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(Many Paths)
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Living with Navajo is a lesson in understanding
by Kristen Moulton - The Salt Lake Tribune

To empathize with students, educators spend a week in Monument Valley cooking fry bread and shoveling manure

American Indian students in Utah schools often feel disconnected. They are far from the land, culture and families they love, and they are often misunderstood by teachers and peers.

A group of educators is trying to change that.

Since 2004, the group has taken about 30 educators, most of them school counselors, to Monument Valley for a week to live among the Navajo, including side trips to visit White Mesa Utes and the Hopis in northern Arizona.

"We thought we had a good idea, but after our first year, we knew we had a really good idea," said Janet Canyon, coordinator for Title VII programs in Salt Lake City School District.

The Monument Valley Workshop, as it's called, is a byproduct of the No Child Left Behind Act. A presidential order directed states to do a better job of educating American Indian students. A Utah task force has been tackling various aspects of that goal since 2002. This particular subcommittee focuses on school counseling, and is composed of state education office staffers, five school counselors, a business teacher from Monument Valley High School and the arts-education coordinator for the Utah Arts Council.

While brainstorming ways to help school counselors better understand American Indian culture, the group was struck by the idea that counselors had to see, not just read about, reservations.

So one week each summer, eight to 12 educators spend part of that week living with Navajo families, helping with such chores as shoveling manure, moving sheep or cooking fry bread.

"It's not a vacation. This is not going down to sightsee," said Tom Sachse, a specialist with the Utah Office of Education and subcommittee member.

Lorissa Jackson, a teacher at Monument Valley who coordinates logistics for the annual workshop, says Navajo families vie for the chance to host the guests each summer.

"They enjoy it as much as the person coming to their homes," she said.

Because art is so integral to the culture, the educators spend time with beadworkers and basket makers, said Jean Irwin of the Utah Arts Council.

They learn the sound a baby eagle makes from listening to a White Mesa Ute flute player. They also learn about steadfastness from a 94-year-old Hopi in Arizona who was a World War II code talker and who makes moccasins.

They also eat what the natives eat, and that means a lot of mutton.

"We want them to have the total experience," said Irwin. "We have to warn them ahead of time: This is not the time for pink tofu and alfalfa sprouts."

What they take away, several counselors said, is respect for American Indian culture. And that helps them be more empathetic with students from other cultures.

Kim Deamer, a counselor at Fremont High School in Plain City, said the week changed her life.

Deamer worked in the hot sun alongside a Navajo man who was building a deck on the back of his trailer in 2007.

They had great conversations, and she came to understand how Navajos think about history.

"It helped me to be able to see other people's point of view," she said. "There's more tolerance and love for people in general. I need to listen to them long enough to understand where they're coming from."

Lori Jones, a counselor at the Jordan Applied Technology Center in West Jordan, said she signed up because she wanted to be a better advocate for Indian students and because, as an Ohio native, she knew little of their culture.

"The first time I went to the rez, it was a form of culture shock," said Jones. "It's quieter there."

In 2006, Jones stayed with a Navajo family, delivered water to seniors and oiled horse saddles. This past summer, she collected firewood for Monument Valley High School.

Watching and attempting beadwork and baskets, she said, helped her realize that some students learn best with their hands, not books.

Jones said she has learned much about American Indians. They generally take excellent care of their elders, for instance. And "they have this marvelous sense of humor."

As she shares what she has learned with other counselors in the district, Jones said the experience helps her better connect with American Indian students.

A student's face lit up recently when Jones mentioned Monument Valley. Jones made a point to praise the girl's native culture of Navajo.

"I'm hoping that girl, when she has a problem, will feel more comfortable talking to me," said Jones. "Or if she's looking for ways to pay for college, we'll be able to have open conversations."

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