Journey to Dinétah

Volume 24, No. 2 - Winter 2012
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SCHOOLING THE INSTRUCTORS. Anthony Lee, a well-respected medicine man and former instructor at Diné College, brings faculty members on a field trip to Dinétah as part of the tribal college’s required Diné Educational Philosophy course.

At Diné College (Tsaile, AZ), all new faculty members are required to enroll in Diné Educational Philosophy (DEP) classes. These classes are designed to impart a better understanding of Diné culture, tradition, and history to staff and faculty. While most meetings are held in the classroom, occasionally DEP instructors organize a field trip to the very heart of Navajo country, Dinétah.

I had the opportunity to make this trip with Anthony Lee, a well-respected medicine man and former instructor at the tribal college. An early bird, Lee arranged for us to meet at seven on a Sunday morning. As we made our way from Tsaile to Lukachukai and up the steep grades of the Chuska Mountains, we approached Buffalo Pass. The sun’s first morning rays spread across Shiprock, NM and the desert valley below.

Our driver, Alex Mitchell, was a man on a mission, driving the van at breakneck speed toward Corn Mountain. We stopped just once on our way up the steep mountain slopes, and Anthony pointed out the symbolism of the mountain. Seen from the sky, the mountain is the shape of a corn stalk; mesas branch out in either direction from the main artery, just like the leaves of a corn stalk. Gobernador Knob, our final destination at the top of the mountain, represents the tassels of the corn plant. At the bottom, its roots find nourishment in the waters of Navajo Lake.

We continued up the stalk of Corn Mountain, passing oil wells along the way. Despite the fact that Corn Mountain is in the heart of Dinétah and is one of the most sacred places for the Navajo people, energy companies and the U.S. government have seized these ancestral lands, claiming them for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. When we arrived at Frances Ruin, a Navajo stronghold dating back to the early 17th to 18th century, we stopped and couldn’t help but chuckle at a sign that told us we were on federal lands.

Before proceeding to the site, Anthony paid homage to his ancestors by spreading corn pollen and giving a prayer in Navajo. Built around 1700, Frances Ruin consists of a tower with several other buildings around it. The masonry resembles that of the Pueblo. Indeed, after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Navajo and Pueblo joined together in friendship and shared their traditions with one another. The site was in remarkable condition given its age, a testament to Pueblo masonry and Navajo engineering.

We then worked our way into the surrounding juniper-piñon thicket. Anthony stopped at an open sandy area and pulled out his corn pollen medicine bag. He spread the pollen in a circle and invited us into his spiritual hogan. We sat together as Alex gathered twigs and bark to make a small fire in the center of the hogan. We smoked tobacco and Anthony laid out a woven mat, upon which he placed his corn pollen bag and a large projectile point. He explained that there is a balance to the universe and that it lay between the negative symbolism of the spearhead and the positive energy of the corn pollen.

We sat in meditation, listening to the wind, the earth, and the sun. Before offering prayers, Anthony and Alex sang a sacred song in Navajo. During the ceremony, a large tarantula entered the hogan and walked toward me. It stopped, then began heading toward Anthony. Deep in prayer, Anthony did not notice; Alex shooed it away and the episode passed without incident. Later, Anthony explained that he brought the spearhead because he sensed before our trip that it might be needed for spiritual protection. Before leaving the spiritual hogan, we placed corn pollen on our tongues, atop our heads, and then spread a pinch to the east. On our way back to the van, I gathered sage from underneath a lightning-struck tree. Anthony informed us that such herbs were also excellent for protection. After the tarantula episode, I was not taking any chances.

We then made our way to Gobernador Knob, the symbolic tassel of Corn Mountain where one finds sacred corn pollen. As we approached Gobernador Knob, dark rain clouds gathered in the distance, and I worried strong rains might turn the road before us into a mud slide. As we edged our way up the steep mountainside, however, we spotted a red-tailed hawk and Anthony assured me that this was a good sign.

After parking near one of the numerous oil wells that scar Corn Mountain, we proceeded on foot, following the trails of elk and deer to Gobernador Knob. When we finally arrived at an overlook, we sat facing the sacred landmark. Anthony retrieved his medicine bag and spread corn pollen in each direction. He and Alex again sang a sacred song before giving prayers in Navajo. A few drops of rain fell on us, but we remained dry throughout the ceremony and on our walk back to the van.

As lightning struck targets deep within Jicarilla Apache country, Alex’s steady driving guided us safely through the great canyon country of northwest New Mexico. Under the cover of night, we made our way home to Tsaile. We passed by Shiprock, a rock formation whose dark outline seemed ominous and foreboding under the crescent moon and stars. Up through Buffalo Pass, we saw deer dart into the woods. In the back of the van, our instructor Anthony took a short siesta, as he had a ceremony to perform later that night.

Arriving at Tsaile beneath a star-spangled sky, I reflected on how the pilgrimage to Dinétah and the Diné Educational Philosophy course offer faculty a greater understanding of Navajo culture, philosophy, and history. This is especially crucial at Diné College, where the cornerstone principles of Sa’ah Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhóón (the Diné traditional living system) guide curricula and the institution’s approach to student learning. Faculty excursions to Dinétah advance this mission and offer a tangible connection to the Diné environment and to the community we serve.

For those of us who are non-Native, the knowledge and lessons learned through the course are invaluable. After completing the Diné Educational Philosophy course and seeing firsthand that place so central to the Diné, I recalibrated my teaching methods. Not only did I gain a more profound respect for Navajo history, but I developed a stronger connection to the students in my classes. Cross-cultural dialogue has become central to my teaching and has made me (I hope) a better teacher. The late Lakota thinker and scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. argued there is great power in place and that this is especially true for Native peoples. Dinétah embodies Deloria’s words.

The informed visitor cannot help but feel the energy and vitality of the People’s place of emergence. It is as sacred and moving as the Lincoln Memorial or the Sistine Chapel. I am thankful that Diné College afforded me the opportunity to experience that.

Dr. Bradley Shreve teaches history at Diné College. He would like to thank Anthony Lee, Alex Mitchell, and Don Denetdeal for their assistance and insight.

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