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Program teaches Navajo students tradition, culture

By Karen Francis
Pinehill, New Mexico (AP) 9-09

In many Navajo communities, the elderly are concerned about the land and the loss of traditional values.

At a hogan just off the main road near the small town of Pinehill, 17 high school and college students spent the summer addressing those issues through a Ramah Navajo School Board program funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

In the past, the employment program for kids in the community sent them to existing departments to gain work experience. This year, organizers decided to do something different – to engage the youth to service their own community.

“Hopefully, this will help them identify with their culture,” said Alvin Rafelito, a coordinator.

During the program, young people rotated projects on community gardening and the “Sheep is Life” concept.

The program began with a weeklong leadership camp where students learned lessons on teamwork and woke early each morning to run. Waking at dawn to run east is a longtime Navajo tradition, and one that is often neglected.

The kids also took part in a nutrition workshop and built a traditional shade house using local resources and learning how to trim and prune trees. They went sheepherding, they prepared and dyed their own yarn for weaving and they made journals about the experiences.

As part of the workshops focused on sheep, they learned finger weaving to get a feel for the process, said coordinator Yin-Mae Lee.

Later, they sheared sheep, researched the names of weaving tools and learned how to do cinch weaving and set up looms. Their last project was to wash, card and spin raw wool and start on saddle blankets.

Community elders helped teach throughout.

The students’ colorful creations – rugs, drawings, presentations – were on display at the hogan where they gathered for each day’s activities and where they stayed for the weeklong camping.

The youth also learned how to butcher a sheep, then butchered one as the instructors supervised. The participants called out, “Good job!” to the youth who took on the task.

Esther Rafelito, who also taught students about the weaving process, was on hand monitoring the butchering.

“They really are interested in learning,” Rafelito said in Navajo through an interpreter. “They will be able to remember what they learned. They are able to carry it with them through the years.”


For college student Vanessa Frank, the practice may come in handy if she runs for Miss Navajo Nation, which she is considering. Contestants must butcher a sheep for that competition.

“This is my first time butchering sheep,” she said as she washed her hands after finishing cutting up some of the meat.

Assisting her was Cody Yazzie, a high school student.

“I watched my grandma do it, but I was just a little kid,” he said.

He said his biggest challenges during the program were the butchering and waking up early to run.

Yazzie said he heard almost every day from his friends and others that there was nothing to do over the summer.

“I told them about this project. It keeps me out of trouble,” he said.

The program is addressing high crime rates, said Randy Chatto, supplemental youth services coordinator.

Chatto said the program gives young people something to do while improving self esteem and self identity by seeing the results of their efforts.

“The goal for the program is to have students form a sense of community. We always have problems of vandalism and violence,” said Rafelito.

Ramona Yazzie, a college student, said the program was a lot of fun.

“We learned from the elders,” she said.

What she learned about weaving, Yazzie said, was that “it’s a long process but it’s fun.”

The participants did everything weaving to butchering to gardening.

The gardens, an experimental project for the community, are part of a health program to prevent diabetes and high blood pressure. Growing are pumpkins, watermelon, squash, beans, potatoes, beets, carrots and blue corn.

“We learned about making compost and mixing soil because our soil isn’t that good out here,” said Rafelito.

Their accomplishments gave the youth a sense of pride and self-identity, Chatto said.

“They come away knowing the Ramah Navajo community cares about them still,” he said.

The message was that the community wants them involved, he said.

“We’re bridging that gap with our community and our youth – getting them involved with the community and elders,” Chatto said.

The program resulted from a collaboration between the Ramah Navajo School Board continuing education program, Ramah Navajo Weaver’s association and the Scholarship and Training Program.