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Navajo Connection

When a Navajo baby is born in the family hogan, traditionally the mother is the first to hold the baby and say, “MY child.” Then the placenta and umbilical cord, which served as the baby’s home and lifeline for nine months, are buried in the earth on the family’s homeland. That baby is literally tied to the Navajo Nation from the moment she’s born.

When a Navajo person introduces himself it may take a few minutes, because traditionally they don’t just say their name. They list their mother and her clan, her father and his clan and sometimes they go through the whole family tree. It’s a beautiful custom. The tribe instills a sense of belonging from day one.

Yet there’s a whole generation of people without a strong sense of identity because the federal government forced many to go to boarding schools to erase their culture and language. And now there’s a second generation -- their kids -- who are lost as well. As someone said at a discussion in Window Rock, N.M. on Thursday night: there’s a lot of healing that needs to happen.

I’ve been facilitating public engagement events about the high school dropout rate. It’s part of a bigger Corporation for Public Broadcasting initiative to help communities across the United States address the dropout crisis. And I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned comparing dropout statistics on the Navajo Nation to the rest of the U.S. isn’t a fair comparison. You have to look at each school and each kid and what he’s dealing with at home.

As former Navajo President Peterson Zah said that night in Window Rock, why would we want them to finish high school if the high school isn’t succeeding? They have unique issues they’re dealing with that call for unique solutions.

One solution they’ve found is relearning Navajo culture, language and history helps people feel much less lost. A couple of educators who attended these community events have had success with troubled students when they teach them about their culture.

One teacher at a Navajo immersion school in Window Rock recalled a student who was depressed and unwilling to participate. So when the teacher discovered they were in the same clan she used language with him that treated him like a family member, saying MY grandson in diné.

Turns out all he needed was a connection.