A Letter from Wendy Kelly

Class trip to the Navaho/Diné Nation.

In 2023, the eighth grade class had the opportunity for a service learning and cultural exchange experience in the Navaho/Diné Nation.

This year for the eighth grade class trip, we had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Colorado and northern New Mexico for a service learning and cultural exchange experience in the Navaho/Diné Nation. Having been to the Deer Hill Expeditions campus for a summer teacher intensive several years before, I had always held in the back of my mind how much I would love to take a future class to experience the beauty of the Colorado and New Mexico landscape and the chance to live and work side by side with indigenous people under the guidance of the Deer Hill staff. 

After enduring extended weather delays at the airport for several hours, the still enthusiastic eighth grade class finally boarded the airplane for our flight to Denver, followed by our connecting flight to the four corners region of Mancos. Once we arrived and settled into our temporary cabins, we began preparations for our journey to the reservation where we would be setting up camp and working with our host family. Before this, however, we enjoyed a day trip to Mesa Verde National Park, driving through and walking along the canyon cliffs and viewing the ancient and wondrous cliff dwellings from afar. 

Packed into two passenger vans with a trailer of food, water, cookware, work tools, and camping gear, we headed to the home of Navaho-Diné elders, Gwen and Ferlin, who are both long-time educators on the reservation. The first visitors to their homestead for the season, we set to work immediately cleaning and clearing the area, moving furniture, arranging our outdoor kitchen, and pitching our tents. We were soon met, not only by our hosts’ extended family members, but their sweet dog and puppy who captured everyone’s hearts throughout our time there.

Each day on the reservation, the students worked in groups to prepare the corn fields, weed the yard, move building material, remove and replace fencing, chop wood, prepare meals, and attend to any other needed tasks. This hard work was interspersed with breaks to play volleyball or basketball, or to play with the puppy. Each evening, we gathered with our hosts, either in their home or inside their hogan to share experiences, hear stories and songs, and learn about the beliefs and traditions of the Diné people. 

The 8th graders were struck by the dusty starkness of the reservation lands set against the stunning backdrop of mountains and mesas. They saw and experienced the hard work, simplicity, and community efforts of our host family and their vast extended family. Gwen and Ferlin were pleasantly surprised at the level of work and helpfulness of this city-dwelling class and welcomed the students’ questions about their way of life. The students themselves felt accomplished and proud of all that they were able to do together. We were told by our host family that we were now extended family members and were welcome to come back any time. Indeed, Gwen and Ferlin expressed the desire for all of us to go back and let everyone know that they, their culture, their way of life still exists, that they are proud of who they are, and they intend to endure into the future.

Back at the Deer Hill base camp, the students were led in a closing ceremony that took place inside a heated sauna. Here, each student shared comments of gratitude for the opportunity of this unique and memorable experience, for the hard and meaningful work they were guided to do, and for the special time they were able to have with one another. One 8th grade student reflected, “When you visit the Navaho people, you will learn that there are not four directions, but seven: East, South, West, North, Above, Below, and Center…Center, your own being and place in the world, represents community, friends, and family…If you are your own direction, you can never get lost. You will never be lost if you are with friends and family.” This class trip was a profound and unforgettable experience for us all.