Utah students learn about Navajo culture by 'adopting' elders
When William Whitehair was a boy, he learned from his elders the importance of string games to the Navajo people.
"In the summer time, this is when the spiders play their string games and spin their webs," Whitehair recalled them saying. "In the winter time we spin our webs and tell stories."
Then, with a few careful flicks of his hands and fingers, he turned a white string threaded between them into a sky full of stars. He turned his hands again, transforming the string into a nest. He then created a lizard.
"This is how we teach our stories," said Julius Chavez, a Navajo weaver from the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.
Whitehair and Chavez are among a group of Navajo people spending part of this week teaching Salt Lake City and Park City students about their culture and traditions. They're in Park City as part of the Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program's 23rd Annual Navajo Rug Show and Sale at Deer Valley's Snow Park Lodge.
As part of the program, schools from across the country "adopt" Navajo elders, sending them money for food, medicine and firewood. And Navajo weavers visit Park City each year to sell their rugs and share their culture with those attending the show, including students on field trips.
The program serves 525 traditional Navajo elders.
"The program is very special to my people because this is where they get a lot of help," said Mary Robertson-Begay, of Big Mountain, Ariz., noting that elders on some parts of the reservation don't have electricity or running water. "I've seen my own parents benefit from this."
Plus, she said, they enjoy teaching kids about their culture, erasing misconceptions and misinformation.
"I just want people to know who we are," Robertson-Begay said, "and get first-hand experience learning from us instead of always having to rely on books."
In addition to learning about string games, students from several schools also learned about Navajo music, language and weaving Thursday.
Leo Holiday, of Monument Valley, showed students a basket he wove, explaining its construction out of sumac gathered from river banks and mountains. And Robertson-Begay described the way some Navajo women wear their hair, asking one of the Navajo "grandmothers" to stand with her back to the crowd. Another woman then undid her bun revealing wavy, grey hair that dropped to the back of her knees, eliciting "wows" from the kids.
"If you just let your hair down, that means your thoughts are all over the place," Robertson-Begay explained, "so to keep your thoughts together, you keep your hair tied up."
The elders then took turns tying students' hair into the same types of buns.
"I thought it would be cool to try," said Asinate Tapa'atoutai, a freshman at Salt Lake City's Academy for Math, Engineering and Science after having her hair done. "I didn't really know a lot [about the Navajo], but now I know more."
Students also got a chance to meet some of the "grandmothers" they've been helping over the years.
Students from Midway's Soldier Hollow Charter School presented several quilts and letters to their "grandmother," 76-year-old Katie Furcap, who gave them, in exchange, a small rug.
Furcap clutched the quilts, thanking the children in Navajo. Her daughter, Darlene Furcap, translated.
"She's very happy that she got the gifts from her students, her grandchildren," Darlene Furcap said. "She said, 'Thank you for remembering me to keep me warm for the winter.'"
Soldier Hollow third-grader Ellie Wright said afterward it was "a cool experience."
"You don't get to do that every single day," she said.
To visit the rug show
The Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program's 23rd Annual Navajo Rug Show and Sale will continue Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Deer Valley's Snow Park Lodge in Park City. The event will run from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and will cost $30 per adult and $10 per child 12 and under. Rugs will be discounted by 10 percent and hors d'oeuvres provided with admission. On Saturday and Sunday, the event will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will cost $5 a person or $5 in donated canned goods. Weavers keep the proceeds from their sales. To learn more about the schedule of events those days call 435-649-0535 or go to http://www.anelder.org.