With her hand extended before her, fingers outstretched and spread apart, Melissa Woody asked a group of students from Penn State DuBois to replicate her gesture with their own hands.
"We are all five-fingered people," Woody said, demonstrating the equality in all people, regardless of ethnic background, religion, or financial status. "In Navajo tradition, we learn that we are all the same. We are all five-fingered people."
Woody, a Navajo woman with a passion for educating others about her culture, is the Navajo Nation site director for Amizade Global Service Learning. Amizade, based in Pittsburgh, is an organization dedicated to service learning and cultural education that brings volunteers together with opportunities such as those on the Navajo Nation. She accompanied students throughout the week during service and cultural learning experiences, and guided them on visits to landmarks such as the Grand Canyon and Newspaper Rock, and helped to organize educational lectures on Navajo culture, language and government.
Woody and the 22 Penn State DuBois students made their introductions on the campus of Grey Hills High School, near Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. The students spent the week of their spring break living in a dormitory once used for boarding Grey Hills students. This became a home and basecamp for the group on a journey that opened opportunities for learning much more about Navajo culture, and putting those five-fingered hands to work completing service on the reservation.
Students served residents of the Navajo Nation in a variety for ways. They constructed outbuildings, repaired a corral and other structures on a sheep ranch, split and stacked firewood, and helped to build a traditional Navajo log home, known as a hogan, which one resident will live in. They also helped to build sweat lodges, and had the opportunity to participate in a Navajo sweat lodge ceremony. In ways like this, the students not only served with physical work, but in many cultural ways as well, which was most important to those living on the reservation.
As Woody and others explained, the Navajo today feel the most important service anyone can provide to them is to tell their story and help their culture to continue to thrive.
"Service is not always about doing what needs done; service is being in the moment with who you are with," Woody said. "It's a different perspective sharing things with someone from my own culture, versus sharing things with an Anglo person. If an Anglo person is to come here and be on the land and know our culture, they also learn things about themselves. When they go back, they go to a completely different environment, and I hope I can influence some people who can help to preserve what we have."
Woody cheerfully imparted lessons on Navajo culture throughout the week. The 41 year old mother perpetually wore a smile, and warmly imparted to students lessons about life in the Nation. Students quickly learned that time slows down here, if it is existent at all to the Navajo, who lightheartedly refer to their relaxed attitude about schedules as running on "Indian Time". It has been no worry at all to the rancher at the service site that work started an hour late, or that more supplies were needed to build one of the outbuildings, setting construction back a couple of hours while a trip to the store was made. When life on the reservation goes in an unexpected direction the Navajo simply say, "Okay, good." The phrase, used often, neatly sums up the ideal that worrying about things one cannot change is wasted time, or alternatively, to appreciate what you have. It also reminds people about another strong Navajo belief: take care of yourself.
"You cannot take care of others if you do not first take care of yourself," Woody explained. "If you need to rest, rest. Take care of yourself. Do things that make you happy."
This philosophy had an impact on Penn State DuBois student Amanda Butler, who said, "I thought I went to the Navajo Nation to provide service and grow as an individual, and as a group. Not until I was there did I realize I was there to learn to take care of shí (me). The Navajo people live a lifestyle that stresses the importance of taking care of yourself first, so that you can then take care of others. In our culture, this is something that is easily forgotten throughout our busy lives. During this trip, I feel the Navajo people helped me far more than I could have ever offered them, and I hope that by taking care of myself I can be as giving and thoughtful as they are."
Penn State DuBois Assistant Director of Student Affairs Marly Doty planned and organized this service trip, and led students at the Navajo Nation for the week. She said, "This year students were immersed in the Navajo culture and challenged to juxtapose this culture with their own. These students left with hopes of changing someone else’s life and returned home ultimately finding a new lens on the world around them."
Doty noted that this year marks the ninth annual Alternative Spring Break trip for Penn State DuBois since she instituted the trips at the campus. To date, over 150 students have participated in the program over the years. Doty went on to explain the enrichment such experiences bring to education. She said, "These experiences are essential to education as they provide engaged scholarship opportunities for our students. I could lecture them about civic responsibility and they’d forget; however, when I show them and engage them in the process, it’ll stick with them as they develop further into adulthood. For many students these experiences prove as turning points for them in their personal and academic development. Moreover, the bonds our students forge last a lifetime as they develop a safe place to understand the world we live in and where they fit."
Many of those bonds were formed this year on Kaibetoney Ranch, a 40 acre home site in a picturesque canyon in the Arizona desert. Lawrence Kaibetoney operates the ranch, nestled between sheer, red cliffs, and embodies the centuries-old Navajo tradition of raising sheep on this land. The ranch has been in his family since the 1800's, but it is and will always be reservation property. It is leased to Kaibetoney by the federal government in an agreement that must be renewed every 25 years.
