The reality for a lot of Native American males is that they’ve already been left behind academically. To complicate matters, there is no public policy or system designed to help them catch up. By the time they reach high school, 42% have failed a grade at least once due to a myriad of circumstances, according to reports.
But there are a lot of Native American males who finish school, like Travis Teller of Black Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation, who was part of the 2017 graduating class at Diné College. Teller, 37, graduated May 12 from Diné College with an Associate of Arts degree in Diné Studies.
“It took a lot of effort for me to get through what I started,” Teller says. “It took the understanding and help from my wife and family. And it took guidance and direction from God.”
A graduate of Chinle High School, where he played football, basketball, and baseball, Teller is the father of two kids, Kayeona, 18, a math major at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and Ian, 16, a student at Navajo Prep School in Farmington, New Mexico. He is a traditional practitioner, or medicine man, and took some years off from Diné College to further the craft. When family responsibilities set in, he put Diné College aside, but vowed to return. “I did what I had to do,” Teller explains. “I knew I would graduate one day.”
In Native culture, a medicine man is a traditional healer and spiritual leader. Teller first enrolled at Diné College in 2001, and on and off worked at the college as a Diné counselor where he assisted in the development of traditional counseling curriculum. “I was a young parent,” Teller says about his stop and go path at Dine College. “I had to quit school and support my family. But I knew I’d return one day. I kept to the teachings of my grandparents with respect to healing, harmony and balance.”
Teller grew up in an alcoholic environment, but a very loving one. At Diné College, Teller followed academic cues from the most qualified people in his life—teachers, advisers, and administrators. By the time Teller graduated, he was already well-respected in family circles.
“He never gave up and that in itself says a lot,” says Tonya Teller, Travis’ wife of more than a decade, and an administrator at Diné College. “He wants to continue his education and that is another positive thing.”