Changing Lives at Canyon de Chelly
Thanks to sponsorship from ATN International and partnership with Canyon de Chelly National Monumentin Arizona, dozens of youth have experienced conservation on SCA crews comprised entirely of Navajo, or Diné, students. The teenaged crews repair trails and restore habitats, though much time is also devoted to better understanding the Diné culture. Park staff routinely share their scientific and historic knowledge, and crew members interact with local musicians, artists and storytellers.
This summer, the Canyon de Chelly crew met early on with Interpretive Ranger Ravis Henry. According to a report by Crew Leaders Adesbah Foguth and Jury Rubeling-Kain, Henry gathered the team around a campfire and related the Diné creation story and “how we are connected to the earth and animals, how we are divine creations with a divine purpose…five-fingered spiritual beings charged with the protection of sacred spaces like the canyon.”
As Foguth and Rubeling-Kain explain, “myth stories are the Diné people’s guide to understanding life today. Without these stories, Diné youth would have no framework for social or environmental justice or a way to conceptualize how the problems of their world are related to them or relevant to their lives.”
Over a period of four weeks, they used Henry’s accounts an ongoing teaching moment “to make meaningful connections to the students’ lives and interests and explain why land conservation is vital.” They also persistently pushed the concept of “sparks.”
“A ‘spark’ is a passion or talent that brings one true joy and transcends what we consider to be simply fun,” they note in their crew report. “We encouraged members to share their talents, seized every opportunity to point out new sparks as we saw them, and asked members…to reflect on their academic and career goals and how they will ultimately use their talents to serve humanity.”
In time, that prompted numerous dialogues, including one on strategies to better care for their communities. “I wish there were more regulations on the Rez about where dirt bikes and ATVs could ride,” stated Ashton Clyde, the crew’s youngest member. “This summer, when my family and I returned to our land in the Chuska Mountains, the meadows were all destroyed by tire marks from those bikes. We were really disappointed by how the land was treated.” A field trip to a permaculture farm yielded further lessons on the environmental issues plaguing Navajo Nation.
The crew often returned to Henry’s talk and the Diné belief that youth is a time of great power and influence. They soon began to see themselves as agents for change and social justice, and chafed at the notions held by some elders. “I hate when they tell me I’m lazy,” said one. “Yeah, why do adults think we are always on our phones or only interesting in video games?” asked another.
Crew member Joshua Dixon seemed to be most affected by the discussions. Over the course of the crew, the leaders report “he became more and more vocal about his life’s passion, which is to learn Diné culture and teach the next generation of Diné youth. Before, he felt he couldn’t share his culture because of the shame and stigma of being a young Diné person living in a society that does not value his aspirations.”
One evening, the crew hosted a potluck dinner with parents, NPS staff and friends. Joshua suddenly stood to share a Diné song. “I don’t usually do this,” he smiled, “but I really like you guys.”
Joshua began a self-assured chant. As his song echoed from the cliffs and ancient Puebloan ruins, many silently wept.