A Navajo Student Feels the Tug of Home

Colleen Cooley i i

hide captionColleen Cooley is considering whether she will return to the Navajo reservation after she finishes college.

Cindy Carpien, NPR
Colleen Cooley

Colleen Cooley is considering whether she will return to the Navajo reservation after she finishes college.

Cindy Carpien, NPR

'Our Mother' Hogan

Bobby, Colleen and Ellen Cooley stand in front of the family's hogan. i i

hide captionThe Cooleys: Bobby (from left), Colleen and Ellen stand in front of the family's hogan.

Cindy Carpien, NPR
Bobby, Colleen and Ellen Cooley stand in front of the family's hogan.

The Cooleys: Bobby (from left), Colleen and Ellen stand in front of the family's hogan.

Cindy Carpien, NPR

Colleen Cooley's father, Bobby, describes the family's hogan — a windowless, circular structure used for ceremonial purposes — as "our mother, because it secures us."

More in the Series

Outhouse i i

hide captionWith no electricity or running water, the Cooley family uses this outhouse. But a new generator affords them some luxuries.

Cindy Carpien, NPR
Outhouse

With no electricity or running water, the Cooley family uses this outhouse. But a new generator affords them some luxuries.

Cindy Carpien, NPR
Bob Lomadofkie i i

hide captionHopi elder and artist Bob Lomadofkie works with Northern Arizona University to provide guidance and mentoring for Native American students.

Jack Doggett
Bob Lomadofkie

Hopi elder and artist Bob Lomadofkie works with Northern Arizona University to provide guidance and mentoring for Native American students.

Jack Doggett
Stephanie Jackson, Vachera Yazzie, Philan Tree and Colleen Cooley i i

hide captionNorthern Arizona University classmates: Stephanie Jackson (from left), Vachera Yazzie, Philan Tree and Colleen Cooley.

Elton Ashkii Cooley
Stephanie Jackson, Vachera Yazzie, Philan Tree and Colleen Cooley

Northern Arizona University classmates: Stephanie Jackson (from left), Vachera Yazzie, Philan Tree and Colleen Cooley.

Elton Ashkii Cooley

A Meeting of Ecologies

Nancy Johnson

hide captionNancy Johnson.

Northern Arizona University

What does "Edge of the Rez" mean to you? KNAU reporters asked that question of the people they interviewed for their series. Their vote for the most provocative answer came from Northern Arizona University Environmental Sciences Professor Nancy Johnson. She compared "Edge of the Rez" to an ecotone — a place where ecologies meet.

In "Edge of the Rez," member station KNAU probes American Indian identity. The series profiles American Indians and non-Indians who live in northern Arizona communities that border the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

Colleen Cooley, a junior at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, says she still gets nervous speaking in front of classmates. "Sometimes my voice starts shaking," she says. "I just need to get more comfortable with it."

But Colleen says this isn't just a case of the nerves. Her Navajo classmates agree. They grew up on the reservation, not far from Flagstaff, but it might as well be in another country.

Vachera Yazzi says the environment is much quieter on the reservation, where common noises, such as trains, don't exist, and talking is kept to a minimum.

"For us," she says, "being silent is a respect, but also it's time to think and a time to process. Working with, especially Caucasian people, there's no silence. There's constantly talking and talking."

The adjustments are too much for some Native Americans attending NAU. A decade ago, the graduation rate for these students was 15 percent. NAU has managed to double that by establishing a variety of support programs. The university opened a Native American liaison office 12 years ago that provides workshops on study skills, financial aid and time management.

Hopi elder Bob Lomadofkie offers guidance to Native American students at the university, and sometimes acts as a go-between when exams are missed. He says family obligations, such as rushing back to the reservation to help an ailing relative, or honoring tribal commitments, can be very demanding.

"I try to advocate and negotiate with professors, but there are some who are steadfast," he says. "When it comes to ceremonies... that require you to be there to perform a certain function, there are no ifs, ands or buts about that. You go."

A Visit Home

Colleen's family lives in a remote area of the Navajo reservation, still mostly without electricity and running water. Recently, she drove home for a visit, a three-hour journey by car, north of Flagstaff.

Thirty miles into the trip, she stopped to check her university research project. She's an environmental science major, testing plants for uranium. Uranium mining began on the reservation in the 1950s and lasted for three decades. Cooley is trying to find out whether there are dangerous levels of uranium in the desert plants. She's studying the effects of the uranium on the sheep who eat the plants, and the people who eat the sheep.

The rest of the drive is mostly on a highway, with a vast desert landscape of hills and sagebrush. Eventually, Colleen turns off the pavement and travels the last mile or so on a red dirt road.

A large ceremonial hogan made of juniper logs and mud sits on the grounds of the Cooley homestead. There's also a lone basketball hoop, a blue outhouse, and two corrals with horses, lambs and sheep. Three of Colleen's younger brothers and sisters are visiting, too. Like Colleen, they reside in Flagstaff during the school year. But they live in federally funded Indian dorm housing and attend public school.

For Parents, a Hard Decision

Colleen's mother, Ellen, remembers when her oldest child, Nikki, left for school in Flagstaff a decade ago. "It was kind of scary thinking about all these people and wondering how's my daughter going to survive there. But she did."

Nikki Cooley, Colleen's older sister, was one of the first Navajo students to get her master's degree at NAU. She's now a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University.

There is bitterness among Navajos for the long practice of forcing children to go to boarding schools off the reservation. It's not mandatory anymore, but it is an option. Ellen Cooley believes that her children have a better chance to go to college if they leave home. She volunteers at local Shonto High School. Some students drop out and never return.

"They're really struggling," she says.

The Cooleys have seven children; there's only one left at home. He'll join his siblings in Flagstaff next year for middle school. The decision to send their children away has not been easy for the Cooleys.

"Sometimes I just cry by myself, just to know that they're really up there," Ellen Cooley says. "They're getting their own scholarships and we just pray for them every time when they're leaving somewhere."

And Bobby Cooley says, "We believe our prayers can be answered even if we're on the other side of the world. So we know our children are being protected while they're out there." With tears in his eyes, he says he's proud of his children.

A Powerful Connection

Colleen says her parents have always encouraged her. But she didn't realize the depth of their feelings until now. And she wonders whether she'll come back to the reservation after she finishes school.

"There's not many jobs out on the reservation, I mean good jobs," she says. "I would love to raise my children just how I grew up because I think having no electricity and water taught us more discipline."

Colleen talks about the hard life her parents had, growing up with only tribal charity clothing. She says her father "didn't have much when he was younger, and now he's trying to give that to us."

Bobby Cooley wants his children to go to college, even if it means they could lose some of their culture.

"We might have to give away our Native sometime to survive in the Western culture," he says. "Let them go to school. Let them accomplish something. Bring back something to help us Native Americans. At the same time, you know you're Navajo. You might be gone for so long, but you're here with us. That's how our native people believe. You have children like that and you raise them like that, they'll be coming back here."

When Colleen Cooley was born, her parents followed a Navajo tradition: They buried her umbilical cord close to their home, connecting her to the land forever. So, Bobby Cooley knows just how powerful the force is that will always pull his daughter home.

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