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Teaching on the Rez: An Intercultural Journey Through Time and Space

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Robert A. Barraclough, Ed.D.

Diné College (2011 to 2020)

Flag of the Navajo Nation, used under public domain.

Somewhere between Gallup, New Mexico and Tsaile, Arizona, John went through a vortex/portal/gateway, a disturbance in the space-time continuum.  He emerged in an alternate universe, one which looked very much like the one he left, but it wasn’t.  That was the story he told for as long as I worked with him, and every time I have seen him since then.  I can’t argue with him about it.  It can be hard to pin down, but somehow life on the Rez just isn’t the same as off it.  Maybe Mulder and Scully will come back and find the answers.  Or perhaps everyone’s favorite Gallifreyan will help sort it out.  Or not.  Anyway, what follows is a partial discussion of my own nine strange and wonderful years teaching at Diné College (DC) on the Navajo Nation.

(Caveat:  This is offered as a reminiscence.  It is certainly not scholarship, not in the proper sense of that word.  It might not even be very scholarly.  Think of it as a, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” piece, except that the summer was the school year, and there were nine of them.)

My first introduction to the Navajo began in 1971 and lasted nearly two years.  I had little, but not no, contact with Navajo people for a few years afterward.  In time, I developed an interest in broad human communication issues, including and especially intercultural communication.  I then began a more serious study of Navajo culture, combined with a deeper reflection on my own previous experiences there.  I had an opportunity to become involved with a Native American Studies Committee at West Virginia University, which led to teaching and research activities, as well as meeting invited guests from various tribes/nations.  One of these was Peterson Zah, former President of the Navajo Nation, who invited me on one occasion to be on lookout for an

opportunity to do something to help “The People,” as the Navajo call themselves.

In 2011, friends alerted me to an opening at DC (formerly Navajo Community College).  This was my chance both to return to an area that still held a special place in my heart and to do that something to help “The People.”  So, some forty years after my first visit to the Navajo Reservation, I went back through that mystical portal, this time to be a teacher of Public Speaking.

My own experience did not always align with that of other non-Navajos who have been invited to teach at Diné College.  I had been there before.  I knew some places not on the maps.  I knew something of the culture, the life-ways.  I spoke Navajo, at least a little.  I was able to appreciate some of the inside jokes.  I already knew something of the disorientation my friend John would face as he tried to make sense of this new universe.  Still, I was not a local boy.  I was an outsider, a temporary guest.  And I was reminded of this fact almost daily.

One thing that I believe helped me was that, between my times in Navajo-land, I had made other cultural transitions.  One of these was spending three years teaching in Australia.  Before I moved there, a friend, who had just come from the institution to which I was going, tried to prepare me for the experience.  Among other things, he told me that, of course, they would be happy to have me there; after all they had offered me the job.  At the same time there would be just a bit of resentment that they had not found a qualified Aussie to fill the position.  This would be combined with a more generalized, subtle, but constant, anti-American bias.  Indeed, the taunts and barbs and digs were usually delivered with a smile, but they never let up.

I encountered this same set of mixed messages at DC.  After being hired and warmly welcomed, it can be disconcerting to be told you don’t really belong.  When broadside attacks are made against “Western” education, it is somewhat awkward to point out that Navajo leaders of an earlier generation made it quite clear that they wanted more of that very thing.  And after all, it was the Navajo leadership of the college who invited me there precisely to teach things the students would need to know if they were to do well in the world outside.

This highlights one of the ongoing tensions within Navajo education.  They have an intense desire to impart skills that will serve students in the job market.  They are also strongly committed to preserving Navajo language and culture.  I believe that these things are not fundamentally incompatible, but the balance is not always easy to find and maintain.  This is compounded by the fact that both are themselves moving targets.

