The lands of the sovereign Navajo (Diné) Nation extend
across New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. The nation operates
under a tribal form of government, but that wasn't always the case.
The fight was long, and it wasn't until 1975, with the passing of
the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, that
Navajos regained the right to control their own affairs.
Long threatened with cultural genocide through conquest, territorial
displacement, and the establishment of the Indian Day and Boarding
School Systems, which force-fed Native youth white culture and religious
beliefs, the Navajo Nation now controls its own destiny. However,
the damage done by a school system aiming for total assimilation
Since then, the establishment of tribal schools have been crucial
in the Diné struggle for self-determination. Navajo Technical
University (NTU), the inspiration for this short video documentary,
is one of two tribal institutions of higher education on the Navajo
Nation. Originally founded in 1979 as a training center to combat
poverty and unemployment, the institution achieved university status
in 2013 and conferred its first master's degree in 2016. Plans are
now under way for a doctoral program. NTU credits this success as
stemming from "our mission and our identity rooted in the Diné
Philosophy of Education."
In this documentary, you will meet spiritual leaders, graduates,
faculty, and staff from NTU. You will witness students who are,
in the words of medicine man Dan Jim Nez, "graduating in the Navajo
In 2015, Folklife media director Charlie Weber and I headed
northwest on Interstate 40 en route to NTU in Crownpoint, New Mexico.
As we drove past Grants, Mt. Taylor rose in the distance. Known
to the indigenous community as Tso odzil, it is one of the Navajo
Nation's four sacred mountains. Turning off at Thoreau, we headed
toward the Navajo Nation border, marked by a sign: "YÁ'ÁT'ÉÉH
Welcome to the Navajo Nation."
Now on Bureau of Indian Affairs roads, we wound through rose-colored
peaks and mesas and across the continental divide. The picturesque
landscape holds many tales, including a legacy of uranium mining
that studies declare will impact future generations for the next
thousand years. A sign pointed east toward the ancient, sacred site
of Chaco Canyon.
Our trip to NTU coincided with the spring commencement ceremony.
At dawn, trucks and cars had already lined up to enter the campus.
The air was electric with anticipation. Graduation day enfolds individual,
familial, clan, and tribal dimensions. As students, faculty, and
families readied themselves for the ceremony, two centers of gravity
stood out. The first was the gymnasium, where the commencement would
take place. The second was across the parking lot at the hooghan,
an eight-sided traditional Diné home and sacred space. On
campus, it is home to the School of Diné Studies. Around
the circular fire pit, graduates lined up for the procession to
Dan Jim Nez led with sacred singing, followed by NTU president
Dr. Elmer Guy and Jonathan Nez, vice president of the Navajo Nation.
Miss NTU, Glennis Yazzie, carried the sacred medicine bundle. Students
adorned themselves in localized attire, from feathered "caps" refashioned
into cowboy hats to handmade moccasinsan indigenous reclamation
of Diné sensibilities. Dakota Cooke performed "The Star-Spangled
Banner" in the Diné language. Family members took to the
stage to honor their graduates by pinning flowers to their lapels.
When the ceremony concluded, families huddled around their graduates,
and we made our way back to the hooghan to meet with Dr. Wesley
Thomas. Thomas is a cultural anthropologist and the initiator of
Diné studies and the graduate studies program at NTU. He
articulated the challenges of introducing global issues in an environment
where local struggles are so dire. He introduces students to Palestine,
Ferguson, and South America, noting, "The students are too busy
surviving on the reservation, so here I provide that for them."
As Thomas explained, cultural genocide has multiple forms: the legacy
of stolen lands, trauma from the Long March, toxic environmental
issues, and livestock reduction, to name a few.
Professor Anita Roastingear echoed the sentiment about tension
between local struggles, survival of indigenous ways, and global
issues. "Native American students are vital to the global experience,"
she said. "We have to know the dominant society, languages, court
system, educational system, but we don't have to be conquered by
This discussion initiated our thinking about a global studies
approach that centers indigenous issues. In the context of the sovereign
Navajo Nation within the United States, the global is local.
The GALACTIC program (Global Arts Local Arts Culture Technology
International Citizenship) began to take shape that day in the hooghan.
Over the next months, we co-created an annual workshop at the Smithsonian
Folklife Festival and at Indiana University's Institute for Curriculum
and Campus Internationalization. Our long-term goal is to develop
indigenous global studies with a focus on sustainability of indigenous
local languages and cultural traditions in a global era.
This video documents a Diné commencement ceremony, a
time of new beginnings for students who graduate "in the Navajo
way." For us, it also represents the commencing of a multiyear collaboration
focused on indigenous global and local cultures, art, and survival
Amy Horowitz is the director of GALACTIC. A longtime associate
of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, she served as
acting and assistant director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
and Folklife curator in the 1990s.
GALACTIC (Global Arts Local Arts Culture Technology International
Citizenship) is a project of the Center for the Study of the Middle
East and the Center for the Study of Global Change at Indiana University,
the School of Diné Studies at Navajo Technical University,
the Roadwork Center for Cultures in Disputed Territories, and the
Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.