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Published Date: July 17, 2014

Published Date: July 17, 2014

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On Teaching a Navajo Grandmother to Read

Come and go with me to a Navajo camp about 20 miles away. It can easily take one and a half hours. We will go in a truck because deep irregular ruts and wide deep mud holes or ponds will require a good engine. Our driver is a woman – a missionary who has made this daring trip dozens of times. Shortly after leaving the mission compound, we encounter a “wash.” Winding down the steep sandy road, we wonder if the wash will be running. If so we will ford the “river” if its depth permits. Of course, if the water depth is more than two feet, the flow will be too swift and we will turn back. More than one life has been lost to the violent waters of a treacherous wash.

Climbing up the steep but shallow canyon wall beyond and continuing on the sandy dusty road, we travel a few miles over relatively smooth road – the tribal road grader has been through recently.

Then we turn onto a one-lane road which seems to lead to nowhere. We climb, descend, curve around huge rock protrusions, thread our way between trees, tipping and tilting, until we find ourselves angling downward to another huge nameless wash. Here every view triggers our curiosity. Ancient Indian ruins abound in the deep canyon. But we must climb up and continue on. In minutes we are high above the surrounding hills, viewing vast distances in all directions. The endless sky is a rich azure, immense, cloudless.

Mesas of varying height line the horizon. We see no evidence of human life, no hogans, no electric or telephone lines. Only scrub trees, shurbs, and climps of high plateau gound-cover for miles in any direction. Eventually we come upon a herd of grazing cows who are eating their fill, some in the grassy middle of the road. Slowly and uncaringly they amble on to greener pastures, and we continue on our bumpy jostling journey.

Finally our destination is in sight. Ahead of us is a Hogan, a round-looking log building with a low domelike roof made of mud. Not more than fifty feet away is a “chaha’oh” (English shade). The walls of this building consist of scrub-tree trunks standing side by side upright on the ground. Wide cracks let in air and light; there is no mortar. It is a crude looking affair; one log juts high into the air, but the next is barely higher than the entrance. It’s a Navajo gazebo. The family camps in the branch-roofed house in the summer.

As we enter the Hogan through its only door, the morning eastern sun is behind us. Inside a small very low wook-burning stove stands in the middle, its pipe reaching skyward through ahole in the roof. We are standing in the Navajo living room, dining room, bedrooms, and kitchen all combined.

Grandmother is seated on the earthen floor in from of a six-foot high loom on the right. Her colorful rug is nearly half finished. To the left are two beds which serve as sofas in the daytime. Open cupboards and a family-size table filled with pans and dishes make a kitchen. Between the loom and one bed are a treadle sewing maching and piles of linens and clothing.

Grandmother greets us in Navajo; she understands no English. Barbara, our missionary/truck driver, props a board against a stool in front of grandmother. Sitting on the floor beside her, Barbara begins a reading lesson, pointing to the letters and words on the board. Grandmother is learning to read Navajo. When the phonics and vocabulary lesson is over, Barbara takes out Navajo Bibles; and together they read a passage. We sing familiar hymns in Navajo from the Navajo song book. Grandmother prays in Navajo and Barbara in English. The literacy experience is finished now, so we start the long ride back.

Barbara tells me that ten children have been raised in this camp. Some of them are attending Northern Arizona University. I shake my head in disbelief. Such a determination again such odds. This courage, this character strength is not new to Barbara, however. For her it is more than worth it to make this rigorous trip weekly. Grandmother deserves it!