New Horizons in the Navajo Nation

by Doug Knisely

Student Doug Knisely describes this summer’s sociology service learning trip to the Navajo Nation with IUP sociology professor Dr. Melanie Hildebrandt and Amizade Pittsburgh.

For more info on Amizade visit them on facebook:

Email Dr. Hildebrandt at to learn more about upcoming service learning trips.

DAY One: The Arrival

Everyone knows that feeling of restlessness the night before something important or life changing is about to happen.

I for one had that feeling the night before my fellow classmates and I set of on a journey to the Navajo Nation that we were sure to not soon forget.

I had to wake up around a quarter after three a.m. at my home in Claysburg Pennsylvania in order to make it to the Pittsburg airport where the group was set to meet.

That was the first time in my life I had to travel to an airport without the guidance of my parents.

It is safe to say I was fairly nervous and when luckily I found my way to the American airlines gate where we were set to meet and didn’t see a familiar face my anxiety went through the roof.

Moments later I heard my name called and everything was okay. Even though I had some classes with a few my fellow group members for the most part we were pretty much strangers.

I was soon to find out that we wouldn’t be strangers for long when we were talking our heads off and singing along to the music in the van after we made it to Phoenix during drive to Tuba City through Flagstaff.

We stopped along the way after experiencing the wonderful Del Taco for the first time and viewed the San Francisco Mountain, one of the four sacred Navajo Mountains, before finally arriving in Tuba City in the evening.

After meeting Keith and Valerie, our group facilitators from Amizade at Grey Hills in Tuba City, we settled in to our home for the next six days.

We met for our first group discussion that night and talked about our hope, fears, and expectations. We also created a poster with a set of guidelines that we would hope to follow as a group during our stay in the beautiful Navajo Nation. Then it was time to rest our tired minds and bodies after the long day and prepare for the beauty that was yet to come.

Day Two: The Granddaddy of them All

On day two we loaded into the van and set off for the Grand Canyon, a place that Cameron frequently referred to as “the granddaddy of them all”.

First we stopped at the Little Colorado River canyon, a place that didn’t feel “touristy” whatsoever. I can remember thinking that there was no way that the actual Grand Canyon could be any more majestic than what we saw there but I was soon to be mistaken.

It was my first time visiting the Grand Canyon, my first time traveling in the west for that matter, and it was amazing.

I could have never expected anything to be so majestic. I wish pictures could do the canyon justice but they just can’t.

After lunch we had the opportunity to either hike down into the canyon or walk along the rim trail in which most of us chose to go down in.

I was definitely not prepared for how difficult it would be hiking back to the top after we decided to make it as far down as we could in the amount of time that we had.

It is safe to say that we were all pretty exhausted and very hungry.

Luckily it wasn’t a long drive to the Navajo trading post where we were lucky enough to experience Navajo food for the first time where I discovered a new found love for the Navajo taco. Delicious.

After diner we met in the courtyard to reflect upon the day, which we would do on most days, if we weren’t too tired. Then it was back to Grey Hills for some much needed rest to prepare for our first experience of service learning.

Day Three: Lava Rocks

We left Grey Hills bright and early on day three to meet Johnson, a resident of Tuba city, at his home in order to work on his traditional Navajo sweat lodge.

First we leveled off a piece of ground that would eventually become an extension to the sweat lodge which surprisingly did not take that long.

Then the real work started. We began moving five years’ worth of lava rocks which are used to create the heat within the sweat lodge.

The teamwork was amazing. We Worked like a fine tuned machine with our shovels, wheel barrows, and buckets moving that heavy dirt and rocks.

As you can see from the pictures above we all had a feeling of accomplishment in finishing a job that would have taken Johnson and Daniel much longer to finish by themselves.

We were happy to help.

Day Four: The Hogan


On day four we packed up our shovels once again and headed to Mr. Kaibatoney’s farm near tuba city.

He had chickens, horses, goats, and sheep on his farm, which I really enjoyed to imitate. He also had his very own traditional sweat lodge made from wood and dried mud.

He gave us a brief history of the sweat lodge before we got to work on making the mud for his Hogan that he had been in the process of making for over two years.

After a few short ours of mixing and shoveling mud we ended up with a good base all around the bottom of the Hogan.

Next it was on to Val’s aunt’s house to learn about the puberty ceremony for young Navajo women.

Carmelita invited us into her home (even though we were covered in dirt and dust) to teach us about the Kinalta. Of course Cassy was the youngest of the group so she was nominated to dress up in the traditional dress along with all of the turquoise jewelry as Carmelita demonstrated what happens during the ceremony. From what she explained, the process seems very rigorous.

