Home Again A Native American SLP's Experiences Teaching in a Navaho Reservation School Features
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Features  |   February 01, 2003
Home Again
Author Notes
  • Verlee K. Neha, graduated from New Mexico State University in 2001 and is currently a speech-language pathologist employed by Educational Assessment Systems Incorporated in Albuquerque, NM. She works with Pine Hill elementary through high school levels. Contact her at verleeneha@msn.com.
    Verlee K. Neha, graduated from New Mexico State University in 2001 and is currently a speech-language pathologist employed by Educational Assessment Systems Incorporated in Albuquerque, NM. She works with Pine Hill elementary through high school levels. Contact her at verleeneha@msn.com.×
Article Information
Cultural & Linguistic Diversity / School-Based Settings / Features
Features   |   February 01, 2003
Home Again
The ASHA Leader, February 2003, Vol. 8, 4-19. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.08032003.4
The ASHA Leader, February 2003, Vol. 8, 4-19. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.08032003.4
by
The largest Native American tribe is the Navajo, also known as the Dine, meaning “the People.” The Navajo reservation consists of 16 million acres covering sections of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Because the Navajo is the largest tribe, it is easy to assume that all Dine have the same belief system. However, this is not the case. Some of the people have accepted the “White man ways” and others have kept the traditional ways of the Dine.
Living and Learning
Two schools occupy the area, one run by the Gallup McKinley County School District (Ramah Elementary–High School) and the other by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (Pine Hill Elementary–High School). Anglo, Zuni Pueblo, and Navajo attend Ramah. Pine Hill is predominately Navajo. Pine Hill also has established a boarding school for its students. I attended Pine Hill until the third grade when I transferred and attended Ramah elementary and middle schools. However, I moved temporarily to Zuni during high school and graduated from the Zuni public schools—the first Native American-controlled independent public school system in the United States.
I've observed that teachers (at all grade levels) at Pine Hill come and go on a yearly basis. However, teachers at Ramah are from the community, and so the turnover rate is very low. It also has been my observation that those students expelled, retained academically, or suspended from Ramah transfer to Pine Hill.
Students from throughout the states of New Mexico and Arizona attend Pine Hill. During the week, students are transported from their homes to and from school. On weekends, buses transport students home and return them at the end of the weekend. A majority of the students who choose to reside in dormitories do so because of rough driving conditions. Because many homes are located on open lands far from highways, the roads are not always paved. During the winter and monsoon seasons, dirt roads become so muddy that vehicles and buses are not always able to make it to and from paved highways.
Children who are not enrolled in dormitories live in their own homes—either a house, trailer, or hogan. A hogan is a one-room, circular structure made of logs and mud. The floor is dirt. Located in the middle of the hogan is a wood stove used for cooking and heating. Hogans are used for traditional ceremonies as well as for living quarters.
Homes located far from town are less likely to have electricity and water. If this is the case, kerosene lanterns, flashlights, candles, generators, and/or solar systems are used. Water is often hauled in large barrels from nearby windmills and used wisely. Showers are usually taken at the home of a relative who resides closer to town. Not having water also means traveling into town regularly to wash and dry laundry. Since wood stoves are the main source of heat during winter months, it is necessary to buy and haul wood. These methods are still practiced today on the reservation. Today' s elders often prefer to live without luxuries out of choice. They also continue to own herds of sheep and goats, which were—and are—considered means of survival.
I was born and raised on the Ramah Navajo reservation, located 60 miles south of Gallup, NM. I was born into the clan of “Bitterwater” and born for the “Red Running into the Mud” clan. Navajo clan systems stem back to the creation of the Navajo people. Currently, there are more than 60 clans. Children are actually born into two clans, which come from the mother and father. The mother’s clan is passed down to all her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on. Her clan is “who you are” or which clan you are born into. The father’s clan is who you are “born for.” Unlike the mother’s clan, the father’s clan will change. It is considered taboo to marry someone who has similar clans, which even today is very much looked down upon.
Being born and raised on the Navajo reservation, I learned my mother’s belief systems in the form of taboos and superstitions that were taught to her by her mother. My grandfather, who was a well-known medicine person, also held these same beliefs. I was raised to believe that my stuttering was due to imitating or “making fun” of my grandmother, who also stuttered. Even to this day, family members believe that I stutter because I was being disrespectful.
Growing up stuttering was difficult for me. I always knew I was different and felt somewhat punished because I made fun of my grandmother. I wasn’t treated differently. I think it just was known that I talked differently.
A Career Choice
I was first introduced to the profession of speech-language pathology when I was in the second grade. My teacher referred me for services because I stuttered. I received services throughout middle and high school, which I attended on the reservation. When I entered college, because I was still struggling with my own dysfluency, I began taking classes in speech-language pathology. What I was learning led me to compare my new knowledge with what I had experienced receiving services as a child. Traditional beliefs often conflicted with the content of the lectures in my classes.
