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An Outsider Teaching on a Navajo Reservation: In the Sun's House Excerpt

 

Immersion teaching doesn't have to take you to distant shores. Every year, non-Native American teachers join reservation school staffs to help the often-underserved community and to learn about the modern Native American experience.

 

Kurt Caswell was one of those teachers. In his book In the Sun's House, he provides an outsider's perspective on teaching at the Borrego Pass School on a remote Navajo reservation in New Mexico.

 

The following excerpt shares his observations about the community and culture as he navigates the challenges of a typical school day as a new teacher on the "rez."

 

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"School Days"

excerpt from In the Sun's House by Kurt Caswell

 

An Outsider Teaching on a Navajo Reservation: In the Sun's House ExcerptExcept for the principal and the school board, Borrego Pass School was run by women. The majority of the teachers were women, and women ran the kitchen, the purchasing office, and the payroll and drove half of the buses. And I would discover that the girls far outperformed the boys in the classroom. This corresponded, to my mind, with the fact that traditionally the Navajo social structure is matriarchal. It’s the wife who controls the family home, or hogan, and the land, which is often passed down from her family. She is said to “own” the children. They become part of her clan rather than her husband’s, so that descendants are traced through the woman’s line. She owns her jewelry. She owns the sheep from which she spins her wool, as well as the income from the sale of the blankets and rugs she weaves.

 

In the old days, a Navajo wife was far more liberated than women of white America. Later, due to the influence of white people and white inheritance laws, matriarchal practices atrophied until it wasn’t so uncommon for a Navajo woman to live on her husband’s land, if he had any. Still, the matriarchal structure runs as an undercurrent through Navajo life and seemed to influence everything that happened at Borrego. I felt at all times in the care of  women.

  • “Lauren,” I said, “I do have one question. What about a textbook?”

So far I had gotten by without a book, but I was running out of ideas. I didn’t need a text to teach writing, but it was the reading I needed most, some kind of story and essay collection.

  • “Right,” Lauren said. “I’ve been thinking about that. I want to order individual books for my classes, so I won’t be using my textbooks. Would you like to look at them?”
  • “Look at them? I’ll take them,” I said. “Whatever they are.”
  • “But there is also the option of me keeping the textbooks and you us- ing whole works,” she said.
  • “No, no. You go ahead with your plans. I’ll take the texts.”
  • “Oh, good,” she said. “Good then. I prefer to teach whole works any- way.”
  • “When can I pick up the books? In a week or so?” “Anytime. Right now. Today,” Lauren said.
  • “That would be so great. Can I send my class over to pick them up?” I asked.
  • “That would work great.”

After breakfast, the sixth-grade class formed an orderly line behind me at the cafeteria door. I had been sitting with the same group of sixth-grade boys from that first morning, listening to them talk and joke. This was a critical part of the school day: most of the students at Borrego didn’t get breakfast at home because there wasn’t any, and some of them came to school just to eat breakfast. The school certainly couldn’t expect the students to be attentive in class when they were hungry.


When the line quieted down a little and all the kids looked at me ready to go, I led them down the hall to my classroom, the boys’  hair shining and wet from the bathroom sink and swept back with the liquid soap they put in there to look like Chicano gangbangers in Albuquerque. But they weren’t Chicano gangbangers.

 

They were Navajo boys, and they spent a lot of time outside in the sun and they were always talking about their dogs and killing rabbits to feed them, and how they’d hunt half the morning for their horse wandering somewhere out there in the desert, and when they found it, they’d have to catch it, and then they’d leap on it with no saddle and no bridle and ride and ride and ride.

  • “I heard you come from China!” Shane Yazzie said as we stepped into the classroom.
  • “You remember the rule,” I said. “You have to raise your hand if you want to say something.”
  • Shane sat down. His hand shot up. “Yes, Shane?”
  • “I heard you came from China!”
  • “No. Not China. I’m from Oregon. But I worked in Japan for a few years.”
  • “That means you’re Chinese?” Shane said.
  • “No, Japanese,” said Kyle Bigfoot.
  • “You have to raise your hand,” I said.
  • Kyle raised his hand as high as he could, and so did Shane. “Kyle?” I said. “Yes?”
  • “That means you’re Chinese!” Shane said, and then he clapped his hand over his mouth to stop himself.
  • “No, it’s mines,” Kyle said. “I’m next. I raised my hand.”

I never knew if this was a carryover from the Navajo language or just a glitch in understanding English, but most of these kids added an s to pluralize words that didn’t need it. “Mines” was one example. And “reals” was another. “For reals, Mr. Caswell?” they would say. And when they said goodbye it came out, “See you laters, Mr. Caswell.” One of Mary’s students over in Ganado told her that his family was headed out to cut firewood that weekend. He said, “We’re goin’ to the woods to get some woods.”


Shane still held his hand over his mouth and puffed out his cheeks like he might explode.

  • “Yes, Kyle, you raised your hand,” I said.
  • “You’re Japanese,” Kyle said. “From Japan, way over there.”
  • “No. I’m still American. I just worked in Japan.”
  • “Hey, you gotta Japan-girl?” asked John George.
  • “Your hand,” I said.
  • “Oh, yeah,” John George said. He put his hand up and said, “You gotta Japan-girl?”
  • “We have to get to work,” I said. “First I need five of you to go over to Mrs. Sittnick’s room—”

Every hand went up.

  • “—to get our textbooks,” I said.

All the hands went down.

  • “Naw. We don’t need no books,” said Shane. “Let’s just go outside and play around.”
  • “Yeah,” said John George. “Let’s just go out there and do nothin’.”
  • “We have to study,” I said. “We have to practice reading and writing.”
  • “No way,” Shane said. “Let’s just do nothing.”
  • Leanne Yazzie raised her hand. “I’ll go do it,” she said. “And Valeria and Gay will come with me.”
  • “Is that right?” I asked.
  • Valeria and Gay nodded their heads.
  • “And pick me, Mr. Caswell,” John George said. “I can do it.”
  • “Okay,” I said. “And I need one more volunteer.”

