentions.

“entrance interview”

When they managed to guess the correct answers, they eventually got some stamps in their “passports.

each student received a “passport”

…with “picture,” basic personal info, and eventual stamps for successful entry

As we went through this process, the students couldn’t decide whether to laugh and goof off, or whether to get angry that they couldn’t understand what we wanted them to do. Discussion helped clarify that this is often how new immigrants feel. Goal one: Successful!

Then we moved on to looking at the ethnic heritage of each teacher, staff member, and administrator at this little school. I had surveyed the adults ahead of time, gathering the information into a chart and writing it on cards to be put on a bar graph.

putting together the bar graph

It was fascinating to follow the progress of this activity and discussion time. It quickly became clear that these students fundamentally have no idea of world geography. They were baffled by the differences in names: Italian, Italy; Irish, Ireland; Swedish, Sweden; much less being unable to find the countries on a map.

We also had a long discussion about “Indian” versus “Native American.” Most of the students were quite offended that white people had decided they should be called “Native Americans.” All of them were adamant that they are “Dine” or “Navajo” or at least should be called “Indian.” They also did not want to include other tribal groups in their own grouping of “Indian.”

I assumed they could understand many different tribes making up “Native Americans” and many different nationalities making up “Anglo.” However, what the students came back to over and over and over was that they are Navajo and everyone else is “belagaana–other–not us.”

Ethnic Heritage of School Staff, Administrators, and Teachers

Seems to me this was a successful closing activity with lots to be learned…by ME, if not by the students!

Trip to Navajo Student Dorm and Bloomfield Highschool (Guest Post)

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This is the Seventh post in a series of Guest Posts written by Jianping (Corey) Yang. You can read the introduction to these posts HERE.

There are about 12 eighth graders graduating this June [2012]. The school organized a trip for them to visit a dorm for Navajo students and the Bloomfield High School, where they can choose to stay for their high school life. The dorm is located outside the town, and the students need to commute between dorm and school.

We visited the dorm first. Currently, there are about 100 residents in this dorm. The corridor walls are decorated with American Indian arts and slogans in both English and Navajo. For example, two slogans say, “do not be overly shy”, and “do not be easily hurt”. Residents share bunk-beds and communal bathrooms. Within the dorm building, there is a computer area, a laundry room and a dining hall. Outside the dorm building, there is a library built in the traditional stone and wood style. Overall, the facilities are nice, while the dorm rules are strict. For example, the dorm sets up bedtime and laundry time. Students are not allowed to enter other students’ rooms. I was thinking that living in a dorm for children can help them develop communication skills and live independently. On the other hand, living away from home can be hard for these children.

At Bloomfield High School, we visited the main building, the theatre and the sports center. Inside the main building, we had the opportunity to see students in different classrooms making art, doing chemistry experiments, etc. I noticed that some of the outstanding alumni of this school went to University of New Mexico. We were instructed on the topics regarding registration, attendance rules, graduation information, etc. One aspect about the courses that deserves mentioning is that students can earn college credits for free. The school provides some courses related to Navajo language and culture. The great majority of the students I observed, however, weren’t Navajo. I think this may cause adaptation difficulty for some of the Lybrook area students, as one of the concerns of they have is whether or not they will have Navajo peers in the school.

These eight graders have other options, such as the high school in the nearby town, Cuba. Whichever they choose, they will start a new chapter of their life. I wish them good luck in their high school years.

Anna’s Presence in Navajo Community (Guest Post)

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This is the Sixth in a series of Guest Posts written by Jianping (Corey) Yang. You can read an introduction to these posts HERE.

My opinion is that difference makes progress. I want to exemplify this view by talking about Anna’s presence in this Navajo community, which I think is beneficial to both the community and herself. First of all, the fact that Anna is enrolled as a student at the local Elementary School helps create the atmosphere of diversity. Anna is one of the few people in the school who are not Navajo. She certainly stands out among others, but I am sure Anna and the other children can learn a lot from each other through participating in classroom activities, hanging out when going to church, etc.

The other students will learn that an outsider is both similar to and different from them. Since Anna is an outsider she certainly brings something different to the school, such as the way of speaking and acting. This will open the mind of the students and provoke their curiosity. The fact that Anna is one of them can help the students understand that there may not be strict boundaries among people of different backgrounds. In the future, when they move to different locations, their experience of having an Anglo school friend will be helpful for their adaptation.

