These Are Ancient Traditions and They Don’t Grow Old

Volume 1, No. 4 - Spring 1990
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The main administration building of Navajo Community College. The campus is a reflection of Navajo culture.

Navajo Community College is work­ing to integrate both Navajo and Western systems of knowledge in its curriculum. As two educators at the college involved in this project, we are aware of the challenges and rewards that have emerged from this effort. In this paper, we document the history and progress of such college-wide reorganization.

Navajo Community College is led by the Dine (Navajo) philosophy of learning. These tenets direct the college to foster an environment of harmony and beauty so that learning and growth can take place. Western specialist knowledge is a part of the curriculum, but it is placed within the framework of traditional Navajo thought. Ultimately, our goal as an institution is to guide students to the wisdom that comes from the possession of a connected view of life. From this, successful and productive lives can result.

The challenge of integrating, where pos­sible, two very different world views so that the resulting curriculum is meaningful to the Navajo student and transferable to other universities has been approached by Navajo and non-Navajo people through a lengthy process. That process involved years of dialogue among Navajo scholars who had within them a history of coloniza­tion and oppression as seen in 1864 when General Carleton of the United States Army saw the imprisonment of the Navajo as necessary. He stated:

“Only away from the haunts and hills and hiding places of their country … could their children learn to read and write and could the Navajo learn the art of peace and the truth of Christianity.”

With this attitude and the order that followed it, Colonel Kit Carson killed and starved the Navajo into defeat that led to the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo and the subsequent four year incarceration that followed. This Carleton experiment was beset with many problems and it failed. In 1868, with the signing of the treaty that ended the experiment, the Navajo returned to their homeland that now had defined borders and imposed educational and legal systems. Their political boundaries were determined and their way of life was to change forever.

We believe that this failed experiment of assimilation and acculturation of the Navajo renewed a spiritual strength that is reflected in Navajo Community College’s efforts to educate its people in their own “country” and by their own definitions and standards of education in the contempo­rary world.

The outcome was the founding of Navajo Community College whose mission in­cludes the promotion and perpetuation of the Navajo language and culture and the development of the character of the indi­vidual student. Within the last two dec­ades, successful attempts to implement the mission have been made. Most recently the Dine philosophy of learning and a suggested curriculum framework were defined in a seminal paper by Navajo philosopher, Herbert Benally. In the essay, he wrote:

“The foundations of Navajo educational philoso­phy are to be found in the Navajo creation story — in the ethno-history of the emergence from the under­worlds. The very beginning of this history … lays the basis for the development of key concepts in Navajo philosophy.”

The work that unfolded in this essay, as eloquently stated by Robert Hurley in the Dine philosophy of learning Faculty Implementation Handbook intro­duction,

“…refers to a body of oral teachings — espe­cially the Blessingway Ceremony — expressed in essays, stories and prayers, which the Navajo people never had to assert were true or self-evident, because they form the ground for asserting anything; they generate meaningfulness itself; they give cohesion to a whole people and restore cohesiveness to disturbed minds and bodies; they guarantee belongingness in the universe.

“…at the very core of these teachings that we are appealing to, at the heart of the Blessingway, is sa’ah naaghaii bik’eh hozho. This sacred ex­pression has been translated, in the simplest of terms, as longlife happiness, but it speaks to Navajos of everything that is right and desirable: connectedness with all creatures and all things in the universe, spiritual and material well-being, completion of one’s purposeful journey through life, appreciation and creation of beauty and harmony, and the aspiration to attain bless­edness in this world…

“In the Dine philosophy of learning, educa­tion has an overriding purpose, which is to produce a desired material, mental and spiritual condition, hozho, in which one may live in harmony with others in society and in Nature. Achieving such a condition requires not just absorbing information and demonstrating a grasp of facts, but also transformative work on oneself with a view of approximating the thought and behavior of the Holy People.

“The Dine philosophy of learning proposed a model whereby the curriculum would be recognized along the lines laid down in the creation narrative. The four cardinal directions demarcate the fundamental areas of Navajo life, and hence the areas with which Navajo learn­ing should be concerned.

“…The cardinal directions correlate with the structure of Navajo thought, with the rhythm of Navajo life, and with the Navajo sense of cosmic order.

“…In the Navajo view, values and other prin­ciples by which people live are identified with dawn and the east; knowledge for making a living is identified with daylight and the south; planning for social well-being, with evening twilight and the west; contentment and rever­ence for all life, with darkness and the north.

“…The knowledge associated with the east co­incides with the humanities and the fine arts; the knowledge associated with the south coin­cides with vocational and professional education; the knowledge associated with the west is closely related to the social sciences; and the knowledge associated with the north is closely related to the natural sciences.”

We have reorganized the various disciplines into these four domains of knowledge in an attempt to incorporate the rich teachings of Navajo values associated with the cardinal directions into the Western tradition of knowledge. We would like to emphasize here that all of this initial work was done in Navajo by Navajos, and only selected knowledge and teachings sanctioned as “not sacred” by medicine men were included and transcribed in the body of the work. The Dine philosophy of learning model was then presented to the Navajo Medicine Man Associa­tion, where it was endorsed as the traditional educa­tion model of the Navajo.

This work culminated in a Faculty Implementation Handbook created by college faculty and staff to assist the instructor with the curriculum integration proc­ess. The handbook serves as a practical guide to suggested — not prescribed — models for curriculum design. It attempts to bridge the abstract, philosophi­cal underpinnings of Navajo tradition to the specific learning goals of both the Navajo and Western systems of knowledge. The integrity of the Western academic disciplines is preserved throughout this integration process. The integrated courses are piloted, evaluated and modified as they are devel­oped.