She was then gracious enough to make us a home cooked meal. It was delicious (even after I found out that we were eating the lining of a cows’ stomach.

Then it was back to Grey Hills for another presentation from Baje Whitethorn Sr. and Jr.

Sr. grew up on the reservation during a time when families still lived in Hogan’s without running water and electricity. A time in which he described as being very fond of.

Jr. Grew up outside of the reservation and only visited during the summertime.

Their very different upbringings were clear to understand in their artwork. Sr. painted pictures that reflected his childhood with landscapes of the reservation.

Jr. painted a lot of portrait pictures of Navajo women with that resembled his love for science and sci-fi.

We thanked them for their time and them it was time for some much needed rest and anticipation for the sweat lodge ceremony that would take place the next day.

Day five: Sweat Lodge


The sweat lodge ceremony was something that we were all looking forward to, and with good reason. I had never heard of a sweat lodge before going to the Navajo Nation and I was very excited to see what it was like.

The girls went first while the guys stayed back at Grey Hills, hydrated, and watched a film about the Navajo long walk to Bosque Redondo.

The sweat lodge was unlike anything I have ever experienced. The first round I was thinking that it wasn’t that bad even though I was already dripping with sweat.

Round two was manageable as well. The songs Johnson was singing were comforting and helped keep my mind off the heat.

Round three was the first time that I actually thought about having to step out because of the heat, but I persisted.

Round four was very intense. The air inside the sweat lodge was so hot that my lungs stung with every breath.

It was all worth it when we exited the sweat lodge, I definitely felt reborn and rejuvenated.

Day Six: Coal Mine Canyon

Coal Mine canyon was a place of beauty that seemed almost out of this world. It is very much a place of tragedy as well.

When the United States army was rounding up Navajo men, women, and, children for the march to Bosque Redondo the Dine would hide from the soldiers within the steep walls of Coal Mine Canyon.

We have to keep in mind this was during the dead of winter as well.

Unable to build a fire in fear of being detected by the soldiers, Navajo’s were forced to endure the harsh conditions.

The self-reflection we did at coal mine canyon is still fresh within my memory. That canyon was so powerful and if I close my eyes I still feel like I am there.

After saying our goodbyes to Coal Mine Canyon we headed back into town for an outside flea market. The atmosphere at that market was wonderful, the people were so nice.

It was at the flea market that I got to try some of Mr. Kaibatoney’s homemade Navajo cake which was much different than the cake that I am used to but I definitely enjoyed it.

Then Mr. Kaibatoney was nice enough to take us to newspaper rock which is covered with ancient symbols that were carved into the stone which represent corn, rain, clouds, animals, and other things. Some looked like spaceships and aliens but that’s just me.

We spent a few hours at newspaper rock and it was really nice to get to know Mr. Kaibatoney more.

Day Seven: Thrift Store

Day seven consisted of our final service of the trip.

The objective was to clean up and organize the back storage area of a local thrift shop in Page Arizona so that there wasn’t so much clutter.

When we arrived in Page, AZ we really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into with this one. The Family Bargain Center had A LOT of stuff.

Per usual, we rolled up our sleeves and worked as a team with speed and proficiency.

After a few hours of sorting, throwing things away, and moving more valuable pieces inside, the space looked much much better.

It felt good to help out at the Family Bargain Center because the work we did will allow the employees to know where things are a little bit easier.

That in turn will allow them to serve their customers more proficiently and everybody wins.

After saying our goodbyes to the Family Bargain Center we set off for Horseshoe Canyon.

Upon arrival, I was extremely surprised at how many people were there also all of the cultural differences.

People had come to the canyon from all around the world, and it was worth it to. The canyon was something else.

I often think of the fearlessness that Nicolette possesses. No matter where we were during the trip, if there was a steep ledge you could find her near it.

She definitely made me nervous. I can almost still feel that feeling in my stomach that we all know when it comes to heights.

Day Eight: Canyon De Chelly

Day eight marked our last day in Tuba City.

We left Grey Hills early with a pretty long drive ahead of us to Canyon De Chelly, where we would meet Sharon for the first time.

Canyon De Chelly is a place of reverence and ancient history. I was surprised to find out that people still live there today.

Sharon’s own family still lives within the Canyon. Her grandmother had to be in great shape to be able to walk up and down the path well into her 90’s.

The canyon is home to a large amount of history including the white house ruins where Native Americans lived thousands of years ago.