I wonder what Anna’s exposure to Navajo culture at such a young age means for her future. She has learned some of the Navajo language. Her pronunciation sounds very natural to me. We all know that children acquire a language more easily than adults. If she keeps learning, she will likely become fluent. A second language will definitely improve her cognition. More importantly, her experience with Navajo people shapes her interests. As she told me, she was interested in linguistics. Also, being among Navajo people who are good at arts, she probably has developed some ability in arts. Her drawings are simple, yet definitely artistic. Or will Anna choose a social science major related to American Indians for her career?

Don’t Miss the Bus!

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Yesterday the 4th-8th grade students at the local public school went on a special field trip. They got to see a play-version of The Hobbit in a live production at a theater in Albuquerque.

This trip was planned weeks in advance. Students were given permission slips to return, which clearly stated that parents needed to bring their children to the school one hour early on the appointed day. Most students promptly returned the required forms.

During this past week, students were reminded each day that they could not take the usual school bus; they needed to find someone to drive them to school so they would not miss the field trip. Everyone seemed to understand this requirement.

There were 6 students (out of 50 or so eligible for the trip) who never brought back a signed permission form. Perhaps they “forgot,” or they “lost” the form, or their parents never signed it. Most likely they made the decision that they didn’t want to go on the trip. After all, in most Navajo families the parents rarely say “no” to their children. If it was important to the child, the signed forms would have been turned in long before the trip occurred.

I was assigned to oversee these students who were being left behind. It was still a school day with attendance expected at either the theater or back at the school. When I got to school yesterday morning, I discovered that there were more students who had “missed the bus.” I was responsible for 15 students, rather than just 6 children.

A few of the girls were belligerent. They had returned the required permission forms weeks earlier. They were grumpy that they had been left behind. They rode the usual school bus to school and were shocked to find that the classes had not waited for them. I reminded them that they had been told (and told, and told) that they needed to find their own way to school to be there at least an hour earlier than usual. That didn’t seem to sink in. The girls remained grumpy throughout the day that the teachers had been so mean and left them behind.

As I looked around the room, I realized that 25% of the eligible students were sitting in that room with me. It was interesting to note that these were the same students who are significantly behind—both in grade level and in day-to-day assignments. These are the students who lack family support for education; the ones who seem to be least knowledgeable about cultural differences in time management and expectations between Anglo and Navajo worlds. These are the children of adults who walk through life as helpless (and hope-less) “victims.”

I realized yesterday that we are failing these children in more fundamental ways than merely their lack of a solid education foundation for adult life. They lack models who can show them how to “catch the bus.” They lack understanding of the expectations of the work world they hope to join someday.

STOP! How can we help these Navajo children not “miss the bus” in life?

Perhaps even more important than teaching these kids the 3 Rs, we need to help them gain skills for functional adulthood. We need to help them take responsibility for their own lives. We need to help them so they can change the patterns in their family culture so that THEY won’t “miss the bus” in their own lives!

 

(all photos from fotosearch stock images)

Anna’s Crying (Guest Post #5)

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This is the fifth in a series of Guest Posts shared by Jianping (Corey) Yang. You can read the introduction to these posts HERE.

I always wonder how life in rural New Mexico affects the growth of Anna, this ten-year-old girl. To me, at her age, life should be all about being carefree and joyful. From an adult’s angle, I think Anna is as innocent and happy as other ten-year-olds. However, I noticed her cries occasionally.

(Anna crying when she can’t keep a stray puppy…)

Kids may not always be as self-disciplined as much as parents expect, and Anna is no exception. Sometimes when Jill scolded her for not following her schedule or fulfilling her duty, I could hear Anna weeping. Her weeping came and went quickly. At her age, crying might be the only way for self-protection. It might also be a means for negotiating with her parents.

One time, I heard someone knocking my door. It was Anna. She wanted me to go with her – cycling, exploring, or things like that. I said I was busy with something, and I could be free in half an hour. I returned to my laptop, almost forgetting my ‘promise’. About half an hour later, my door was knocked hard again. Anna said in a semi-trembling voice that it had already been half an hour. I told her that I hadn’t completed my task and so couldn’t join her, so maybe next time. A little later, when I had resumed what was left over, I heard that Anna cried very loud at a distance. But she probably would not know that I heard about that. I felt somewhat guilty for not keeping my promise and I didn’t remember children tend to take things seriously. She needed someone to communicate with in this rural area where it is not very often to see people around. I let her down.

