Dallas Peterman was an 18-year-old freshman at Diné College when he resolved to make a difference. The epiphany came to him one day while hitchhiking home to Kayenta, some 95 miles from the college in Tsaile. Along the way, he noticed the trash—lots of it—bracketing the road like an endless line of pylon markers. “Somebody needs to clean this up,” he thought. That somebody, he decided, was him.
And so began his summer vacation. For 15 days and over 95 miles, Dallas Peterman walked along the highway picking up litter. “I figured I shouldn’t be one of those people that just talk about what should be done,” he reflects. Quoting Yoda, the Jedi master from Star Wars, he adds, “Either you do or you do not, there is no try.”
Peterman secured the support of his fiancé Sierra and the college’s Land Grant Office, which contributed trash bags and a handful of volunteers. The work wasn’t easy. On the second day, they had trouble walking on account of their sore feet, they felt dehydrated and fatigued, and fell behind schedule. But as they trekked along the first leg of the cleanup, the crew began attracting attention and gaining support from the local community. More people came out to help. Donations came in. Some people began bringing food and water for the volunteers, while others opened their homes and put them up for the night. When they reached the town of Chinle, about 30 miles down the road from Tsaile, community members expressed their gratitude by setting up tables and chairs for the volunteers and treating them to a hearty meal of home-cooked Navajo tacos.
With their spirits lifted, Peterman and crew persevered and steadily continued their march across the vast expanses of the Navajo Nation, making their way through the communities of Many Farms and Rough Rock. By the time they reached Kayenta, some 40 people had joined the effort. As they busily picked up the last remnants of trash, town officials, supporters, and curious onlookers greeted them. “I want to show everyone that you can’t just talk about doing something,” Peterman told a Navajo Times reporter. “You have to also put the plan in motion. You have to just do it.”
As compelling and inspiring as Peterman’s odyssey is, it’s not necessarily unusual. All over Indian Country and in tribal colleges everywhere, you will find similarly stirring stories of selflessness, generosity, and altruism. Indeed, in tribal communities the spirit of volunteerism is omnipresent. “It’s just who we are,” observes Cynthia Lindquist, chair of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College (CCCC).
You can’t just talk about doing something. You have to also put the plan in motion. You have to just do it.”
We’ve pulled together a few of these stories of benevolence for this fall issue of Tribal College Journal. In her feature article, “In the Service of Others,” Patty Talahongva (Hopi) illuminates how tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) forge volunteerism across the student body and throughout their respective institutions. At CCCC, Dakota values of reciprocity inform everyday activities and define the institution’s campus culture. From simple things like giving a fellow student a ride to school or helping a high school student with her math homework, to college-wide programs like organizing a community bingo night for tribal elders, CCCC has “pretty much everything covered,” as one student says. Asimilar spirit pervades Chief Dull Knife College on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in eastern Montana, where volunteer efforts meld with language and cultural preservation. Student Erin Timber, for example, tutors her peers in the Cheyenne language and volunteers at the local Heritage Center where she teaches young and old alike traditional hand games. And despite attending to myriad administrative tasks and duties, the college’s president, Richard Littlebear, makes room in his schedule to give back to his people by visiting those who are sick or who have been hospitalized. “It makes me feel good. It makes the person feel good,” he explains.
Kerri Patrick Wertz, a communications instructor at Aaniiih Nakoda College, builds upon these themes in her article, “Through Our Eyes,” by examining what motivates three student volunteers. Although each serves in a different capacity that plays to their strengths and interests, they all relate a strong sense of community and a desire to uplift their people. Kaye Brown, for example, is an allied health major who devotes time going door-to-door to discuss health concerns and to share the knowledge she’s learned in her coursework. “My philosophy is like the penny jars you see at gas stations,” she says. “If you take a penny, then give a penny.”
Read this issue’s On Campus department and discover many other ways tribal colleges are volunteering in their local communities. Some, like Fort Peck Community College, attend to immediate needs by providing shelter for a homeless family. Others, like Sitting Bull College, give flowers and chocolates on Valentine’s Day to elders who have lost their loved ones and now live alone. From small, yet symbolic acts to large, sweeping programs, all efforts count.
Rick Williams, the longtime president of the American Indian College Fund, states in this issue’s edition of Current Reflections that “volunteering manifests itself differently in Indian Country,” adding, “It’s especially true in the tribal college movement.” This is why Dallas Peterman’s 95-mile trek cleaning up the highways of the Navajo Nation should shock no one at Diné College, Chief Dull Knife College, Aaniiih Nakoda College, or any other tribal college. When he finally arrived in Kayenta, he was asked to serve as the grand marshal in the town’s parade. What did he do? He took part in the parade—following the procession through the streets of Kayenta picking up trash.
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is the managing editor of Tribal College Journal.