While there is no one correct way to fulfill the goals of the curriculum reorganization, some strategies are better able to integrate the Dine philosophy of learn­ing. Specifically, the handbook suggests that course units be founded on the philosophy’s themes and learning goals. Relevant units related to both West­ern and Navajo education are then included within that context. An outline for this approach would look like this:

  1. Unit Topic
    Unit Theme: A synthesis of Dine philosophy of learning themes reflecting Dine holistic knowl­edge.
    1. 1. Western learning objectives.
      2. Dine philosophy of learning objectives, categorized by the four directions.

This approach was taken by an instructor in a per­sonal finance course. The instructor identified the objective of each of the academic units and then proceeded to identify the Dine philosophy of learn­ing objectives associated with the corresponding academic units. Although business is placed in the south, selected learning objectives from each direc­tion are appropriately incorporated into the course. An abbreviated example of her work looks like this:

  1. Unit Topic: Career and Income – The Effects on Financial Status
    Unit Theme (Synthesis of Dine philosophy of learning theme):
    Making a living to supply your life needs as a Navajo principle aimed at dignity, autonomy, responsibility, accountability, appreciation, altruism, and cooperation.
    • To seek wisdom throughout life on all things.
    • To take responsibility for personal well-being and to behave accordingly.
    • To provide for family and assist extended family.
  1. CAREER – Teaching Objectives
    1. (Western) After assessing potential and aptitude and discussing the various careers and corresponding levels of income, the student must be able:
      1. to explain how career choice and in­come determine life style
      2. to explain that because people have different needs out of life, their life styles vary.
      3. to select a life style and determine what career and income would accommodate the chosen life style.
    2. (Navajo) After the discussion of career choice, income, and life style, the student should :
      1. be aware that dignity in “actions and thoughts towards self” comes when one is self-sufficient.
      2. be able to think responsibly and concep­tually about career, income and life style.
      3. seek success and its benefits, and to share the success and its benefits with others.
      4. compare what personal accomplish­ments do for the family, community and tribe with what happens when there are no personal accomplishments.
      5. identify knowledge, abilities, and skills that could be developed toward maxi­mizing a quality of life.
      6. identify the effects the four cardinal di­rections could have on career choices.

The instructor piloted her work and in the student evaluation was told that, “We [students] heard this stuff about Dine philosophy of learning at home, but we never saw how it connected to school. Now we see how it connects to this course and to us. That feels good.”

Now, since we can think of the Dine philosophy of learning as a perpetual, guided process, we place par­ticular emphasis on pedagogy as well as content. By this we mean that not only is the curriculum reor­ganization and integration vital to our mission, but also adoption of appropriate teaching strategies that correspond to the Navajo student’s learning styles is vital as well. We believe that Navajo people have the characteristics and use the teaching strategies that foster everyday good living in the maintenance of their culture. Specifically, good behavior modeling, explicit talk, positive “do” approaches, observation and the use of humor are incorporated into day-to-day teaching. At NCC, we are attempting to set the tone in our classrooms to closely match the Navajo traditional educational atmosphere. The atmosphere is one of deep spirituality, positive thought and reinforcement, and respect for the speaker and the listener.

NCC CAMPUSThe handbook provides some teaching strategies with accompanying rationale for their use that may help the instructor in the classroom. The handbook also pays particular attention to the fact that actions often reflect our thoughts and our culture; that we must speak to the whole person and to her or his real experiences; and that Navajo silence is more powerful than the word and needs to be honored. Our experi­ence with instructors who are open to pedagogical change tells us that the educator is transformed as the curriculum is transformed because so many of the Dine philosophy of learning objectives are associated with behavior. For example, the west Dine philoso­phy of learning objective says that the student will have respect and compassion for all people. As edu­cators we must model that respectful and compas­sionate behavior in order to teach it in the classroom. When we incorporate these teachings into the aca­demic disciplines, previously lifeless courses begin to have relevance in the real world of human interac­tion.

Along with the handbook, traditional consultants are regularly scheduled to meet with instructors who are developing curriculum in respective disciplines. From this cooperation and collaboration of Navajo and Western scholars, relevant curriculum emerges as well as critical questions and issues. We see these questions and issues as the challenges that must be faced in open forums of informed scholars from both Navajo and non-Navajo traditions. We would like to mention some of those challenges here, although any further discussion of them is beyond the scope of this paper.

  1. How can educators recognize and honor the intuitive scholarship of the American Indian student in the classroom?
  2. Are we teaching religion when we are imple­menting the Dine philosophy of learning?
  3. How do we approach spirituality and science?
  4. Do instructors need to believe in the Dine phi­losophy of learning in order to teach in accordance with it?
  5. How do we continue to make our curriculum relevant to the needs of real Navajo communities?
  6. How do we institutionalize the Dine philosophy of learning beyond the classroom?
  7. How do institutions administratively protect curriculum reform from political shifts and trends?
  8. What are the on-going funding sources for the research, development and implementation of this work?

These are only some of the challenges we, as a college, face today, but they are challenges that we continue to meet because the forum for change at Navajo Community College has been set. With the implementation of the Dine philosophy of learning at Navajo Community College, we are attempting to go backward and forward in time to understand the student’s intellectual, moral and spiritual heritage and to incorporate that heritage into a practical, balanced living curriculum. After all, these are ancient traditions and they don’t grow old.

David Begay and Marth Becktell are on the faculty of Navajo Community College.

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