To honor her family and her people, Kayla Begay (New Mexico ’12) is building a school in the Navajo Nation where students won’t have to choose—as she did—between their education and their culture.
December 11, 2014
In 1957 the Navajo Nation asked Sam Cleveland for a gift. Cleveland was a medicine man who owned more than 2,000 acres of land in what is now Navajo, N.M., a small community within the Red Lake chapter of the Navajo Nation. The tribe had entered into a venture with outside lumber company executives eager to gain access to the rich forest lands in the Chuska Mountains. The lumber companies promised profits, jobs, and community resources would flow into the reservation. In deference to the tribal council, Cleveland signed over 986 acres to the tribal-owned Navajo Forest Products Industry.
When crews came to build the mill, they blasted away a large sandstone tower called Lady Frog Rock that was sacred to the Navajo. “That’s when he cried,” says Kayla Begay (New Mexico ’12), Cleveland’s great-great-granddaughter. “He gave up his land, and they desecrated it.”
Many Navajo elders were horrified by what they saw as the physical and spiritual destruction of the forest. But others welcomed the work and benefits that came with the mill and the town’s new white residents. Navajo became the first Navajo Nation community to have a swimming pool and recreation center. There was also a park, grocery store, library, and dental clinic. Local schools were built and attracted good teachers.
But in 1994, a protracted campaign by environmentalists and Navajo elders to close the mill succeeded, and 650 jobs evaporated.
“It was a town that had taken shape for the white mill workers, not for the Natives,” says Kayla. “When the mill disappeared, things changed.”
Kayla’s grandmother, Yvonne Begay—Cleveland’s granddaughter—puts it more simply: “They forgot about us.” (Editor's Note: This article ran in the Fall 2014 edition.)
“We can’t get stuck in this nostalgic past—we have to recognize the realities of the present and embrace it.”
Today, Kayla lives with her grandmother Yvonne in a small ranch house a stone’s throw from the site of the old mill. The main edifice of the mill was razed in March, but vestiges of the recreation center and playground still stand encircled by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Burnt-out shacks pepper the dirt roads around it.
Especially to the young people who make up 45 percent of its population, Navajo is “a town that once was,” Kayla says. “Elderly people remember the mill and when Navajo was a vibrant place, but the youth have never seen this place grow.”
Unemployment in the Navajo Nation hovers around 50 percent; the median income is $24,000, well below poverty line. Gangs, alcoholism, and diabetes are rampant. Although the Navajo Agriculture Products Industry cultivates potatoes, corn, alfalfa, beans, and grains, nearly all of it is sold off the reservation. Kayla and her grandmother drive 50 miles to Gallup each week to buy groceries.
Kayla sees the mill’s closing as representative of the ongoing clash between economic interests and traditional indigenous values—a conflict she believes can and must be reconciled for the next generation of Navajo youth to succeed.
In late September, Kayla won approval from the state to open a new community-focused charter school in her hometown of Navajo. The Dził Dit Ł’ooí School of Empowerment, Action and Perseverance (DEAP) is slated to open in the fall of 2015. The grade 6-12 school will focus on college and career readiness through an indigenous core of Navajo empowerment, experiential learning through agriculture, wellness, community leadership, and service learning. “Ideally I’m creating a school that doesn’t ask children to choose between a Western education and their culture,” Kayla says. “We can’t get stuck in this nostalgic past—we have to recognize the realities of the present and embrace it.”
Assimilation's Long Reach
Kayla’s vision for her school seems to reflect her yearning to mend the cracks in her own Navajo identity. Her great-grandparents attended Fort Wingate, one of New Mexico’s oppressive “kill the Indian, save the man” boarding schools and often told stories of the abuse they suffered there. Yet the forced assimilation had a lasting impact.
“My parents spoke fluent Navajo, but they never taught us,” says Yvonne, now 74. “My grandpa was a medicine man, and he would perform ceremonies, but my parents never explained anything to us. My dad was a real strong Christian, so he didn’t believe in the traditional way. We didn’t do any Navajo stuff.”
