“Good morning, class. My name is Ms. Elliott,” I announced cheerily as I stood in the front of the room and looked out over the rows of brown faces. No one looked at me. All eyes looked down in an almost studious effort to avoid my gaze. There wasn’t a sound. I repeated my greeting in a louder voice, “Good morning, class. I’m your new fourth grade teacher.” I waited for a response. The room remained silent.
Trying to engage the students, I asked a string of questions. “What is your name?” I pointed to the boy in the second row near the aisle. When the boy did not respond, I looked at my seating chart, pointed again at the boy and said, “You’re Billy Begay.” He cringed as though I had shot him with a dart.
Refusing to give up, I asked the girl at the edge of the third row, “Where do you live?” She bent her head all the way forward onto her chest, her long black hair falling forward onto the desk, covering her face. The silence and lack of eye contact threw me off balance.
Things went from bad to worse. One of the girls sitting in the first row, Evelyn Tsosie, leaned over her desk and spit onto the linoleum floor. I stood in disbelief.
I decided it was time for some discipline and demanded that Evelyn clean up her spit. She made no response or acknowledgment that she had heard me. I insisted again in a louder, more authoritative voice. She remained silent and immobile with her head bent forward.
Flustered and red-faced, I was at a loss of what to do next. I finally cleaned up the spit myself. While crouching on the floor to clean up the brown-colored phlegm, I noticed that it contained chewing tobacco.
I knew that old cowboys use chewing tobacco, but a 12-year-old girl?
My first day of teaching left me shocked and confused. The teacher training I got at Antioch College had not prepared me for the cultural chasm that lay between me—the eager, young, and inexperienced white woman—and the Navajo people. I had received no orientation—not even a manual—to help me navigate this unfamiliar territory.
Maybe I made a mistake accepting this job.
While finishing my last semester of college in the spring of 1970, I skimmed through the trade journals for teachers in the college library. In one of them I saw an opening for a 4th grade teacher at Chinle Boarding School on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona, operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The position sounded intriguing. I submitted my application to the BIA, but received no response.
The BIA had indeed responded, but the letter never reached me because I had been traveling in Europe and the US since graduating from college. The letter got forwarded to several different addresses, but never in time to find me still at those locations.
The well-traveled letter reached its final destination at my sister Vreni’s home in Venice, California, toward the end of September 1971—more than a year after I had put in my application. Around that same time in September, while hitchhiking in the West with my dog, I paid a visit to Vreni. When I arrived she handed me the life-changing letter.
The BIA had offered me the position that I had applied for. When I called the BIA office in Washington, I discovered to my surprise that the position had remained open during the entire past year without a single application other than mine.
Although the school year had already begun a month earlier, the principal at the boarding school wanted me to start immediately.
I hastily made preparations for my new life as a schoolteacher. My brother John in Seattle agreed to take care of my dog. Vreni lent me some of her clothes since all I had was what had fit in my backpack. She also lent me $700 so that I could buy a cheap, maroon-colored Volkswagen van that I had seen advertised in the local paper. The owner had turned the van into a camper with a bed in the back. He had also painted a big, white peace symbol on one side. I felt proud of myself for having purchased my very first vehicle—even though it looked like a piece of junk.
I left behind the life I had known and headed off to the Southwest, having no idea that I would soon be entering a world I never knew existed.
I leisurely drove through spectacular landscapes with otherworldly rock formations on the way to the Navajo Reservation. I had never seen such a big sky. My spirits soared. I was twenty-three and about to begin my first real job.
The tiny town of Chinle, Arizona, lay in the middle of a vast, empty expanse of land, right at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly. One single paved road ran through town. The nearest city was Gallup, 120 miles away in the neighboring state of New Mexico.
When I drove up to the BIA school with its long, low ramshackle building, the principal came outside to greet me in the dusty playground. He was a black man from the South. He looked disapprovingly at my borrowed mini-skirt, sandals, and my long hair that looked disheveled from traveling all day with the windows rolled down. Then his gaze shifted to the hippie van with its big peace sign on the side. A visible shadow of apprehension crossed his face.
Later, when the principal and I had become friends, he confessed to me over a few beers that when he first saw me, he feared that he had hired a young, wild and rebellious hippie who would not take the system seriously. I reassured him that I was not a hippie and never had been. I was merely unconventional.
I had my own apprehension and doubts about this place. I saw barely a blade of grass to offer relief to the eye from all the various shades of brown. The town itself seemed to be at least 20 to 50 years behind the rest of the world. The people drove pickup trucks and listened to country western music. The men dressed like cowboys. People seemed to know little about the world beyond the reservation.
