A Navajo Student Feels the Tug of Home Like most of her siblings, Coleen Cooley has left the Navajo reservation to attend school. But she often makes the three-hour journey back to the "rez," where her parents hope she'll return to live after college.
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A Navajo Student Feels the Tug of Home

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A Navajo Student Feels the Tug of Home

A Navajo Student Feels the Tug of Home

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Next, we're going to trace the road to college as it looks when you begin on a Native American reservation. We've been airing stories about life in towns bordering Indian country. They come from member station KNAU. That station put together a series called "Edge of the Rez." And in its latest installment, reporter Laurel Morales visited students attending college in Flagstaff, Arizona, near the Navajo and Hopi Reservations.

LAUREL MORALES: In an office on the campus of Northern Arizona University, a small group of Navajo students are studying for an exam. They take a break to talk about college life. Junior Colleen Cooley says she finds it difficult to speak in front of her classmates.

Ms. COLLEEN COOLEY (Junior Student, Northern Arizona University): I just get really nervous. And then, sometimes, my voice starts shaking.

MORALES: This isn't just a case of nerves. These students say it's cultural. They were brought up in a quieter environment where common noises like trains don't exist. Colleen's friend, Vachera Yazzi, says talking is often kept to a minimum on the reservation.

Ms. VACHERA YAZZI (Colleen's Friend): For us, being silent is a respect. But also it's time to think and having time to process. Working with, especially Caucasian people, there is no silence. It's constantly talking. If there's even one bit of silence, it's uncomfortable silence.

MORALES: For many Native Americans coming to school here, the adjustments are too much. A decade ago, the graduation rate was 15 percent. NAU has doubled that by establishing a variety of support programs. Hopi elder Bob Lomadofkie offers guidance to native students at the university and sometimes acts as a go-between when exams are missed. He says family obligations can be very demanding - rushing back to the reservation to help an ailing relative, or honoring tribal commitments.

Mr. BOB LOMADOFKIE (Hopi Elder): I try and negotiate with professors, but there are some who are steadfast. When it comes to ceremonies, if you're of a clan that requires you to be there to perform a certain function, there are no ifs, ands or buts about that. You go.

MORALES: Colleen Cooley doesn't get many chances to visit her family. She's from Shonto on the Navajo reservation, three hours away. On a recent trip, she pulls over to the side of the road to check on a research project for environmental science. She's testing plants for uranium.

Ms. C. COOLEY: And this is my sample site. I collected three different plants. This is alkali sacaton.

MORALES: Uranium was mined on the reservation until the 1980s. Colleen wants to know if there are dangerous levels of uranium in the desert plants, and whether that could harm people today - since sheep eat the plants and people eat the sheep.

Ms. C. COOLEY: We don't know if it's natural or not, because some of it is naturally occurring in soil.

(Soundbite of moving vehicle)

MORALES: Shonto is in a remote area, still mostly without electricity and running water. The last mile or so to Colleen's home is a red dirt road that cuts through the rocks and sagebrush.

Ms. C. COOLEY: You can park by that white truck on that side.

MORALES: On the grounds of the Cooley homestead, sits a large ceremonial hogan made of juniper logs and mud. There's a basketball hoop, a blue painted outhouse, and two corrals with some horses, lambs, and sheep.

(Soundbite of sheep)

MORALES: Colleen's parents, Bobby and Ellen Cooley, sit on the covered porch of the modest home where they've raised seven children. Three of Colleen's younger brothers and sisters spend the school year in Flagstaff. They live in dorms for Native Americans while they attend public school. Ellen Cooley remembers when her oldest, Nikki, left for school more than a decade ago.

Ms. ELLEN COOLEY (Mother of Colleen): Yeah. It was kind of hard and scary, thinking about all these people. And I was wondering how's my daughter going to survive there? But she did. She's learned a lot.

MORALES: Nikki Cooley became one of the first Navajo students to get her masters at NAU. She's now a doctoral candidate of Michigan State University. In the past, Native American students were forced to go to boarding schools off the reservation. It's a bitter memory for many Indian families. But Ellen Cooley believes her children have a better chance to go to college if they leave home. She volunteers at nearby Shonto High School and sees what happens to some of the young people who stay.

Ms. E. COOLEY: Some of them didn't finish school. They're really struggling. And I just, you know, feel sorry for them. I try to talk to them. Some of them listened, and they go back to school.

MORALES: Ellen and Bobby Cooley have only one child left at home. He'll join his siblings in Flagstaff next year for middle school. The Cooleys hope all their children will go to college. When asked if they're proud of their children's accomplishments, Ellen Cooley has to pause. She bows her head when she finally speaks.

Ms. E. COOLEY: It's so emotional to me. I just tell them, go on. Get going, 'cause I didn't finish. Sometime, I just cry with - by myself. You know, just to know they're really up there. They're getting their own scholarship. Then we just pray for them every time when they're leaving somewhere.

Mr. BOBBY COOLEY (Colleen's Father): We believe our prayers can be answered, even if were on other side of the world. So we know our children are being protected while they're out there. We pray for them to give them knowledge, and courage, and the strength to go on. When we see those things, it makes me even prouder.

MORALES: Colleen says her parents have always encouraged her. But she didn't realize the depth of their feelings until now. Standing under a shady tree behind her parent's house, Colleen wonders whether she'll come back to the reservation after she finishes school.

Ms. C. COOLEY: There's not many jobs on the reservation, like good jobs, too. I mean, I don't know what the odds would be. I mean, I love to raise my children just like how I grew up because I think having no electricity and water taught us more discipline. You know, it was way harder for my parents, for sure - just getting tribal clothing every year and that's all you had. He didn't have much when he was younger, and now he's trying to give that to us.

MORALES: Bobby Cooley knows sending his children to college is not without a cost. It could mean they'll lose some of their culture.

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

MORALES: 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 Colleen home.

I'm Laurel Morales.

(Soundbite of a Navajo song)

INSKEEP: You can find other stories from KNAU series, Edge of the Rez at npr.org, which is where you can also take a tour, an audio tour of the Cooley family hogan.

Mr. COOLEY: There's a fireplace here in - right in the middle, and that's the heart of the hogan. And we call this hogan our mother, because it secures us.

(Soundbite of a Navajo song)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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