When we first visited the Navajo Mountain Boarding School (NMBS) I was struck by the beautiful octagonal hogans nestled against the hills. The door, placed to greet the rising sun, looks towards the canyon dotted with juniper, sage, cedar and pinion. I struggled to hold this beauty next to the narrative of the boarding schools that I had been taught, where long hair was cut, language forbidden and children were separated from their parents. Looking into the buildings I noticed evidence of Western architecture folded into the traditional Diné design. I thought of my own heritage, growing up in and between two cultures, a location similar to that of Ryan and others of my teammates.
As we began work on the building, returning the thick red dust piles from inside to outside, peeling back layers of paint to reveal the weathered wood, piling books and measuring windows, we could feel the spirit of the place and the people wondering why we were there, paying so much attention and moving so quickly. As we cleared the paths I took some sage and moved through the buildings asking for patience and blessings as we continued down this path which alternately felt as clear as the desert night sky and hazy as the red dust blowing against the sun.
Monday morning we helped to make fry bread and mutton stew; chopping, kneading and laughing our way to the community dinner, where we hoped to get the blessing of the Naatsis'áán Elders for the project. Chairs were set up in one of the cleaned up classrooms and a slide presentation of the old building ran during the gathering time. Ryan's Aunt began by introducing the project and us in the Diné language and then we took turns introducing ourselves. After that Ryan made an introduction to the project and his motivations which was again re-translated into Diné. There was time for questions and a bit of storytelling before gathering around the cottonwood tree for dinner.
During dinner I sat with two elders who had attended the boarding school for their kindergarten and first grade years in the late sixties. As our conversation unfolded, I quickly realized that while most people spoke fondly of their time at the NMBS, this was not the end of their experience with the Federal boarding school system. In fact it was just a kind beginning. The couple I spoke with attended multiple schools, moving every few years from place to place even going as far as Salem, Oregon! Sometimes these moves seemed to be motivated by their parents but sometimes by opportunities to learn trades, to get more resources than families could afford or simply because Naatsis'áán (Navajo Mountain) community was small and didn't have a school that could teach all the levels. At these various schools, unlike at NMBS, students were introduced to corporal punishment: jokingly dubbed "the Board of education," had their hair cut and their mouths washed with soap for speaking their native language--not to mention that they rarely were able to see their family due to the long distance.
As we sat next to the fire that night I had the feeling that this project would unfold in ways that none of us could predict. The more we continue to learn from the stories held in the community the more complex and nuanced the project will become, but for tonight the project has the blessing of the community and we are thankful.