Spider rock is also located in Canyon De Chelly which is an essential component of the Navajo creation story.

After a long hike back to the top of Canyon De Chelly we set of for Sharon’s own sheep camp where we would camp out for the night.

Her property was very unique to say the least. The amount of cars, trucks, campers, and equipment (most have seen better days) that she had on her property was amazing.

After taking it all in we got to work setting up out tent village where we would sleep for the night.

Sharon was nice enough to make us a campfire meal that consisted of hamburgers, hotdogs, outdoor bread, and Navajo tacos.

It’s safe to say that we were all pretty full after that meal.

Then we all sat around the fire and talked/reflected on the trip so far and Sharon shared stories of her life as well as some of the Navajo customs and traditions.

Day Nine: Sheep Camp

On day ten we were awoken bright and early from our tent community the smell of coffee, bacon, and eggs.

Sharon gave some of the group a little tour of her farm while she fed her animals.

Sharon then took us to a spot high up in the mountains where we could see for many miles. Some of the sacred mountains were visible where we were including the Rocky Mountains.

Then we had lunch in a park area and did an activity in which we spread out near a small stream and focused on putting ourselves in the moment and really tried to connect with our senses.

That whole activity was really emotional and Sharon shared really personal things about her life with us, most of whom she had never met until the day before.

It takes a strong person to really open up about the struggles of their lives and I really admire her for doing so.

After packing away the tents and saying our goodbyes to Sharon and all of her dogs we set off to stay with the Sister in New Mexico.

DAY Ten: Navajo Rugs


On the tenth day we attended a presentation at Dine College on Navajo rug making and weaving.

The lady taught us all about the different types of rugs and patterns. My favorites were the Storm, Germantown, and Crystal patterns.

Most patterns include elements the four Sacred Navajo Plants which are corn, beans, squash, and tobacco.

The loom (pictured above) is the tool that Navajo rug makers use to make their different designs of rugs.

At one point during the presentation she demonstrated how the loom works and let’s just say that making a traditional Navajo rug would take an extremely long time.

Day Eleven: Presentations Con’t

The first presentation we attended on day eleven was given by Jean Whitehorse whose father was a Navajo Code Talker in world war two.

She began her presentation by talking to us about the Navajo Long Walk which was a forced march of 300-500 miles to Fort Sumner during the dead of the winter.

Over 2,000 Navajo people including the elderly and children died during the Long Walk.

Jean also spoke to us about the Navajo Code Talkers. The Code Talkers were Navajo soldiers that created a secret way of communicating so that the Japanese were unable to intercept messages from the United States Military.

The Code Talkers were instrumental in winning the war on the pacific front during world war two.

Jean also talked about government policies in the past that have aimed to destroy the Native American population including the Removal Act, the Indian Reorganization Act, The Indian Termination Policy, and The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. The Child welfare act led to Native American children being taken away from their families and given to non N/A families.

Jean Whitehorse was a very interesting woman with an extremely interesting life. She has done so much for the Navajo people in terms of standing up and fighting and activism.

I felt lucky to have the chance to meet her.

The next presentation we had the privilege to listen to focused on the issues of uranium mining within the Navajo Nation.

In the past Navajo men would take jobs in uranium mines with no idea of the damaging health effects that uranium causes. The would breath radioactive dust within the mines and consume contaminated water causing various forms of health issues later on in life. The men would also bring their contaminated clothes and water back to their families causing problems there as well.

ENDAUM, The Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, was formed in early 1995 to ensure that dangerous uranium mining would no longer take place within the Navajo Nation.

So far the movement has been successful in keeping uranium mining out of the Navajo Nation but the presenter is worried that they could lose all of the progress they have made.

DAY Twelve: Journey Home


Day twelve marked our final day in the Navajo Nation.

We had a long drive ahead of us to Las Vegas Nevada for our flight that night but it was all good because the van was always a good time.

When we finally arrived to Vegas the strip was like we walked right out of one world and entered another.

It was sad in a sense because finally arriving there marked the end of an experience that I will never forget. I’ve met new people and made life-long friends.

When we arrived in Pittsburgh it was gloomy and rainy. I think that weather matched our moods perfectly.

Saying goodbye to everyone at the baggage claim was more difficult than I thought it would be. I am going to miss everyone dearly.

If there is one thing that I will take away from this journey it’s that we are all five fingered people.

We may have different ways of going about things but we are all five fingered people.

For more info on Amizade visit them on facebook:

Email Dr. Hildebrandt at to learn more about upcoming service learning trips.


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