Campus News: Anthropology Students Visit First Nation Homelands

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Anthropology Students Visit First Nation Homelands
- 4/11/2020

Anthropology Students Visit First Nation Homelands


Prior to recent travel restrictions related to COVID-19, five anthropology students, along with their professor Dr. Murl Dirksen, visited several First Nation homelands in Arizona and New Mexico. The students were Abigail Close, Michael Dillinger, Desiree LaPeer, Seth LaPeer, and Victoria Martin.


According to Dirksen, professor of anthropology and sociology at Lee, the purpose of this educational experience was to give students a personal knowledge of the diversity of Native American cultures in the American southwest. The visit exposed them to the varied topography and environments where Native Americans have survived since arriving on the North American continent thousands of years ago. Students visited religious sacred and archaeological sites, along with meeting Native American traditional artists, tribal government officials, educators, and Christian leaders on the Navajo, Hopi, Apache, and the Tohono O'odham Reservations.


"This trip helped me to appreciate even further the diversity that is contained within our own borders," said Dillinger. "It was a great experience, not only because I saw a bunch of breathtaking sites and diverse groups, but also because we interacted and got to know some of the local people."


According to Dirksen, assigning native children to boarding school was an early assimilation strategy, and the Lee group visited one of the earliest sites of this policy of forced education - Fort Apache and Theodore Roosevelt School at White River, Arizona.  The location was built as a cavalry fort, but later designated as Fort Apache in 1879, and it became the home to Theodore Roosevelt Indian Boarding School in 1923, intended to acculturate Navajo and Apache children. Students observed a more recent integration approach when they stayed at the Peace Academic Center, a school and community center in the Hopi village of Kykotsmovi.


Arts and crafts are major income sources for Native Americans throughout the southwest for more than 100 years, so the students visited Indian trading posts that still sold Navajo rugs, kachinas, and pottery.


"This gave the students an idea of the economic value of these items for the local economy as well as the skill and pride with which they are crafted," said Dirksen.


Students were able to interact with a Hopi potter in her village home on First Mesa. They also observed a demonstration of basket weaving at the home gallery of Hopi basket weaver Iva Honyestewa and heard her lecture about traditional Hopi life. 


Native Americans have been exposed to a variety of forms of Christianity. The students visited a Catholic mission in San Xavier de Bac church, outside of Tucson on the Tohono O'odham Reservation, which is now a national historic landmark. The group stayed overnight at the United Methodist Church in Window Rock, the location of the Navajo Nation tribal offices, and worshipped with the Navajo congregation on Sunday morning.  


While there, Dr. Harry Begay, a Lee alumnus and leader of Church of God ministerial training for the Navajo Nation, welcomed the students to his reservation home just outside of Gallup and briefed them on his ministry and the social problems facing the Navajo homeland.


"One of the most significant lessons learned by the students was the sacredness of the land and reverence for nature," said Dirksen. "They witnessed how Christianity has been contextualized and how traditional religion and spirituality are still vital to many First Nation people."


The Navajo homeland is defined by four sacred mountains but incorporates the hallowedness of several canyons including Canyon De Chelly and Grand Canyon that are of great historical and spiritual importance.  Hopi people live in the same villages today they lived over a thousand years ago, and their pueblos are contemporaneous to Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon archaeological sites.  Guide and cultural expert Lance Polingyouma toured the students through a huge rock art solstice site near the villages of Third Mesa, explaining how traditional Hopi made etchings on rock and used natural geological features in keeping track of time for planning and longer calendrical events.


"Introducing students to the beautiful people and places where I was raised was a rich and important experience for me," said Dirksen, who grew up on the Hopi Reservation. "In so many ways students came to understand the why First Nation people value their sense of place."

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