Starting the NAS 111 Introduction to Native American Studies course, I learned about the implications of education and language. We had an opportunity to read excerpts from Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences (2000) and even analyze Secretary Haaland’s secretarial memo for the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative (2021). These topics included helped us to examine the role of NAS programs in academia and Native American boarding schools. I understood this as the boarding school was like an introduction to the education system for Native Americans, how could the NAS discipline help to heal and move forward from those times, I wondered.
For this course, I was given the opportunity to seek out an Individual and conduct an interview. I sought out an individual who has had experience with the federal school system in the Navajo Nation and attended Shonto Preparatory in Shonto, Arizona. Therefore, I thought about my former Public Health classmate, Pamela Werito. I wanted to ask about her thoughts regarding Indigenous identity, education, and language.
Pamela is of the Reed People clan, born for the Red House People clan. Her paternal clans are for the Yuca Fruit People clan, and her maternal clans are for the Salt People clan. She is originally from Shonto, Arizona and attended Shonto Preparatory from 2001 to 2014, graduating from Shonto Preparatory Technology High School. She continued her education at Utah State University, earning her Associate of Science in General Studies in 2016 before returning home to Diné College. Pamela will receive her Bachelor of Science in Public Health with a minor in Native American Studies in December of 2023. As part of her NAS minor, she conducted an Indigenous research project titled, "The Economics of Home Butchered Meat."
Pamela's shared how Shonto Preparatory had Navajo classes that pushed the students to learn their language and culture. She stated, "I believe that's what makes me who I am today because if I didn't learn that I probably would have been lost right now."
As she furthered her high school education, she noticed a shift in the education system. Even though she attended high school at Shonto Preparatory Technology High School, she talked about how the focus changed from Navajo teachings to "you need to learn the Western ways to make a Western living." Her time spent at Shonto Preparatory has positively influenced her life. I asked her about a memory that stood out from her experience there, and she answered that it was her dorm life. She talked about how the dorms felt like the old military way, but now it is different. When she was there, they woke the students up in the morning at five to go for a run. Then they would return to their rooms and fix their bed, get ready for the day, start their cleaning, line up and go to the cafeteria, return to their rooms to get their bags for school, and line up again to go to their classrooms. She stated, "The dorm taught me a lot; they taught me how to care for myself. I feel like the running has really helped me, waking up early and going for a run because, in the Navajo way, you're supposed to do that."
This shift of focus continued into college. When she was graduated from Utah State University, she originally started her bachelor’s program at Arizona State University. She explained that move as “a big cultural shock." Arizona State University did have Native American clubs, but it wasn't the same. She stated, "It was so different from what I was exposed to." She returned to the Navajo Nation, where she found Dine College.
Pamela talked about how Diné College reminded her of the cultural support that she received at Shonto Preparatory, "I felt connected, and I felt like I was home." She talked about the Navajo and Native American Studies classes she took for her degree. She happy that Navajo ways of knowing were included in her higher education: "I can incorporate my ways of knowing and balance it with Western ways of living. I can find balance and harmony, build myself more, and hopefully pass all that on to my children. So, they can also find themselves instead of being displaced and thinking that the Western way is the only way."
Pamela shared with me, "Reflecting back and looking at our Indigenous people's resilience, we can create a better future for our loved ones. They shouldn't be pushed away or forgotten about. We should learn about it to build stronger communities and understand where we need to place a lot of help." As Native Americans in higher education, learning about the ancestorial trauma in education systems like boarding schools helped shape resiliency. Through a NAS perspective, I realized that our ancestors always thought about us. They were always thinking about the future generations that would come after them. I believe this because they went through a lot throughout Native history, experiences that have left scars on Native communities today, and these scars show survival. For Pamela, her experience at a boarding school positively impacted her life – it’s a perspective that can’t be forgotten.
For more readings on Native American Education, visit the Diné College library sources:
Archuleta M. Child B. J. Lomawaima K. T. & Heard Museum. (2009). Away from home : American Indian boarding school experiences 1879-2000. Heard Museum; Distributed by Museum of New Mexico Press. (Call Number E97.5 .A853 2000; Available at all three Diné College Libraries)
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