Princeton Weekly Bulletin   April 14, 2008, Vol. 97, No. 23   prev   next   current

Students work and learn in Navajo Nation

by Ushma Patel

Princeton NJ — Several days into their spring break, 14 Princeton students found themselves in the middle of the Arizona desert, with nighttime temperatures in the 30s and no running water or electricity. Some lay under the stars, and others awoke every few hours to light the fire within their hogans, traditional Navajo homes.

For many of the students, the two-day stay on the Navajo Nation reservation was the highlight of their weeklong trip to Flagstaff, Ariz., to work with local activists and learn about Navajo life, sustainable development and effective advocacy. Their journey was one of four “Breakout Princeton” trips, involving 46 students, sponsored by the Pace Center during the mid-March spring recess. The Breakout program, which is in its first year, combined academic learning with service in trips designed and led by students.

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A group of 14 Princeton students traveled to Flagstaff, Ariz., and the Navajo Nation during spring break to learn about sustainable development and Native American rights, while also providing support to a nonprofit housing group. Here, the students stand outside of the straw bale and earthen plaster home upon which they performed some construction work for homeowners Marie Gladue and Arvon Badonie. (photo: Tom Yersak)

Sophomore Christine Chong and junior Brian Geistwhite led the Arizona trip, which they initiated to examine economic development in a unique environment. The self-governing Navajo Nation covers 27,000 square miles in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, and it has a population of about 250,000.

“The Navajo Nation is tied to different political and legal systems, and the culture is unique,” said Geistwhite, who grew up in border towns around the reservation. “It was interesting to see how these different parts interact and how people were doing development, particularly sustainable development, within the Navajo Nation.”

As one element of the Breakout program, the leaders organized a series of educational sessions before the trip. Chong and Geistwhite’s sessions included talks with Lawrence Rosen, Princeton’s William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Anthropology, who taught a course on the rights of indigenous peoples last semester, and visiting professors Frank and Deborah Popper, who co-taught an environmental studies class on regional planning in the fall. The students also educated themselves about the Navajo Nation, activist groups they would be meeting, and issues in grants they would be writing. 

In Arizona, the students worked with Indigenous Community Enterprises (ICE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing affordable and culturally appropriate housing to low-income Navajo elders and families. ICE builds hogans, which have cultural and religious significance, on the reservation.

Since ICE had to invest so much time in educating the students, Chong and Geistwhite chose the trip participants based on their level of interest in Native American and development issues.

“We were looking for students who were going to be able to leverage this experience in their time after Prince-ton,” Geistwhite said.

Students divided their week between service — organizing, grantwriting, creating presentation materials and making a promotional video for ICE, plus working on the reservation — and meetings with local activists, tribal officials and Navajo residents. The other nonprofit groups they visited focused on issues including water usage, health, and sustainable food options such as community gardens.

“Everyone was so warm and willing to share with each other, working together with all this cooperation, which was the ideal model for how nonprofits should work together if it’s for a common goal,” Chong said. 

Students also met with alumni Roman Bitsuie and Larry Nez, who work for the Navajo government, and they met marchers on the Longest Walk, an event commemorating a walk for Native American rights in 1978. Marchers, many of them longtime activists, are retreading the path from California to Washington, D.C., over several months.

The discussions about issues came to life when the students traveled to Hard Rocks, a community on the reservation, to live and work with a family. They helped construct a home, repair a community structure and herd sheep. Students also found some surprises — such as a hogan using solar panels to power a satellite and television.

Since many students were unfamiliar with Navajo life, they learned from the firsthand observations as well as patient explanations from their host family, freshman Isabel Pike said.

“Sitting around an outdoor fire at night, the family voiced their concerns about the loss of culture and pride in the Indian community. They explained that although they did not have any running water or electricity, they wanted the traditional way of life,” Pike said. “We met the grandmother, who back in the 1970s had shot at officials who tried to force her off her land. It gave context to all the talking we had heard that week.”

The combination of service and learning that Pike experienced is what Pace Center staff members were hoping for when they created the Breakout program, said Phil Martin, a Pace senior program coordinator. 

“We wanted to turn the classroom inside out — to empower students as active learners, and even as teachers and coaches,” Martin said. “And we wanted to show students that there are ways to apply the things they’re learning at Princeton to real-world problems.”

Additionally, the Breakout program is meant to develop students as public leaders, Martin said. 

The trips were open to Princeton undergraduate and graduate students to encourage more interaction between the two groups. The model appealed to students; after selecting trip leaders and coordinators, the center had 70 applications for 35 spots. After the trip, 96 percent of participants surveyed by the Pace Center said they would recommend the program to friends. Coordinators hope to double the number of participants next year, if they can get enough student leaders, Martin said. 

The three other trips involved refugee and asylum issues in New York City and Jersey City, criminal justice issues in Los Angeles and Hurricane Katrina recovery in New Orleans. The Center for African American Studies, the Princeton Environmental Institute, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, the Department of Near Eastern Studies, and the programs in African studies and American studies cosponsored the trips. Staff members from the Fields Center and Outdoor Action helped train the trip leaders.

The program didn’t end when the students returned to campus. The groups are planning a panel event — to be held at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, April 24, in 302 Frist Campus Center — featuring information from all four trips.

And some individual students have already started considering ways to further the efforts they started during their trips, including leaders Geistwhite and Chong.

Geistwhite, a computer science major, is considering a master’s degree in international development. Chong, a pre-med ecology and evolutionary biology major, is now considering a master’s degree in public health.

Junior Tom Yersak, who is majoring in mechanical and aerospace engineering with a certificate in environmental studies, is planning to return to Arizona this summer with two other students to intern with Bitsuie, a 1978 alumnus, at the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission. 

“I’ve been focused on sustainable development and renewable energy for most of my time at Princeton,” Yersak said. “Now that I’ve seen firsthand how these ideas can help real people, I’m committed more than ever to devoting my career to this.”

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