For More Than 100 Years, the U.S. Forced Navajo Students Into Western Schools. The Damage Is Still Felt Today

tags: Native American, Navajo

At the beginning of Navajo time, the Holy People (Diyin Dine’é) journeyed through three worlds before settling in Dinétah, our current homeland. Here they took form as clouds, sun, moon, trees, bodies of water, rain and other physical aspects of this world. That way, they said, we would never be alone. Today, in the fourth world, when a Diné (Navajo) baby is born, the umbilical cord is buried near the family home, so the child is connected to its mother and the earth, and will not wander as if homeless.

In 1868, five years after the U.S. government forcibly marched the Diné hundreds of miles east from their ancestral lands in Arizona and New Mexico and imprisoned them at Fort Sumner, an act of brutality we know as Hwéeldi, or “the time of overwhelming grief,” a treaty was signed that delineated the borders of present-day Dinétah: 27,000 square miles in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, and three smaller reservations in New Mexico at Ramah, Alamo and Tohajiilee. The treaty brought devastating changes, including compulsory education for children, who were sent to faraway government and missionary schools.

For Diné families, sustained by kinship and clan connections that emphasized compassion, love and peacefulness, the separation was all but unendurable. It threatened our very survival, as it was intended to do. Our language—which retains our timeless traditions and embodies our stories, songs and prayers—eroded. Ceremonial and ritual ties weakened. The schools followed military structure and discipline: Children were divided into “companies,” issued uniforms and marched to and from activities. Their hair was cut or shaved. Because speaking Navajo was forbidden, many children did not speak at all. Some disappeared or ran away; many never returned home.

As a child at a mission boarding school in the 1960s, I was forced to learn English. Nowhere in our lessons was there any mention of Native history. But at night, after lights out, we girls gathered in the dark to tell stories and sing Navajo songs, quietly, so as to not wake the housemother. We were taught that if we broke the rules, we would go to hell, a place we could not conceive of—there is no Navajo analogy. As I learned to read, I discovered in books a way to assuage my longing for my parents, my siblings, my home. So in this way my schooling was a mixed experience, a fact that was true for many Native children. ...

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