Navajo Nation

Most of Moravian's service-learning projects take place in the Lehigh Valley. But in a new venture, eight students spent part of last Christmas break working on a Navajo reservation in Northeast Arizona.

For students from eastern Pennsylvania, everything was different, from the very look of the Four Corners area (the high desert where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado come together) to the Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo people they met on the PiŠon-Chinle reservation. In their eight-day stay (December 28'January 4), they were to make some repairs on Our Lady of Fatima parish church and to organize a non-alcoholic New Year's party for the residents.

What they got, in return, was unexpected and profound. 'It changed our lives,' they said.

No one thought they would meet the kind of cardboard Indians seen in cowboy movies, but the richness of their culture and the complex troubles of their daily lives made for a more textured, threedimensional experience than any of the students had dreamed.

They got a thorough education in life on 'the rez.' They learned about alcohol, the scourge of Native American health. (It is thought that the Indians lack a hormone or other biological marker that will allow them to process alcohol, leading to an abnormally high number of cases of alcoholism, death by alcohol poisoning, and fetal alcohol syndrome.) Other troubles include domestic violence, children with malnutrition, and gangs.

There are environmental problems that the Indians don't cause but must address. Because of their isolation, Indian reservations are often used as illegal dump sites for toxic wastes. The Navajo report these to the Environmental Protection Agency, but the practice does not stop. Because they still use coal for heating, many are stricken with mercury poisoning from its emissions. The students were introduced to the tribe's spiritual ancestors and the customs that honor their presence.

They met a Roman Catholic priest who incorporates Native American rituals and spiritual symbols into the Communion service, and who built his church in the form of an eight-sided hogan, much to the annoyance of his bishop. They found people with very little who nonetheless did not hesitate to share food and drink and warmth with their visitors. 'The Navajo maintain a cultural richness and beauty in the face of multiple social problems,' said one student.

They began with eight weeks of preparation, learning about Native American customs, culture, and spirituality from Chaplain David Bennett and Donald St. John, professor of religion. They discussed problems of social justice and education on the reservation with sociologists Marcella and John Kraybill-Greggo, their trip advisors. When the trip was over, they wrote reflective essays on what they had learned.

Each student was responsible for one aspect of their trip. Kyle Borowski '06 learned about the geography of the Canyon de Chelly region, a sacred space to the peoples of this reservation. They learned to think in terms of the relationships between the terrain and the people.

'The land is flat, and there's very little vegetation,' they said. 'And there are four sacred mountains, one in each direction.' And then there was 'the joy of mud: three to four inches of mud everywhere. When it rains, you can't go anywhere.'

The other students'Rena Drezner '05, Catelyn Savoth '08, Kelly Haymaker '05, Elyse Jurgen '07, Amanda Moulton '07, and Chad Majczan '06'reported on spirituality, social issues on the reservations, and 'cultural competence, ' a social-work concept that encourages service workers to become conversant in the culture of those they work with.

The Indians have learned to make use of whatever grows on this starkly beautiful land. Juniper is the most common tree, and the people use its wood for their hogans (spiritual gathering places) and for quick fires, its berries for dyeing, and a brew made from it for its healing properties. Sage, a plentiful herb, is burned as a part of their spiritual and sweat lodge rituals. 'They are such a persevering people,' said the students.

The students all said they want to go back; some want to work on reservations, as teachers or environmentalists, when they graduate. When it was time to come back to the College, one asked a Navajo friend, 'What do you want us to take back?" And he answered: "Serenity."