The room went still. No one said anything.

  • “Just one more volunteer,” I said. “Then we’ll have this job done.” Still no one moved.
  • Then Leanne slowly raised her hand. She looked around the room. “What’s a vol-lun-teer?” she asked, almost whispering.
  • “I mean one more person to get books,” I said. Six hands went up.
  • “Okay, Kyle,” I said. “Why don’t you go.” “Yeah!” he said.

I put everyone else to work making room on the shelves for the books. Lauren advised that I assign each student a textbook but that they leave the books in the classroom rather than taking them home. We opened up a space, and the five volunteers began filling the shelves with books, big, heavy hardback books, each with a softcover workbook. They brought in the books for the seventh and eighth grades too.

  • “Here you go, Mr. Caswell,” Valeria said. “We’re almost done now.”

She hefted her pile up on the shelf, and I noticed blood leaking out of her left ear.

  • “Valeria,” I said. “Your ear is bleeding.” I could see the circle around the ear on the side of her face where something had struck her.
  • She put her hand there. “No it’s not,” she said, disgusted with me.
  • “Yes it is,” I said. “Did you fall or something?”
  • “No.”
  • “Do you need to see the nurse?” “No,” she said.
  • “Let me see it,” I said.
  • She pulled away. “No,” she said. “Just mind your own beeswax.”

I had obviously invaded her space, but it seemed necessary.

  • “May I just take a look?” I said. “You might need to see the nurse.”
  • “She got hit,” John George said.
  • “Shut up, stupit,” Valeria said.
  • “I’m not gonna touch it. Just let me take a look,” I said.
  • “Yeah,” John George said. “He hit you right there on your ear.”
  • “No,” said Valeria, jerking back again.

She made a fist and waved it at John.

  • “I’ll hit you.”
  • “No,” John George said, “’Cause you’re crazy and too slow!”

Valeria went after him then, moving fast around the desks, and John George leaped away as she went for him, crashing back into a chair that tipped and clattered on the floor, both moving faster now, around the edge of the classroom along the windows. John passed the blackboard and ran out the door. Valeria followed, and I heard them running down the hallway at top speed.

  • “Jesus,” I muttered. “Jesus!” Shane said.
  • “She’s gonna beat him up,” Kyle said. “And she hits real hard, too.”

I looked down the hall, but they were both gone. I saw Lauren stepping out of her classroom. I waved to her. She waved back and then looked down the hallway toward the front office. We heard the double doors that led outside onto the playground shut.

  • “It’s recess time, Mr. Caswell,” said Kyle. “Let’s go! Hurry.”
  • “Yeah,” said Shane. “’Cause maybe they’re gonna fight.”
  • “No fights,” I said. “Don’t let them fight.”
  • Shane grinned. “I like to watch a fight.”
  • “All right, you can go now,” I said. “Don’t run in the hallway.”

They all ran down the hallway as fast as they could and out the front doors into the sun.

  • I met Lauren outside watching over the playground. “What was that all about?” she asked.
  • “Have you seen Valeria today?”
  • “Valeria Benally,” she said. It sounded like she already knew. “No, but I heard about it from Leanne.” “About her ear?”
  • “Yeah,” Lauren said.

And then Lauren told me the story.


Sometimes Navajo children have problems with their ears because they sit in the back of pickup trucks wherever they go, the winter and summer winds speeding across their bare ears. It often causes hearing loss. But that’s not what happened to Valeria.

 

A bad uncle took drunken liberties with her younger sister. He raped her. Valeria might have been next, but she fought him and hit him and struggled to break free, when he clapped her on the side of her head with his hand. She ran to get her good uncle to help. The drunk uncle shot the good uncle in the chest with a pistol. Valeria escaped into the hills with her little sister and they lived out there for two days. They did not eat anything for two days. By the time Valeria’s grandmother returned from Window Rock, the bad uncle was in jail. He stole a car in Gallup, and the police chased him all the way to Albuquerque.

  • “What do we do?” I asked Lauren.
  • “Well, Bob King knows about it. And so does Louise. I don’t know what we do. We don’t do anything. We just teach them. We can’t do anything.”
  • “We can’t do anything?” I said.
  • “Well, I think we’ve done everything we can, I mean. Someone reported it, and I think they’re making sure she’s staying somewhere safe right now. That’s about as far as it goes. From here, we just teach them.”

We stood there looking out, the playground awash in children running and shouting and playing like children, and I saw where the desert fell away into the morning sun and a red-tailed hawk rode the currents there along the rocky edge headed south and stretching out into the flats where the hunting was good in the mornings.


Here, then, were the two opposing forces at Borrego—its austere, clean beauty and its belligerent, ugly darkness. I had only been here a couple of weeks, and already I felt utterly helpless and broken in the face of it.

 

This was a violent world, one that stole energy and hope from its people, beat them down, and then kept them down, possibly forever. There must have been something else here too, something soft and caring, something safe and loving, something good that held this community together. If so, I could not, as yet, see it. Perhaps in time I would. But why, I had to ask, did I so readily witness the cruel and violent face of Borrego and nothing of the other side? Why would a community like this one show me, a stranger, this dark part of itself and hide its best qualities? Was this an American characteristic, or was it specifically Navajo? Whatever, I began to wonder what effect living and working in such conditions might have on me. Would I too find my energy and hope stolen away? Would I give up on my students, my fellow teachers and friends, myself?

 

Have you ever felt like an outsider in your teaching experience? Share in the comments section!

 

 

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