When one is preparing to move into a new cultural milieu, it is wise to learn about it from one who has been there.  One challenge is that cultures are living things and they change constantly.  A person can get into trouble trying to function in a culture that no longer exists.  Indeed, I found that my prior knowledge needed some updating.  There had been changes in language usage, interpersonal distance, patterns of eye contact, and greeting rituals, among other things.  When I discussed some of these with my students, they were skeptical.  Then I invited them to go home and carefully observe their own grandmothers.  They would consistently return and admit that I was right.  The changes had been gradual and subtle, and those on the inside had not been observing.

This is further complicated by the fact that Navajo culture is not, never has been, and should not be expected to be, a single, monolithic entity.  I have heard Navajos from the eastern side of the reservation complain that those in the western areas talk too fast and mispronounce words.  Sometimes they will even argue over what is the correct word for something.  On one occasion, one of my Navajo colleagues had to let off steam because she had been rather severely reprimanded by her boss for speaking Navajo incorrectly.  She was confused because she was only saying what her mother and grandmother had taught her.  I once used an expression I learned from Navajos, only to be told by an elderly gentleman that I was saying it in the Hopi way.  A curator at a display of traditional artifacts associated with the cardinal directions confided to me, privately, that she was explaining them as she has been instructed to do, but that her own parents (from another area) had taught her rather differently.

I attended a meeting designed to introduce outsiders to the intricacies of Navajo kinship.  There are major clans that have been around since the beginning, and these are subdivided into a dizzying array of smaller clans.  The meeting was being led by a respected individual with extensive knowledge.  We all listened intently and tried to follow along, or at least pretended to.  Then another knowledgeable individual interrupted to explain to the leader that he had it wrong.  I clearly remember the second person explaining that, “Where I come from, we do it like this,” and he went in an entirely different direction.  It is also a curious fact that new clans are being added as circumstances require.  I recently learned of a very small “clan” connecting Navajo people to Mongolia (long story).  Small wonder that outsiders can’t keep it all straight.  And yet, it matters.  Navajo kinship determines who can date and marry whom.  It carries responsibilities in both hospitality and ceremonial support.  It comes with expectations of support and help in employment, etc.  Clan membership is not to be taken lightly.

Much of current practice at DC is built around a cycle of activities.  It begins with thinking (ntsahakees), moves into planning (nahat’ah), then living or doing (iina), and finally reflection (siihasin).  The last one should provide assurance and is the basis of more thinking, which leads to more planning, etc.  This is often presented as something uniquely Navajo.  I still remember the day a Navajo administrator wryly admitted that he had learned the same pattern, without the Navajo terms, in management classes as part of his (very “Western”) M.A. program.  I often explained to my students that public speaking was not such a foreign activity, as we had for a few thousand years taught the same process of thinking about a subject (discovering all the available means of proof or persuasion), gathering and outlining the material, giving the speech, and assessing the impact.  I hope I was able to appropriately help students respect their own culture while seeing their connections with other traditions.

Early each semester, often on the first day, I would engage each class in a discussion of basic, often overlooked, communication principles and practices.  Among these are the kinds of judgements people make when first meeting, or even observing, others.  Many students began by claiming that they knew absolutely nothing about me.  They were reluctant to move from this position, but eventually admitted that, yes, they had noticed that I was an old white guy.  (One wag expressed surprise and said, “Really?  Are you white?”  It got the intended laugh.)

The first “pullout” from this is to note that we often know more than we consciously register or acknowledge.  It is, after all, in the “taken-for-granteds” that we encounter most of our problems.  I invite them to spend the semester stepping back and reexamining the obvious or mundane.  There just might be something there which is worth pondering.

But the second pullout is to ask the question, “So what”?  Eventually I correct that to, “So . . . What”?  What do we do with what we learn?  We all are aware of the fact we come from different cultural backgrounds, but are we capable of articulating which differences actually make a difference?  I have the students count with me, in the language of their choice, as I hold up my fingers.  Upon “discovering” that I have five fingers, I then ask them how many fingers they have.  This might resonate more with those who, steeped in tradition, consider it important that Navajos are five-fingered beings.  (Bears also have five fingers!)  But even without that hint at a deeper meaning, the point can be made that we are not of different species, we are not from different planets.