Kayla was in eighth grade when she took a Navajo language class, her first real exposure to her native tongue since learning a Diné folk song as a child in Head Start. Growing up, she, too, was cut off from her Navajo heritage by her father, a devout Christian. Her mother, Leanne, was raised in a traditional Navajo home—learning Navajo and sheepherding from her grandparents—but she ceded to her husband’s will.
When Kayla was 12, Leanne wanted her to take part in a puberty ceremony called the kinaaldá. A four-day ritual that involves hair-braiding, cooking, and singing, kinaaldá is an empowering rite of passage for a Navajo woman, marking her ascendance into the Navajo’s matriarchal society.
“My dad told me [the ceremony] wasn’t the Christian thing to do, so I didn’t do it,” Kayla says. “And I’ve always regretted that.”
Still, Kayla believes the future of her tribe lies not in the rigid preservation of tradition, but in the evolution of culture. She draws inspiration from what she sees as the resilience and transcendence of Navajo tradition through adversity.
“Our ancestors went through the Navajo Long Walk and still came back and planted corn,” she says. “Yvonne’s grandpa, even after he lost his land, he still planted corn. My dad didn’t finish school, and he still plants corn. And me—I still plant corn in our field. We recognize there’s power beyond us, whether it’s in the land or in each other.”
Counterintuitively, Kayla’s own cultural awakening came after she left the reservation. She went to school in Navajo and nearby Window Rock through middle school and excelled academically. At the end of eighth grade, her teachers encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to attend Choate Rosemary Hall, an elite prep school in Connecticut. “I was a rez-cat—I didn’t know where Connecticut was,” she recalls, laughing. “I’d never been on an airplane before.”
Leanne was sick with worry about her daughter going so far away but had resolved never to limit her daughter’s choices. Leanne was 17 when she got pregnant with Kayla and dropped out of high school. She later earned her G.E.D. and now works as a Head Start teacher. “I’ve always pushed my children and encouraged them because I didn’t have high expectations for myself.”
Predictably, Choate was an intense culture shock. Surrounded by affluent, mostly white classmates, Kayla was one of five Native students on campus. She struggled with the rigorous coursework, and “because I had never had relationships with white people, I didn’t know how to talk to my advisors or express what I needed or how I felt,” she says.
The hardest part was coming to terms with the gaps in her Navajo identity. “My peers would ask me, ‘What’s the Native perspective?’ I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know my people’s history. I didn’t know what class was or what race was. But these things were being pushed in my face, so I had to deal with it. I went through an identity crisis. It was really extreme.”
After Choate, Kayla enrolled at Occidental College, a liberal arts school in Los Angeles, where she took courses in critical race theory and sociology. “It wasn’t until I gained this critical consciousness that I realized how much I had lost,” she says.
She began learning more about her Navajo heritage, participating in a Native American Church ceremony to strengthen her relationship with her mother’s family. “Once I embraced those traditions,” she says, “things clicked for me. I felt really connected to my family and myself.”
Back at Occidental, “I met other people of color and saw our common struggles. I understood what oppression meant. It was an empowering moment. What does it mean to be indigenous? To be Diné? That’s when my perspective shifted from focusing on my individual goals to thinking about community goals.”
“I’m constantly trying to decolonize my thinking and indigenize it.”
Choosing to Teach
After eight years away, Kayla felt a longing to return home. Her grandmother Yvonne had suffered a heart attack, so Kayla moved in to help care for her. Like many of her friends who had returned from college, she struggled to find employment on the reservation. Most left for jobs elsewhere, but after six months, Kayla found work as a special education paraprofessional and began to think about teaching.
She had heard criticism about Teach For America’s presence on the reservation—mainly that the organization was bringing in white teachers who didn’t understand the Native community. “I thought, well, I’m from this community, so I applied.”
She was placed at the Navajo elementary school she attended as a child. Many of her colleagues were her former teachers. “It was amazing to come full circle,” she says. She drew on her own experiences—as a student both on and off the reservation—to inspire her teaching.
Kayla says many Navajo youth want to embrace their culture but sometimes feel discouraged by elders who often scold or deride those who make mistakes while trying to learn the language or traditions. She started a community garden on her family’s private land to help students make a connection to the land. “Sometimes we view culture as this religious experience, when in reality it could be a simple as growing a garden.”