Kaibetoney is a tall, thin, fatherly Navajo man. His long, jet black hair, accented on the sides with just a hint of grey, is neatly tied back at all times. He is a born teacher who wears a quiet wisdom comfortably, with no energy wasted on extra words or unnecessary luridness. His movements are deliberate. Every word has purpose. An approving look from his eyes is incredibly warm, and his smile is infinitely kind, but these gestures are bestowed only upon those who care to honestly earn them.
"It takes a lot of hands to run this ranch," Kaibetoney remarked during a conversation in the shade of his front porch. "There is always something to do. The help is good to have."
Kaibetoney has spent the day making his rounds among the different groups of students performing work on his ranch. He has offered helpful advice for completing their tasks, as well as encouragement to each group, assuring them they've done well. As he takes a seat on the porch, it becomes clear that any bent nail or crooked fence post placed by the new and inexperienced ranch hands is of little concern to him.
"It's a help when you're teaching somebody, it's not always about what you get out of them," Kaibetoney said. His thoughts, reflecting those Woody also shared, brought into focus the deeper motivation the Navajo people have for hosting service groups - to pass along their traditions, to help young people make memories that they will share with others, and to assure the world continues to care that there are people in the West called Navajo.
"I heard a student say they want to build a sweat lodge when they get back home. It makes me feel good," Kaibetoney said with a smile.
The sweat lodge, in fact, was one of the most impactful experiences students had on the trip. Separated by gender, men and women went for the sweat in different lodges located on Kaibetoney Ranch. The sweat lodge the men used was a wood framed structure covered in earth. The women used a wood frame hut covered in blankets. It is completely dark inside the sweat lodge when the door is closed. Rocks are heated in a fire for hours, then carried into the lodge with stone forks. Sage or cedar is added to boiling water, and the water is poured over the hot rocks, creating and intensely aromatic steam.
The sweat lodge for the Navajo is a sacred ceremony with layers of meanings. Rounds of several minutes to a half hour each are separated by time out of the lodge to lay on the ground and welcome Mother Earth. Each round represents something different. The first round is representative of one's birth, bringing one's self back into the womb and being born again from the lodge. In subsequent rounds, participants pray for health for themselves, their family, and so on. It is also purported to be a healing exercise, causing those in the lodge to sweat toxins from their body, and with them, negative energy from their mind and spirit. Pitch black; wet; extremely hot; the sweat lodge can be a grueling physical experience, and enormously taxing on the psyche.
"The heat made me focus on myself and block out everything else other than what was presently happening," said student Josh Sanko.
Zach Wood said, "I definitely left the first round as a new person."
The reward comes in the end, with a feeling of euphoria brought by relief of leaving the claustrophobic lodge and the suffocating heat. Reward also comes from one knowing they were strong enough to endure the sweat lodge.
Kaibetoney left the lodge each time behind the students he shared it with, and would lay upon the ground silently for several minutes in deep reflection. Students made it clear that the ceremony was an incredible experience for them. Kaibetoney spoke of his pride in being able to share this tradition; perhaps noting a small victory in the battle to sustain the old ways.
Back on the porch, discussion about preserving tradition continued.
"The dominate culture is, well, dominating," Kaibetoney said. "It's taking over. A lot of kids would rather go to the skate park or watch videos than to live at sheep camp."
He said, however, some of that change is necessary. Of the some 300,000 recorded Navajo, only about half of them live on the 27,000 square mile reservation, which occupies parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.
"It can be good for some natives to take advantage of the Anglo culture," Kaibetoney said. "Some move away, go to school, become doctors and lawyers, or welders. That's good. The reservation can't support all 300,000 Navajo. It's good to find that balance," he concluded, noting that an individual's genes must be at least 50% Navajo in order to qualify for status as an official tribe member.
For those who stay, it is a choice and a preference to live in the old ways. Kaibetoney said something that does not translate well between Navajo and Western cultures is that visitors often seek to "help" those who live modestly at sheep camps or other areas, believing they need help at all. In the process, a traditional way of life is whittled away. He said, "In a cultural sense, that's how it has been all these years. Some say, 'Oh, those poor people, they have no running water and no electricity,' but to them, they're happy. They have no bills; no house payment. They are happy and that's up to them."
Spending time on the reservation among the people who thrive so completely in the old ways made it clear to students that, to some Navajo, the correlation between happiness and a simple life is an undeniable truth.
Student Linsey Mizic said, "They're so happy living the way they do. They don't see it as poor. They have all they need. They have all they want. It's the life they know."