And I, in turn, knew nothing about Navajo culture.
After a week of blunders and cross-cultural clashes, I felt frustrated and forlorn. I called my parents and told them that I had made a mistake in my decision to teach on the reservation and didn’t want to continue in this strange and desolate place.
My father wisely suggested that I give the place a three-month trial before making a decision about leaving. He counseled me not to judge a place or people by first appearances.
I agreed to wait the three months, thinking that I knew for sure what the decision would be.
After my futile efforts at teaching, I resolved to learn as much as I could about the Navajo people and their culture.
My Navajo teacher’s aide, Donna Scott, had fully assimilated into white culture. She willingly helped me to understand what had transpired that first day in the classroom. She explained that the children did not respond to me out of deep shyness and avoided my gaze as a gesture of respect.
I asked Donna why Billy Begay cringed when I pointed at him. She explained that traditional Navajos do not point their fingers at anyone or anything because pointing draws too much attention to the person or object and could be seen as a way of putting a hex on someone. Navajos point with their lips. Donna gave me a demonstration by puckering up her lips as though she was about to kiss someone. Through her puckered lips she said, “Ńléidi,” meaning “over there,” as she looked off in the distance.
And as for the spitting, Donna explained that some of the children, like Evelyn, come to class with a wad of chewing tobacco tucked inside their cheeks, making them bulge. They spit from time to time into wads of toilet paper while in class.
During their summer vacations, children return to their traditional homes that are eight-sided log-and-packed-earth structures with dirt floors, called hogans. Without running water or toilets or Kleenex, the people sometimes spat onto the dirt floor and then covered the spit with a little dirt from the flick of the foot.
That October, the children in my class had just come back to school—now that the school had a 4th grade teacher—after spending four months at their homes far away. Evelyn had simply made a mistake when she reflexively spat on the linoleum floor. Scolding Evelyn in front of the entire class caused her deep humiliation. To save face, she did not respond to me.
With Donna’s help, I let go of my frustrations and found the humor in my display of glaring ignorance as I stumbled around in a steady stream of cross-cultural mistakes and misunderstandings.
In addition to learning about the Navajo way of life, I made a commitment to learn the Navajo language. Donna taught me my first words to try out with the kids in the classroom. She wrote out the words phonetically. That evening I practiced saying the difficult-to-pronounce words over and over until I had them memorized.
The next morning I walked into the classroom and greeted the kids in Navajo.
“Yá’át’ééh Sha’ Áłchíní. Shí éí Erica Elliott yinishyé. Nisha? Haash yinilyé?”
I said, “Hello my children. My name is Erica Elliott.” I puckered my lips just as Donna had taught me and pointed them in the direction of Billy Begay and said, “And you? What is your name?”
The class erupted in gasps and giggles. The kids looked up at me with big smiles on their faces. Our eyes met for the first time.
From the moment I attempted to speak their language, the kids warmed up to me in a big way and took great interest in helping me learn new Navajo words. They found my pronunciation hilarious. I learned later that I often ended up saying something that did not resemble what I had intended to say which caused squeals of delight.
From that day forward, I began falling in love with each of the 36 children in my 4th grade class. I quickly learned their names and a little bit about their home life—like how many brothers and sisters they had, how many sheep and horses their family had, what trading post they lived near, and most importantly, what clan they belonged to.
The children ranged in age from nine to fifteen, depending on how much time they had stayed out of school to help their families herd the sheep and tend to the younger children.
I was supposed to be teaching all the basic subjects normally taught in the 4th grade. In reality, each of the subjects turned into an English lesson since most of the kids struggled with the English language and had difficulty making complete sentences. For the first few months I set aside the textbooks because the content had no relevance to their lives and was more suited for white, middle class children.
Unlike the Navajo students at the public schools, the boarding school students were away from their homes and families for nine months out of the year. Most of the children came from isolated areas, accessible only by 4-wheel drive vehicles or horseback. Over time, as they began to trust me, I received many invitations from the children in my class to go to their homes and participate in traditional Navajo ceremonies.
Within a few weeks, I realized that I needed a 4-wheel drive vehicle to be able to explore the rugged landscape all around me. On a Saturday, I drove my rickety van to Albuquerque, five hours away, and traded it in for a green, 4-wheel drive Ford Bronco.
Each weekend I checked out a different student from the dormitory. We would go together in my 4-wheel drive to the student’s hogan, sometimes located deep in the recesses of Canyon de Chelly. Over the course of the school year, I had driven every student in the class to their homes.
