From the Bluegrass to The Navajo Nation

I remember a frying pan encrusted with the remnants of beans and pork fat, empty two-liter bottles, and cautious stares as I worked on construction projects with my church youth group from Concord, NH. I remember piles of empty whiskey bottles, outhouses, and feeling like an outsider. And I remember the leaning, rusty trailer where 18 Ogalla Sioux somehow managed to live–right here in the United States–on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Traveling and experiencing another culture, seeing how others fare day-to-day in conditions far worse than my own in the peaceful small city of Concord impacted me greatly. While students can receive a great education within the confines of classroom walls, nothing is more impactful than being in a foreign place, interacting with another culture, and learning by direct experience through the five senses.    

I’m fortunate to have just traveled with seven adults, including four teachers, our principal, a local chef, and a media producer to the Navajo Nation in Arizona. We brought eleven students from Fern Creek Traditional High School–four of whom had never boarded a plane.  

Group picture at Window Rock, AZ, headquarters of the Navajo Nation Government.
Group picture at Window Rock, AZ, headquarters of the Navajo Nation Government.

When one student from our Fern Creek delegation counted 15 restaurants he could walk to from our school, the Navajo students could hardly believe it. Roughly the size of West Virginia, the Navajo Nation is a vast area, sparsely populated, with few private businesses. Commutes of sixty or more miles are common to reach the nearest grocery store or school. Traveling for necessities and services isn’t the only way in which the Navajo people are isolated–the digital world surges ahead while many on reservation are left to fend for themselves to simply gain cell phone reception or internet service. As we traveled by tour bus on some of the 2,000 miles of paved roads (West Virginia has 18,000 miles), I was continually struck by homes and trailers dotting the horizon, seemingly miles from the nearest neighbor.  

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For four days, we toured, met, and conferenced with Navajo leaders, teachers, and students. A Navajo delegation will be visiting us in Louisville in late April to continue a cultural and educational exchange. It’s still all sinking in, and I’m having a tough time coming up with the words to encapsulate the power of the trip. I’ll try to let some images do the talking.

Some of us participated in The Shoe Game, a traditional Navajo game that combines storytelling, singing, and gambling.  It's only played during the winter.  For more information:http://seethesouthwest.com/3312/the-navajo-shoe-game/
Some of us participated in The Shoe Game, a traditional Navajo game that combines storytelling, singing, and gambling. It’s only played during the winter. For more information:
http://seethesouthwest.com/3312/the-navajo-shoe-game/
Conference activities centered around ideas relating to food literacy--critical thinking and discussions about what we consume.
Conference activities centered around ideas relating to food literacy–critical thinking and discussions about what we consume.
Students discovered they had much in common.
Students discovered they had much in common.
Vice President Rex Lee Jim prepares to lead a traditional corn pollen ceremony in a hogan.
Vice President Rex Lee Jim prepares to lead a traditional corn pollen ceremony in a hogan.

I’ll share some student-created digital stories about the trip in a few weeks. In the meanwhile, I wonder about your experiences traveling. Have you ever been in a place that made you pause, consider walking in another man’s shoes, so to speak?  What has been your most powerful travel experience? Were you able to get out of your comfort zone as a student and immerse yourself in a new place? What did you gain?

12 thoughts on “From the Bluegrass to The Navajo Nation

  1. Years ago I had a fellowship and traveled in Italy. Since I didn’t speak a word of Italian it was quite an experience. I managed to get by for a few days until I caught up with a former student who spoke fluent Italian. Those were interesting days and I learned that people are much the same the world over (as far as I could see) and I also learned a bit about feeling very much alone.

    • Hugh,
      I also learned a lot about feeling alone during my own study abroad experience during college. Despite being in Scotland, where I understood 95% of what was being said, I was out of my comfort zone. I wouldn’t change the experience one bit.

  2. I went to a little town in Guatemala which had a minimal police force, theft every night, and dangerous roads. And the children were scared of NOTHING. Nothing at all! This was just life to them. We, in our safety, fear our own shadows. Makes you think.

    • I’ve had similar experiences in Central America, as life continues just fine in many places without our obsessive modern concern with hygiene or constant digital communication. I felt perfectly safe especially in Nicaragua, but Guatemala had me slightly on edge a few times.
      Your comment about fearing our own shadows is spot-on.

  3. We took a family trip to Ireland when my boys were in their mid-teens. While we do have a shared language, many signs are in Gaelic, they drive on the other side of the road, have round-abouts, and many subtle cultural differences. I let each of my boys go out into Dublin and Galway for an afternoon on their own. They still talk about how eye-opening it was to gain new cultural experience.
    I look forward to reading more about your experience.

  4. Deet, crazy to see you in front of Window Rock. I rotated at the hospital in Fort Defiance, just up the road. I worked with a couple of great Native docs who had a passion for taking care of their people. They also showed me some good hiking spots. The clash of desolation and beauty struck me to the core. Glad you had good experience. BY

    • BY, I think we drove by the hospital, by far the most modern and shiniest building I saw out there. We also were able to meet with politicians and other Navajo educators who had a similar passion for taking care of the people, in addition to trying to revitalize the traditional culture and language.

  5. Thank you, Beth, for giving us such a powerful digital story. What could be more important than youth from such vastly different cultures and contexts working together to share and learn? The synergy between words and images is stunning. I can’t wait to hear more from you and your classmates and from the Navajo delegation when they visit Fern Creek. When this project is done, you all should put a book together so you can share your remarkable experiences. You’ve taken “experiential learning” to a whole other level.

  6. Pingback: Classrooms Without Borders | Mindful Stew

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