My experiences and natural interest led me to a career in speech-language pathology. Last year I began to practice on the Navajo reservation where I was born and raised. I have returned to work with Navajo children from elementary through high school.
My first year out of graduate school was full of uncertainties and constant learning. Even though I grew up on the reservation, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the Navajo students I would be working with. Because I hadn't lived on the reservation for several years, I was uncertain just how much of the Navajo culture had changed, if it had at all. Also, knowing the cultural taboos, I was afraid of how students, school personnel, and the community would react to my stuttering.
I had read and researched all the literature I could find on the Navajo population during my graduate studies, and now it was finally time for me to put this knowledge to use. But I wasn't sure if the literature I read would accurately present the beliefs of the Navajo families I would be assisting because some of the material was long out of date.
The literature that I had read suggested that Native American tribes are reflective learners (see Philips). Harris (1993) also reported that Native American children repeatedly observe an activity before performing it themselves. Guilmet observed that part of the reason why Navajo children refrained from being talkative is because Navajo mothers discouraged their children from speaking loudly and assertively. Navajo mothers viewed children who had fast-paced speech and visibly aggressive manners in the classroom as impatient, self-absorbed, and unrestrained. Native American families also value the importance of silence. Harris (1998) noted that this same behavior is often considered inappropriate by the mainstream society.
In a study conducted by Wilson, Navajo parents were found to hold different perspectives from the mainstream about a child’s communication development. For example, out of respect for elders, Navajo children are less verbal with strangers. It also is believed that young Navajo children do not ask questions because it is considered disrespectful for young children to take a “shortcut” to obtain wisdom and knowledge from an older person, when it took that person a lifetime to gain knowledge. The child is expected to learn from observation or experience.
Early Observations
I began treatment sessions last fall helped by the teachings of my grandparents, my personal experiences, and information from various sources. The population that I began working with was from middle and high school levels. Rapport building, as the literature outlined, took longer to establish than it did in the dominant society I worked with during my clinical experiences.
It took some students an entire school year to ask a question. On the other hand, some curious students questioned me about my family and myself within the first nine weeks of the semester: “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Where do you live?” “How many kids do you have? “ “What is your clan?” Conversations usually were enhanced when I knew the student’s family.
Early on I learned to start with activities that required closed-ended questions (yes/no responses). For auditory processing areas I chose to use rapid-naming activities. I felt this gave students a starting point. Students had to answer my questions, but it also allowed them to add more if they chose to. It also gave me an idea of how and when to start other activities that involved more verbal responses and thought processes. Response times were long, so patience was important.
I tried to stay away from personal questions during the first two sessions. Slowly, I started asking more questions concerning family and friends. I also always asked about their class progress and made sure to offer assistance because I wanted students to know I cared about how they were doing.
Over the course of the semester, I noticed that Navajo children observed an activity completely before performing it themselves. After the explanation of activities, many of them refrained from asking questions, even if they did not understand the directions. I found myself having to repeat an entire set of directions and asking them if they understood or requesting them to clarify parts I needed to repeat.
I had to work with many of the students on question asking and answering. On more than one occasion I was told that I asked too many questions or was asked, “Why do you want to know?” or “Why do you ask so many questions like a White person?” If I wasn’t requesting answers to questions, most male students remained silent. Most female middle school students talked openly about their home life, schoolwork, and current events. Older female students often kept to themselves and kept responses short.
Looking back at my clinical fellowship year, I found that the literature I had read provided me with general areas that needed to be considered. Most of what I observed was confirmed by my reading. Again, I had to take into consideration the background of the student and family: Did students come from a churchgoing family or were they “traditional,” that is, did their health care beliefs involve sacred ceremonies and did they use Navajo diagnosticians (medicine people)?
I found that parents of the children I served, like many other parents from other backgrounds, did not become involved in their child’s academics until the child began experiencing difficulty in the classroom or had excessive absences. I found that parents were more open and communicative during community events and often preferred to discuss their child’s concerns more informally during such events. Consequently, I used these events to introduce myself, to make appointments, and to just get an idea of who the child was.
Before my first year of practice I thought that, with some experience, I would easily be able to provide general suggestions for other clinicians who were not familiar with the Navajo culture. But it was not so easy. The children’s individual backgrounds, attitudes, first- and second-language abilities, acculturation, and the severity of their communication disorder all have an impact on what might be suggested to clinicians.
I can suggest some approaches, however, based on what I have read and experienced:
  • Avoid asking questions to which you know the answer. I don’t know how many times I’ve questioned a student about a stimulus material and was told that I already knew the answer.