 In the heart of the reservation many people focus on differences and spend a great deal of time and energy drawing lines of demarcation between “us” and “them.”  I tell the students that I will happily note, respect, and adapt to cultural differences (e.g., in the patterns of introduction in a speech), but that I will also emphasize the underlying humanity of every person in the room.  I invite them to join me in a semester-long (and life-long) quest to tease out the differences that really matter, and to adapt and adjust accordingly.  Also to recognize the deep connection we have as members of one human family.  This may strike some as Quixotic, but I will continue to invite others to join me in respecting, even celebrating, diversity while avoiding destructive divisiveness.

We also had interesting discussions about the teaching and use of the Navajo language.  I readily admit that I speak Navajo only a little.  I was surprised over the years at the number of students who openly acknowledged that I know more of their language than they do.  This poses a problem for some, since graduation from DC requires demonstrating an awareness of Navajo culture and basic functionality in the language.  But the real issue is whether this should continue.  Almost all students in Tsaile, Chinle, and Ganado (when we still taught there) – these locations are toward the center of the reservation — felt that this was appropriate.  Their reasoning dealt with cultural respect and strength, personal identity, family communication, ties to the land, maintenance of ceremonies, etc.  In my classroom discussions, I found much less support, and even some opposition, when I was teaching in the border towns of Tuba City, Shiprock, and even Window Rock.  Students there were more likely to talk about the extreme difficulty of the language and its lack of utility in any other place.  Some acknowledged that its use was declining even on the reservation and they were willing to see it go away.  This divide between the central reservation students and the border-town students was striking.  I am still trying to tease out whether it was a real separation or merely a function of the particular groups I had in those classes.  It is also true that non-Navajos can and do take classes at all DC campuses, but there are more of them in the border locations.

I still wear a DC windbreaker which carries the slogan, Hozhoogo Ahil Nidadiilnish.  A rough translation would be “We work together in Beauty/Harmony.”  One of the Navajo faculty members, for whom I have great respect, once simply said, “I tell people it’s a theory, it’s not reality.”  My own feeling was that it was aspirational and worthy.  The frustration I found was when people would use that expression as a way of suppressing dissent.  Anything contrary to their own viewpoint (or policy decision) was silenced as disruptive of the desired harmony.  The term, “Groupthink” comes to mind.  This was one of the new realities that my friend John found most disturbing.  As an academic, in the “Western” tradition, he felt that free and open discussion was desirable on both practical and ethical grounds.  It was most discomforting to learn that he was operating in a culture where one of the bedrock values was so easily used to bludgeon people into submission and silence.  And more than once, the “outsiders” were reminded that whatever protections the Navajo Nation offered for Navajo employees did not extend to us.  We were considered quite expendable.

Given all of the challenges and mixed messages, it is reasonable to ask why teachers stay.  The fact is, many don’t.  I saw new faculty, filled with idealistic dreams and expectations of great things, leave within weeks (sometimes days) of starting.  Some felt they had an ethical responsibility to at least finish the semester.  Some made it for a year, but it was evident early on that they wouldn’t stay beyond that.  The shift to a different universe was simply too much for them.  Some left quietly.  Others made quite a lot of noise on their way out.

 Those who did stay consistently stated that they were there for the same reason: the students.  Less often stated, but evident in their behavior, was that they also had a deep and abiding commitment to their own subject matter.  These are people who believe that what they have to give is of great importance.  The best teachers generally seem to think that their own subject is essential, that no one could possibly have a meaningful life without it.  This holds for people who teach chemistry and history and accounting and sociology and creative writing and on and on and on.  The best teachers are “hooked” on their field and wish to infect students with the same enthusiasm.  (Of course, they are all wrong.  The only subject which is really that important is human communication, in all its glorious variations and contexts!  But I digress.)  DC has many highly motivated and talented teachers, in several disciplines.