Most of the parents and grandparents spoke strictly Navajo in the hogan. I listened carefully so that I could become familiar with the many different sounds and intonations.
Billy Begay was the first student who asked me to check him out for the weekend and take him home to his family in Canyon de Chelly. Billy’s family lived next to Spider Rock, home of the mythic Spider Woman who taught the Navajo People how to weave. The tall red sandstone spire loomed hundreds of feet into the sky from the bottom of the canyon where Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly merge.
We left my 4-wheel drive parked at the rim of the canyon and hiked about three miles down a steep, narrow path to get to Billy’s hogan.
Billy’s family welcomed me with shy smiles. The family sat around a long, wooden table. The younger children stared at me in the dim light coming through a single small window. Billy’s mother motioned for me to sit down. She passed me a plate of Jiffy peanut butter sandwiches made with Wonder White bread and a warm bottle of Coca Cola.
After a long stretch of awkward silence, I tried out a few phrases of Navajo that I had learned from my students, carefully mimicking the foreign sounds and inflections. My brave attempt to speak their language instantly broke the shyness barrier. Everyone in the family smiled with delight and surprise. They began making jokes with me, most of which I didn’t understand. I saw how much they appreciated my efforts to learn about Navajo life.
After lunch, Billy beckoned me to join him outside. A makeshift horse corral stood next to the hogan. The horses acted jumpy, but we managed to get the rope bridles onto their heads and lead them out of the corral. We spent the rest of the day outside with Billy’s two brothers, racing our horses bareback on the bottom of the canyon. We clung like ticks to the backs of our horses, laughing and screeching with delight, free from all cares—a world away from the kind of restrained English-style horseback riding I did as a young girl at summer camp in New England.
A sudden cloudburst cut short our exuberance. Within seconds little rivulets of water flowed in braided channels down the canyon at a fast clip, a flash flood in the making. We galloped back to the hogan, jumped off our horses and ran inside soaking wet and shivering.
Before we had a chance to dry our clothes by the woodstove, we heard a piercing scream. Billy said it was Chee, (“Red”) the horse that I had ridden. We ran outside toward the screams and saw Chee stuck in quicksand halfway up his legs. The chestnut horse snorted and flailed his head around. His eyes bulged with a look of terror.
Billy grabbed a coiled rope hanging on the outside wall of the hogan. He lassoed the panicked horse and then tied the other end of the rope to the pickup truck. His father drove the truck forward an inch at a time, gently pulling the gelding out of the mud. The exhausted but grateful horse nuzzled Billy and his father. Chee allowed me to throw my arms around his neck for a few seconds before turning and galloping back to the corral.
We ended the day sitting around the woodstove eating fry bread and mutton stew and telling stories, none of which I understood except for a word here and there. When they laughed, I laughed too just because it felt good to join in on the laughter. The harder they laughed, the harder I laughed.
Night came quickly, making a return up the long steep path risky. Billy’s mother suggested that I stay the night in their hogan in one of the two metal army cots they owned. I reluctantly agreed, feeling uncomfortable knowing that the children had to sleep bundled up in blankets on the floor, with sheepskins serving as mattresses.
The next day in the early morning light, we hiked up the steep trail out of the Canyon and drove back to the boarding school compound. I dropped Billy Begay off at his dormitory. He waved and gave me a big smile before turning and walking away.
The Monday following the weekend in Canyon de Chelly, I discovered that the entire class knew about my adventure with Billy Begay and his family. They quizzed me about every detail. Did I like the food? Did I eat the mutton stew and fry bread? Did I fall off the horse? Did I see any coyotes or rabbits?
Not wanting to waste an opportunity for teaching, I turned the experience into an English lesson. I gave each child a blank piece of paper and some colored pencils and assigned them the task of drawing a picture of the hogan, horse corral, and Spider Rock on the upper half of the paper. I asked them to write three sentences about their drawing on the lower half of the paper. Their writing ranged from one word to many words, from legible to illegible.
One of the boys with remarkable artistic talent drew a picture of a horse racing in the arroyo. A woman with a ponytail clung onto the horse’s back, holding hunks of the horse’s thick mane in each hand. Underneath the drawing he wrote, “MY TEECHIR.”
Well before my father’s suggested three-month trial was up, I had fallen in love with my students. And the land that once looked dusty and desolate now appeared magical and enchanting.
I could never have imagined the life-changing transformation that I would undergo during my time with the Navajo people.