by Aria Dakota Willis '13
Stop right now and think—what do you know about American Indians? I bet for many of you, the Disney movie “Pocahontas” will be the first thing that pops into your brain. Others may think of teepees and buffalos, of old Western movies, or distant social studies lessons on Thanksgiving and the Trail of Tears. While many people think of Native peoples in solely a historical context, what they often forget is that American Indians still exist today. In fact, there are hundreds of federally recognized tribes in the United States, with their own unique languages and individual cultures.
For the past year, I’ve been teaching first grade on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. The experience has been nothing short of challenging. The town where I live is beautiful but small and isolated—a few fast food chains, a small grocery store, some hotels for the tourists who come through on their way from the Grand Canyon to Monument Valley. A poor economy and lack of access to jobs and higher education has led to a high unemployment rate, causing some parents to move hours away from their children just so they can support their families. Many of my students face a variety of issues in their homes and communities: poverty, racism, hunger, substance abuse, environmental hazards. They have limited options for medical care and may lack access to proper nutrition. Some of my students live in more remote parts of the reservation without electricity or running water.
However, as difficult as this past year has been, it has also been an amazing, culturally-immersive adventure. I’ve learned to speak a tiny bit of Navajo (although my pronunciation is still terrible!). I’ve been to rodeos and sheep camps and fierce high school basketball games and traditional dances and Christmas bazaars loaded with the most gorgeous jewelry. I’ve learned about traditional Navajo beliefs—stories about Spider Woman and Coyote and the Hero Twins and the Four Sacred Mountains. I’ve made fry bread with my own two hands (and it actually tasted good too!). I’ve hiked through ancient Puebloan ruins littered with pottery and magnificent canyons covered in petroglyphs. I’ve stared up at night skies so full of stars that I was unable to speak, and watched sunsets so beautiful I was moved to tears. I’ve been welcomed with open arms by some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, so enthusiastic about sharing their culture and way of life with me, an outsider.
I am in no way an expert on Navajo history. I know only the tiniest fraction of everything there is to know about Navajo culture and traditions, and I’ve only lived on the reservation a very small amount of time. But it has been unlike anything else I’ve experienced in my entire life. Teaching anywhere is not easy, and teaching out here has its own unique array of challenges. But it comes with rewards and revelations you never imagined.