The Importance of Graduating in the Navajo Way

Education in traditional knowledge, as well as global issues, form the foundation of this Navajo Nation university

We were heading northwest on Interstate 40 on route to the Navajo Technical University (NTU) in Crownpoint, New Mexico. As we drove past Grants, Mount Taylor rose in the distance. Known to the indigenous community as Tso odził, it is one of the Navajo Nation’s four sacred mountains. Turning off at Thoreau, we headed toward the Navajo Nation border, marked by a sign: “Yáʼátʼááh Welcome to the Navajo Nation.”

Now on Bureau of Indian Affairs roads, Charlie Weber, the media director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and I wound through rose-colored peaks and mesas and across the continental divide. The picturesque landscape holds many tales, including a legacy of uranium mining that studies declare will impact future generations for the next thousand years. A sign pointed east toward the ancient, sacred site of Chaco Canyon.

Our trip to NTU coincided with the 2015 spring commencement ceremony. At dawn, trucks and cars had already lined up to enter the campus. The air was electric with anticipation. Graduation day enfolds individual, familial, clan and tribal dimensions. As students, faculty and families readied themselves for the ceremony, anticipation mounted in the gymnasium, where the commencement would take place. Across the parking lot at the hooghan, an eight-sided traditional Diné home and sacred space and home to the School of Diné Studies, graduates lined up around the circular fire pit for the procession.

The lands of the sovereign Navajo (Diné) Nation extend across New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. The nation operates under a tribal form of government, but that wasn’t always the case. The fight was long, but in 1975, with the passing of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Navajos regained the right to control their own affairs.

Long threatened with cultural genocide through conquest, territorial displacement and the establishment of the Indian Day and Boarding School Systems, which force-fed Native youth white culture and religious beliefs, the Navajo Nation now controls its own destiny. However, the damage done by a school system aiming for total assimilation endures.

Since then, the establishment of tribal schools have been crucial in the Diné struggle for self-determination. NTU, the inspiration for this short video documentary, is one of two tribal institutions of higher education on the Navajo Nation. Originally founded in 1979 as a training center to combat poverty and unemployment, the institution achieved university status in 2013 and conferred its first master’s degree in 2016. Plans are now under way for a doctoral program. NTU credits this success as stemming from “our mission and our identity rooted in the Diné Philosophy of Education.”

Professor Alvin Allen, medicine man Dan Jim Nez, and graduates Melissa Jackson and Yvonne Platero at Navajo Technical University’s 2015 commencement ceremony. Photo by Amy Horowitz
Professor Tilda Woody and graduates Orlynda Jodie, Cherilyn Bahe, and Latreva Largo process to the Navajo Technical University gymnasium for the commencement ceremony. Photo by Amy Horowitz

As the ceremony got underway, Dan Jim Nez led with sacred singing, followed by NTU president Dr. Elmer Guy and Jonathan Nez, vice president of the Navajo Nation. Miss NTU, Glennis Yazzie, carried the sacred medicine bundle. Students adorned themselves in localized attire, from feathered “caps” refashioned into cowboy hats to handmade moccasins—an indigenous reclamation of Diné sensibilities. Dakota Cooke performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the Diné language. Family members took to the stage to honor their graduates by pinning flowers to their lapels.

When the ceremony concluded, families huddled around their graduates, and we made our way back to the hooghan to meet with Dr. Wesley Thomas. Thomas is a cultural anthropologist and the initiator of Diné studies and the graduate studies program at NTU. He spoke of the challenges of introducing global issues in an environment where local struggles are so dire. He introduced students to Palestine, Ferguson and South America, noting: “The students are too busy surviving on the reservation, so here I provide that for them.” As Thomas explained, cultural genocide has multiple forms: the legacy of stolen lands, trauma from the Long March, toxic environmental issues, and livestock reduction, to name a few.

Fernando Yazzie shows off his diploma after the ceremony at Navajo Technical University.
Graduate Fernando Yazzie after the ceremony at Navajo Technical University. Photo by Amy Horowitz

Professor Anita Roastingear echoed the sentiment about tension between local struggles, survival of indigenous ways, and global issues. “Native American students are vital to the global experience,” she said. “We have to know the dominant society, languages, court system, educational system, but we don’t have to be conquered by them.”

This discussion initiated our thinking about a global studies approach that centers around indigenous issues. In the context of the sovereign Navajo Nation within the United States, the global is local.

The GALACTIC program (Global Arts Local Arts Culture Technology International Citizenship) began to take shape that day in the hooghanOver the next months, we co-created an annual workshop at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and at Indiana University’s Institute for Curriculum and Campus Internationalization. Our long-term goal is to develop indigenous global studies with a focus on sustainability of indigenous local languages and cultural traditions in a global era.

In this documentary, meet the spiritual leaders, graduates, faculty, and staff from NTU. You will witness students who are, in the words of medicine man Dan Jim Nez, “graduating in the Navajo way.”

For us, it also represents the commencing of a multiyear collaboration focused on indigenous global and local cultures, art, and survival issues.

Amy Horowitz is the director of GALACTIC (Global Arts Local Arts Culture Technology International Citizenship), a project of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and the Center for the Study of Global Change at Indiana University, the School of Diné Studies at Navajo Technical University, the Roadwork Center for Cultures in Disputed Territories, and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Horowitz served as acting and assistant director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and Folklife curator in the 1990s.

A version of this article was previously published in the online magazine of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

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