Cultural Exchange at Canyon de Chelly


A Unique Corps Experience in the Navajo Nation

by Tomas A. Quezada

Ya’at’eeh, it literally stands for good, good for you, good for me, and good for everything that surrounds us. It’s the typical greeting that you will hear from the Diné, or the Navajo, at Canyon De Chelly. This greeting is a constant reminder of how you feel when at Canyon De Chelly. Simply put, at Canyon de Chelly you feel that everything is, well, good.

This summer I led an SCA crew at Canyon de Chelly that was comprised entirely of Native American students from communities in the surrounding area. SCA began fielding such crews four years ago as a way to provide local young people with a clear pathway to careers in public lands stewardship, and help them feel more connected to nearby public lands. I truly feel privileged to have been involved in the program.

Experiencing the Canyon first hand was amazing! The students were surprised that I had never been to Arizona and were eager to show me what life was like in the Navajo Nation. Our projects were mostly in Canyon De Chelly and ranged from trail work to working on cultural structures.

Immersing myself in my student’s culture and way of life is something I haven’t really had an opportunity to experience in my previous work with SCA (I led two crews prior to this one), at least not to this degree. We built things like a Hogan, a traditional navajo structure that serves as a home, and a Cha’aoh, a traditional shade structure. Everyday I spent in the Navajo Nation I had an opportunity to learn something new. My students opened my eyes to a diverse array of foods, games, and stories. I quickly came to realize that I was probably more of a student than my students were.

In the past, I’ve always made a point of sharing some of my own culture with my crew members, and this time was no exception. Coming from a Latino household I love to cook some of my home favorites over a camp fire, or share some of the folklore that my grandparents shared with me when I was a kid. I was surprised to see that my culture and the crew’s culture had some similarities. This allowed for us to compare and contraast stories from our past. We cried, we laughed, and we sometimes got angry. With everything we shared with one another, we learned so much.

I think that this is why my Canyon De Chelly crew has become my favorite. Looking back, I realize how important I was to these students and how important they were to me. The bond I formed with this unique bunch of kids has truly impacted my life.. My main reason for being an SCA crew leader is to change my students lives, but also, to allow myself to change along the way. When I start to feel a strong bond with a particular crew, that’s when I know I’ve accomplished my mission. Canyon De Chelly is important in the way that we go into the canyon with some fear and misunderstanding, and you leave it with contentment and wisdom that you will hopefully pass on to those that you love. Canyon De Chelly and the Navajo have so much to teach us. I experienced only a fraction of life inside the canyon, but in that tiny fraction of knowledge I saw that this world needs the close connection to mother earth and father sky that the Navajo have had for millennium.

We would like to thank the staff at Canyon de Chelly for being so helpful and supportive, especially Wilson Hunter for being such a crucial part of our team and creating this opportunity.  We’re also grateful to Atlantic Tele-Network/Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) Wireless, Eric Beringause and others funders who made this crew possible. All of us hope to one day return to Canyon de Chelly and revisit those who helped make our experience so unique and wonderful.