Instead, many Navajo are more interested in telling their story. The story of their people and their culture. Though, it is a culture so deep and full of intricacies that a week on the reservation cannot scratch the surface. Everything the Navajo do has meaning. Every gesture has purpose.
Kaibetoney produces a folding knife from his pocket and locks the blade open. He grasps the knife by the handle with the blade pointing outward. "The way you hold a knife can be extremely offensive in my culture," he explained. "What does it look like I'm going to do? Attack? Yes? If someone walked into a room, event innocently, and was holding a knife like this, it could be taken very poorly."
The meaning in each small gesture, or the intricate story behind every song is something the Penn State DuBois students were impressed with. But they mostly marveled over the way every Navajo knew those stories. Nobody in their culture worships or attends a ceremony or sings a song only because their upbringing drilled routine into their core; they do it because the true reasons for doing it were carefully explained to them since childhood.
Kaibetoney added, "One song could take half the night to explain; it's origin, it's meaning. Navajo is no fad, it's a way of life."
And for those who visit the reservation, taking away just fractions of that way of life, or inspiring others to take an interest in it, is the greatest service they can provide.
"These students will leave here and go back to their classes. But they will think about the sweat lodge they built; the hogan they built; the hike they took. At least I hope they will," said Kaibetoney. "The most important thing is people just realizing that us Native Americans are still alive and thriving in the West. We are still here."
Discovering ways to serve communities the way the people in those communities want to be served is what Amizade is all about. Amizade Participant Coordinator Bibi Al–Ebrahim joined the service groups at the Navajo nation for the week. She explained, "Amizade means 'friendship' in Portuguese. It's about creating opportunities to bring people together, and we do it through service learning. The goal is not just to help a community, but also to exchange culture and form bonds that you otherwise would not have the chance to have if it weren't for this experience."
Amizade Program Assistant Julie Smucker added, "Meeting new people and learning new things is so enriching to the student experience. When you leave your comfort zone it's easier to do that. When you step out of where you're comfortable and broaden your world, there's so much to learn."
But the places that at the beginning of the week were outside of the students' comfort zone, felt a lot more like home by week's end. That's exactly the way student Julie Vokes described the experience. She said, "After this week I realized home isn’t always a structure. It's sometimes the people you surround yourself with. I found my home here."
Vokes' sentiments were exemplified in the family-like atmosphere around Kaibetoney ranch after the days of service work there. Students were always welcomed to dinner at Kaibetoney's house. Here they also had the opportunity to cook traditional Navajo foods. Tortillas were prepared over an open fire; mutton stew filled pots on the table. Fry bread, a deep-fried creation resembling an elephant ear or funnel cake, became a student favorite. Students cooked and ate alongside Melissa Woody, Lawrence Kaibetoney, his sister, his mother, and his friends who frequently dropped by for visits. Stories were shared around the fire. Laughs came easy. Memories were made.
"By doing all the things we do together you get to know everyone here on a completely different level than when we started this week, and I think that's awesome," said student Josh Sanko.
Student Aaron Angstadt agreed, saying, "After this trip I think we've all built such a bond that I trust all of you with anything now."
Linsey Mizic added, "It's hard being so far away from my family here, but it's awesome when you find that family in other people that are here. It fills that void."
Just a few feet away from the porch and the tables filled with home cooked food, Woody's 13 year old daughter, Mariah, dribbled a basketball. She was seldom seen without a basketball under her arm. Penn State DuBois women's basketball players Mizic and Kristy Hanes seized the opportunity to play a big sister role and bond with Mariah over their common passion for the game. The three regularly shot hoops together either at the ranch, or on the court at Grey Hills. The Penn State women would also take turns playing Mariah one-on-one.
"I'm really glad I met Mariah. I'll miss her most when I get home," Hanes said. "We connected because of our love for basketball, and part of me really feels like I found a piece of myself way out here."
Each student found their own way to connect. They shared stories like the one Hanes tells about basketball. They found bonds with those they shared experiences with in the sweat lodge. They found satisfaction in service, and enlightenment in new culture. They found family in a place they had never before been, and in people they had never before met. As each work day closed with dinner around the fragrant fire of cedar logs, and the last golden rays of sun faded into an enormous, pink Western sky, one phrase naturally hung on the lips of many: "Okay, good."
This Alternative Spring Break experience was made possible by generous sponsorships by the Mengle Foundation, Bill and Nancy Allenbaugh, Johnson Motors, The Office of the Provost for Educational Equity, the Fraternal Order of Eagles # 4454, and the Polish Citizens Club of DuBois.
Students completed service projects at the Navajo Nation during an Alternative Spring Break trip to Arizona, where they also got an in-depth look at a vanishing culture.