Once there was a fair in a nearby town, which was supposed to be fun for kids. When we arrived there, only empty booths and a few people were seen. We had no choice but to go back. I knew Anna had looked forward to it since she looked so excited before going. When Randy explained on the way back that we could do nothing, Anna burst into tears and said, “I was just wanting to see…” I know in this rural area, there are not many amenities and events that people can enjoy conveniently. I could tell that it was indeed disappointing.

I like Anna’s straightforward way of emotional expression. Her cries remind me that childhood is innocent but can be lonely. I keep asking this question for myself, “what are the gains and losses of growing up?” Tonight, I will make a cup of coffee for myself and contemplate this question.

Mule Deer — 1 Mission Truck — ?

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There are large herds of mule deer living in this remote corner of New Mexico. We used to see them frequently on the mission property, although since we have been “babysitting” some horses there is little grazing left which means far fewer deer sightings.

Why did the mule deer cross the road??!

I used to think that white-tail deer (in Ohio) were large. HA! They now look puny when compared to the hulking mule deer out here! Plus, there are elk roaming this area and they make the mule deer look puny.

Randy made a long drive up to Colorado a few weeks ago. He left before dawn to get to a meeting by late morning. Unfortunately, one of the many mule deer who wander this area of the state decided to cross the usually deserted road right when Randy was passing. (Fortunately it wasn’t an elk—those collisions often send the driver/passengers to the emergency room. And the big hulking black bull mangled on the side of the road a few nights ago didn’t look like it would have been “fun” to hit, either.)

OUCH! poor truck…poor deer…

Randy didn’t see what happened to the mule deer, although judging from the damage done to the front end of the truck, the deer most likely didn’t survive… Randy was surprised to find that the truck continued the trip with no problems. No fluids were leaking out of the radiator, although the rattley noises were loud enough that he tied the bumper and other parts together with some rope for the trip home.

rope…almost as good as duct tape or baling wire!

Unfortunately, driving the dirt roads to church a few days later apparently shook more things loose. The radiator sprung a leak and the truck had to be limped home. Randy was a bit shocked when he opened the hood and saw all the damaged parts. And when he got an estimate for parts and labor, the repairs come close to “totaling out” the car.

All I can say is, I’m SO glad it wasn’t our new 4wd that tangled with that deer!

(The mule deer photo and lots of additional information about mule deer can be found HERE)

Navajo Language and Bilingual Education (Guest Post)

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This is the 4th post in a series of weekly guest posts by Jianping (Corey) Yang. You can read his introduction about these posts HERE.

I have been trying to figure out the characteristics of the Navajo language whenever I get a chance to learn a piece of it. Two broad questions have motivated me to explore the Navajo language: first, since Navajo ancestors theoretically originated from Asia, what evidence, if any, can we find in their languages to prove their relationship?  Second, because language and culture are interrelated, what can we infer about the status quo of Navajo culture from the current language use of the Navajo? From the sources I read and my conversation with Navajo speakers, I know that Navajo is a complicated language. From my personal view, its rich consonants and vowels make it a beautiful language.

I have found some evidence showing that Navajo has some similarities with the Ural-Altaic language group, which includes Mongolian, Turkish and Japanese. One similarity is that the SOV (Subject Object Verb) sentence structure of Navajo is consistent with the Ural-Altaic language group. The other similarity is that affixes play an essential role in Navajo, as in the Ural-Altaic languages. When I talked to a Navajo language teacher about these similarities, she mentioned that once a Japanese person she knew found that Navajo shared some similarities with Japanese. I myself know some Turkic languages, and I also found the same similarities between Navajo and Turkic languages. So, can we therefore suggest that this similarity is a strong indicator that the Navajo people originated from Asia?

The Navajo language is taught at school. However, from my observation, I found that knowledge of the language is very basic even for seventh graders. The teacher told me that few of the students are fluent. Many different times when I asked the elementary students about some Navajo words, they indicated they didn’t know. Once I asked an eighth grader about a basic Navajo expression. Instead of answering directly as I expected, she asked her friends that were nearby, “who is fluent in Navajo?” Statistics also indicate the status quo of Navajo language use: Batchelder’s study (2000) shows that according to the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (1999), there are 148,530 speakers of Navajo in a Nation of 250,000 to 275,000 people (Haskan 2007). Because language and culture are interrelated, bilingualism is necessary for Navajo students. Without the language, the culture likely will not continue.

Reference: Haskan, Melanie Lee. 2007. How the No Child Left Behind Act Impacted Bilingual Education in a Rural School with Navajo Students. Ph.D Dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University.
Photo Credit: photos taken by Jianping Yang

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