  • Fully explain the purpose of each activity. Repeat directions until you’re sure the children have understood. Usually, it’s easy to know from children’s facial expressions when they have grasped a new concept.

  • During treatment, wait, wait, wait, and wait some more. Allow for a long response time. I have found that rushing a response only frustrates children and, more than likely, they will shut down.

  • Remember that silence is valued.

  • The most important thing I’ve learned during my first year is to make a point of finding out the religious background of my students. More traditional students know their clans (who they are and who they are born for) and are more superstitious about particular test stimuli, illustrations, toys, figures, and animals. On the other hand, students who do not know their clan or don’t acknowledge taboos or superstitions are often affiliated with mainstream religious groups.

Last year taught me so much about the Navajo children I worked with. This year, I hope to build an even closer relationship with these students. I also hope that they will be more open with me and more comfortable asking questions about unfamiliar activities. Their increasing openness will help me help them understand, question, and verbally express their difficulties. My experience with my students has allowed me to appreciate even more the complexity, strength, and beauty of my people.
References
Guilmet, G. (1981). Maternal perceptions of urban Navajo and Caucasian children’s classroom behavior. Human Organization, 38, 87–91.
Guilmet, G. (1981). Maternal perceptions of urban Navajo and Caucasian children’s classroom behavior. Human Organization, 38, 87–91.×
Harris, G. A. (1993). American Indian cultures: A lesson in diversity. In Battle, D. E. (Ed.), Communication disorders in multicultural populations (pp. 78–113). Stoneham, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Harris, G. A. (1993). American Indian cultures: A lesson in diversity. In Battle, D. E. (Ed.), Communication disorders in multicultural populations (pp. 78–113). Stoneham, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.×
Harris, G. A. (1998). American Indian cultures: A lesson in diversity. In Battle, D. E. (Ed.), Communication disorders in multicultural populations (2nd ed., pp. 117–156). Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Harris, G. A. (1998). American Indian cultures: A lesson in diversity. In Battle, D. E. (Ed.), Communication disorders in multicultural populations (2nd ed., pp. 117–156). Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.×
Philips, S. U. (1983). The invisible culture: Communication in classroom and community on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. New York: Longman.
Philips, S. U. (1983). The invisible culture: Communication in classroom and community on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. New York: Longman.×
Williams, R. (1994). Reflections on Native American Heritage in New Mexico. Albuquerque, NM: Albuquerque Human Rights Office.
Williams, R. (1994). Reflections on Native American Heritage in New Mexico. Albuquerque, NM: Albuquerque Human Rights Office.×
Wilson, L. C. (1994, November). Language development as perceived by reservation-based Navajo families. Paper presented at the annual Convention of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, New Orleans, LA.
Wilson, L. C. (1994, November). Language development as perceived by reservation-based Navajo families. Paper presented at the annual Convention of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, New Orleans, LA.×
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February 2003
Volume 8, Issue 3