Unequal Opportunity

Don't let the professorial, romanticized tone dissuade you: 'Reflections in Place' packs power

Truth be told, two pages into this new book on the lives of contemporary Navajo women, I was about to send it back to Tucson Weekly headquarters to be swapped out for a new assignment: It was too arcane, too professorial. "Indian survivance," "prevalent discourse" and "Foucault" might not grab a whole lot of reader traffic between Tom Danehy and the Personals.

Ten pages later, even after a switch in tone and style, it was still headed back: too romanticized, too detail-wrought, too smiley-faced.

But every book deserves the 50-page test. And by its crucial 50—however short on stylistic grace it might be—this book declared itself a keeper. It had something to report.

Reflections in Place: Connected Lives of Navajo Women essentially testifies that inequality and racial prejudice are still alive and well in a neighborhood not that far away.

Donna Deyhle, a University of Utah professor in education, culture and society, and the coordinator of the American Indian Studies Program, first went to San Juan County, Utah, in 1984, to conduct an ethnographic study on the high Navajo dropout rate in this community bordering the Navajo Nation. She would remain involved there for more than 20 years.

Deyhle uses as fulcra three women she met then as high school students—"Jan Begay," "Vangie Tsosie" and "Mary Sam." By including stories of their mothers, siblings and children, she's able to expand her observations into an intergenerational study.

Employing a "narrative ethnology" in this work, Deyhle re-creates situations she participated in. She reports on the classes, for example, of the students she shadowed; she quotes administrators, teachers and parents from the years of meetings she attended; she details with precision social events and ceremonies.

The roles Deyhle played in this community varied and overlapped. Although she went there initially as a researcher, she made friends and had access to private lives. She ended up in a professional capacity as an education expert for a lawsuit against the county school district, and subsequently monitored district compliance.

The short version of what Deyhle presents is this: As insult to the historic injuries perpetrated on the Navajo people by white settlers (subhuman treatment, theft of livestock and land held for centuries, the murderous Long Walk, attempted eradication of Navajo language and culture; the list drones), the people in this community are still being hobbled by inferior education and a lack of economic opportunity.

That unequal education equates to unequal life opportunity is central to Deyhle's argument.

It's seen with these girls' parents and grandparents. Historically, schools popped up all over San Juan County for 19th-century Mormon and 20th-century oil and uranium settlers, yet the county's Indians didn't have access to local public schools until the late 1950s. Then, for decades, Navajo children spent hours each day being bused to schools far from home.

Although by the time Deyhle is observing classes, Navajo students have more convenient campuses, they are not receiving education comparable to that of their white peers. Whether through outright racism—as some of the kids claim (justifiably or not)—or through some Romantic paternalism, the curricular offerings to Navajos from their public high schools were appallingly limited. Resources were minimal; expectations were negligible; and academic education was sacrificed to vocational (because "Navajos are good with their hands").

Unfortunately, when Deyhle returned to the district as part of the compliance oversight team in 1997, little had changed. Dropouts remained high; test scores remained low; and a U.S. Justice Department expert called the disparity between white and Navajo schools' offerings as bad "as the '60s in the South."

All the blame for the students' school problems can't be laid on the schools, of course—high school kids push back and like the easy route in any culture; parents may lack the experience to know what their kids deserve—but a shared compact of educators, parents and students can establish a climate that honors academic achievement. Deyhle chronicles the obstacles inhibiting that contract.

Underlying this all is the unstated, messy, ongoing relationship of the colonizer with the colonized. Although some of the younger generation of Navajos that Deyhle saw when she returned in 2004 seemed to have an increased sense of Indian pride, Reflections in Place shows that this national "family" is not yet seated fairly at the common table.

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