Indiana State University Newsroom

Honors students learn by engaging Navajo culture

November 21, 2011

The Navajo Nation spans nearly 27,500 miles, equivalent to the size of West Virginia. Yet ask any number of people, and they would struggle to find the Navajo Nation and explain Diné culture (that's Navajo for "the people").

So when 10 Indiana State University honors students trekked to Pinon, Ariz., in early October to see how high school students live on the reservation, it was an experience that opened the mind and engaged the senses, from hearing traditional chants to witnessing the poverty to tasting the much-talked about Navajo tacos.

"The purpose, as I see it, for the cross-cultural program is so that our students from Indiana State, but also the students from the Navajo reservation, can get the daily life experiences of one another," said Charlie Ricker, a senior political science major from Indianapolis.

And Ricker was right. The ISU students did experience the daily life of a Navajo. To start, heavy rains caused the dirt roads to become impassable mires, threatening the cancellation of school.

"You are getting to experience a true Rez mud day," Kristin Monts, an ISU alumna and Pinon High School teacher, exclaimed to the college group.

Monts, who student taught on the Navajo Reservation - called the Rez by the Navajo -then accepted a teaching position there after graduating in 2009, has stayed connected to Greg Bierly, director of the University Honors Program. ISU first visited the reservation three years ago, then hosted the Pinon students this past spring. The collaborative effort of the cross-cultural program has one primary purpose: two-way education.

"We took our students to Pinon so that the issues of culture and education that they had investigated in the classroom could truly come to life," Bierly said, "It is one thing to discuss these issues as variables in a classroom in Indiana; it is entirely something else to walk the reservation and learn from someone that has always lived there."

"The biggest thing for my students is just exposure opportunities, them being able to meet people that live off the reservation, that are not Native American and learn from them, but then also feel empowered by teaching them about their culture," Monts said, "Exposure is huge since my students live in a very isolated area."

Isolation is just one challenge the Navajo students face. The Nation also confronts an intimidating 80 percent unemployment rate, gang recruitment beginning in middle school and rampant alcoholism.

Rachel Hand, a junior studying speech-language pathology from Milan, Ind., said her small-town roots have limited her exposure to diverse cultures.

"Coming out here has really shown me that not everything is the picture-perfect world that we think we live in," Hand said, "Coming here, we have seen students who are in high school that deal with a lot more problems than I have ever imagined, and they overcome those and they persevere so much."

Shannon Winklepleck, a sophomore speech-language pathology major from Odon, Ind., emphasized that the purpose of the trip went beyond simply feeling sorry for the Navajo culture's social and economic problems.

"The point of the trip was not to pity the students, but to learn from them," Winklepleck said, "And we did."

For the ISU students, the experience encouraged them to reach outside themselves and their routines to slap dough around making traditional fry bread, to drive for an hour in the same direction in order to experience the desert's vastness and its quietude, to process the unique traditions of this often-forgotten culture and listen to the internal conflicts of a Navajo coming of age in the 21st century.

"I was talking to one [student] in particular, and she was telling me that recently she has started to realize how important her culture is, so she's trying to find that healthy balance between accepting who she is as a Navajo, as well as wanting to make a better life for herself and a better future," Hand said, "There's definitely a lot of a difficulties within her family because her family wants her to stay here on the reservation."

Family duties often take priority over schoolwork. Freshman Shevon Badoni and sophomore Megan Tom, both introspective Pinon students, routinely clean their houses and cook dinner, as well as take care of younger siblings. Other students have animals to herd, which makes it difficult to begin homework until 10 each night.

"When they come to school, it's a freedom," Monts said, "They're able to see their friends, their teachers. They're able to learn and be high-schoolers, and they're not really able to do that when they're home."

Pinon High School juniors and seniors asked Indiana State students questions about college during a question and answer panel. Students inquired about topics ranging from the difficulty of classes to what it is like leaving home.

"It's just great to have role models there that can equip them with more knowledge and confidence that they can do it. They can leave home and they can succeed in school," Monts said.

Kristina Yazzie, a bubbly, yet strong-willed Navajo sophomore, recognizes how both groups of students can benefit from this experience.

"I hope you gain a lot of knowledge about the Navajo people. A lot of people have lost touch with their Navajo culture, so we just want to teach you what we know right now, and it's starting to really inspire us to get reunited with our culture."

Hand thinks working on the reservation post-graduation seems like an exciting possibility.

"After getting to meet the students, speaking to them one-on-one, getting to meet with the teachers and speak to them as well, there is a very good possibility that I can definitely see myself coming here one day working as a speech therapist with these students," she said.

Monts took pride in her students, who developed the itinerary and activities for their visitors, throughout the collaboration.

"They've become leaders. All of them have become leaders," Monts said with a smile, as if she were their own mother.

Then again, they do call her "Mom."

As the students watched the sun set from the top of Cedar Mesa on the last night of the trip, it seemed plausible to witness that entire 27,500-mile Nation in one 360 degree motion. Navajo students stood shoulder to shoulder with Indiana State students. Two cultures blended into a newly-formed family. Only one question remained.

"Mom! Where are we going to eat?"

Megan Tom, sophomore student at Pinon High School. ISU Photo/Tracy Ford
Charlie Ricker, senior ISU Honors student, with ISU alumna Kristin Monts in Pinon, Arizona. ISU Photo/Tracy Ford
ISU and Pinon students worked together to repaint a tank covered in graffiti. ISU Photo/Tracy Ford
Rachel Hand, junior ISU Honors student, learns to make fry bread from a Pinon student's grandmother. ISU Photo/Tracy Ford
Pinon student Shevon Badoni and ISU Honors student Laura Brassie. ISU Photo/Tracy Ford
Pinon High School students and ISU Honors students enjoy the sunset on top of Cedar Mesa, Utah. ISU Photo/Tracy Ford

Contact: Greg Bierly, director, University Honors Program, Indiana State University, at 812-237-3225 or

Writer: Mallory Metheny, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, at 812-237-3773


Story Highlights

Ten Indiana State University honors students trekked to Pinon, Ariz., in early October to see how Navajo high school students live on the reservation

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