Back to the stated reason for putting up with all of it.  The students.  The typical DC student is . . .  well, there is not a type that they all fit into.  One of the challenges newcomers have is that they may have learned something about Navajos and they expect that they can thus predict how each student will respond/behave.  This is stereotyping at its worst.  DC students are, in fact, as diverse as the students at every other institution where I have taught.  I can’t possibly describe each student I met there individually, so I must do some generalizing.  But this process is fraught, and I do this with some trepidation.

I worked with Navajo students who had been raised in cities and found Rez life as bewildering as John did.  Others had grown up in remote locations in Navajo-land and found any place with more than a few thousand people to be overwhelming.  One student explained that she had never taken a shower until she was 20 years old, and then it was with 30 other women.  She had joined the army!  Many of the students were the first members of their families even to graduate high school, much less enroll in a college class.  Others were the offspring of college educated parents, including college faculty.  Some students were the primary caregivers for elderly relatives, some were young parents themselves, some were both of these, and still determined to get a college education.  Some students were taking the same classes as their own grandchildren.  Some self-identify as Traditional Navajo, some as the newer Traditional or Native American Church, some as devout Christians, and some avoid all such designations.

Many of the students manifested genuine anxiety in my class.  Some of this appeared to me to be a generalized response to the academic environment.  Being the first in their families to go to this level of formal education, they had no awareness of what was involved or expected: their background did not include interactions with very many college-educated people.  They expressed concern about their ability to perform, and about how they would be received when they returned home, and about whether they were betraying their cultural background.  They simply were not sure how this experience fit into the totality of their lives.  And yet, they sensed that it was important and worthwhile.

Some of the anxiety seemed to be subject-specific.  Public speaking is known to be frightening to many people.  This is exacerbated on the Rez by some unfortunate factors.  Some have erroneously argued that speech-making is, after all, not a normal Navajo activity.  I actually never met a Navajo who could not speak at length in meetings at the Chapter House, in front of the School Board, or at political rallies.  Others have perpetuated the myth that Navajo people are innately reticent – they are not.  I would argue that any apparently higher level of apprehension is a product of: 1) the evaluative dimension of speaking in front of the class (and, especially, the teacher, with a gradebook); and 2) the fact that the classroom still represents an intercultural (i.e., foreign) arena.  That the teacher is visibly non-Navajo only increases this perception.  The students with whom I worked were actually quite capable of overcoming their fears and performing very well.

My general assessment (and I stress again that this is dangerous) is that the students I met and worked with were bright, able, motivated, willing to work and to learn, anxious to navigate the difficulties of combining Rez life and the academy, in sum, every bit as capable of academic success as any other college students.  Unfortunately, many of them had not been well-served by their previous schools.  My own (highly judgmental) suspicion is that this is a manifestation of an insidious form of racism.  Too many educators and administrators have come to believe that these students are simply unable to perform at the highest level, and so they settle for far less, assuming that this is the best they can do.  I disagree.  I think they are able, and we should expect more of them than we often do.  I understand that some, perhaps most, in the business will take issue with that assessment.  The fact is, my observation of these students and their behavior in my classes led me to this conclusion, and it only grew stronger over time.

I began my career as a speech teacher and debate coach in Southeastern Idaho.  I crossed the continent several times and left it for a while.  I taught multiple aspects of human communication:  interpersonal, organizational, educational, intercultural, to name a few.  I taught research methods and statistical analysis.  I became a “dark-sider” and did some administrative work.  At the end of it all, I returned to my roots to teach speech again, and I did it in a place I often thought of as my second “home.”  I might never recover from my multiple passages through that portal John described.  I’m not sure I want to.  I have come to appreciate the wonder of it all and to be grateful for the journey.  Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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