In 2012, she began a fellowship at the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque. A charter school designed specifically for Native students, NACA was breaking new ground with its culturally integrated approach and getting promising results. The fellowship was designed to groom leaders to incubate similar schools for low-income Native youth. (Another NACA fellow, New Mexico ’02 alumnus Gavin Sosa, helped found Dream Diné, a new charter school in Shiprock that opened in September.)
With DEAP’s charter now approved, Kayla is intent on bringing NACA’s community-centered model to Navajo. She plans to invite tribal elders and community members to share their knowledge, language, skills, and stories with her students.
“One measure of success will be how much is collaborated and shared. Is it really a community?” she says. “That’s where it becomes transformative. Then your learning isn’t focused on an individual and a score—it’s focused on a family, on a community, on building a nation.”
DEAP’s success may hinge on whether Kayla can find a way to make Navajo culture matter to students like her younger brother, Dondi, 16, who is a junior at Gallup High School. A serious young man with black-rimmed glasses, Dondi says his friends see Navajo culture as irrelevant and out of date. The few who know some Navajo are embarrassed to speak it for fear of being mocked or teased by their peers.
That negative pressure is reinforced by his school, Dondi says. He believes Navajo language and government classes are treated less seriously than other courses.
Most of Dondi’s friends go to school in Navajo and Window Rock, and the majority plan to leave the reservation for good. “They would rather be anywhere else in the world,” he says. “They talk about leaving and never coming back, how there’s no opportunity here, there’s nothing here for them. It’s sad, but that’s very true in a lot of aspects.”
Only 13.9 percent of Navajo Elementary School students scored proficient in reading on standardized assessments last year, and 17.4 percent were proficient in math, earning the school an F on the state’s School Report Card grading system. Reading and math scores for high school students in Navajo were slightly better at 31 percent and 29 percent, respectively, but the school received D grades in both “college and career readiness” and on-time graduation.
“Broken roads, broken homes, poverty, tagging, alcoholism,” Kayla says. “If you’ve lived on the reservation your entire life, this is the only thing you know, so it’s really hard to dream what’s possible.”
But that didn’t stop her from asking parents and community members what they wanted from a new school. Culturally, many said they wanted their children to learn Navajo and to interact with the land. Parents also want their kids to have access to real opportunities and careers, Kayla says, to be healthy and have the ability “to choose a path that will make them happy.”
The school will focus on rigorous academics and college readiness, and Navajo values and culture will be central to the curriculum. “I’m constantly trying to decolonize my thinking and indigenize it,” she says. “We need to follow the Common Core, but I don’t want Navajo language and culture to be just an elective.”
Modeled on NACA, DEAP will have an indigenous core focused on Navajo language, history, and beliefs, with an emphasis on leadership and service learning. After decades of oppression, apathy has taken hold in the Navajo community, Kayla says. “Young people don’t feel a part of the Navajo Nation. Their voice isn’t valued. We want our students to know they have the power to transform and solve our own problems.”
Walking in Beauty
Last August, as part of a local community action group, Kayla organized the Fuzzy Mountain Mural Project to beautify the old recreation center. “The youth were really excited to show off their skills,” says Kayla of the 80 students and family members who participated. The resulting mural glows with vibrant colors, animals, and abstract designs. One panel displays the majestic profiles of a Navajo man and woman; another shouts the word “decolonize.”
In the year since the mural was completed, it hasn’t been tagged once, Kayla notes proudly. However, a new kind of graffiti did begin appearing in the town. “We’d see tags that said ‘Fix the roads!’ or ‘Don’t text while driving!’” she says.
Socially-conscious tagging may be a small shift, but she hopes it’s a harbinger of greater changes to come.
“There’s this new generation that’s rising and becoming empowered,” Kayla says. “In Navajo we have this saying, ‘Walk in beauty.’ For me, that means leading by example, doing things that are honoring of your people. What empowers me is knowing my history and knowing that it’s not something to save. It’s there. All you have to do is embrace it. When I did, that’s when I started to dream.”