Navajo Zoo: Cultural Identity & Preservation - Save Tucson's Richey Elementary School
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK – Marjorie Snipes, a professor of anthropology at the University of West Georgia, discovered the Navajo Nation Zoo about two years ago and was totally intrigued. She and her family were back again Saturday for their third visit, joining the more than 1,000 people who passed through the gates by 1 p.m. to check out Raptor Day.
“What I'm interested in and what's significant as far as anthropology is concerned is this is one of the only places I know of where they're using a zoo for cultural identity and cultural preservation. It's really significant. I see the Navajo as a group uniquely equipped because of these very creative ventures. To survive intact and to survive well, I'm very, very impressed,” she said.
Shoriel Charley, 19, of Hunters Point was visiting the zoo for the first time in two years. “There has been a lot of improvements, and I'm enjoying what I'm seeing so far,” she said. “I guess my favorite part as a child was the eagles, so I'm going to be going that way next.”
Dwight Keeto, a volunteer for the event, agreed that the zoo has come a long way during the tenure of curator Matthew Holdgate, who will be leaving May 1, after ZooFest, to return to school.
“He's really done a wonderful job and a lot of these activities have really picked up,” Keeto said. “People are drawn to these types of activities. They just love it and the kids just love it. It's great.”
Children and parents alike didn't seem to mind the cold, blowing wind as they strolled through the main building to enjoy the gila monsters or cheer on a goose as it jumped into its new pond at the foot of a waterfall. They then headed outside to see zoo's exhibit of golden eagles and red-tailed hawks while waiting for Hawks Aloft Inc. of Albuquerque to set up.
Ethan Westbrook, 2, was intrigued by a salamander while Samantha Westbrook, 4, of Fort Defiance was drawn to the raccoon. Peter Begay, 7, was anxious to see the bears and coyotes.
Travis and Aretha Hardy of Fort Defiance said they try to bring their children to the zoo once a month. “It's fun. We need a warmer day, but it's alright,” Travis said. Ariana, 12, didn't mind the cold as she watched one of the bears, her favorite exhibit, and Lathan, 7, roared as he chased a “tiger” roaming among the crowd and tried to grab its tail.
Holdgate said Raptor Day, the zoo's newest event, is to educate people about the importance of birds of prey – eagles, hawks, owls and falcons. “Their role culturally is important, but we're also educating about their role in nature and why they should be conserved,” he said.
The family friendly event, funded by BHP Billiton's Community Investment Fund, offered traditional Navajo stories in the hogan, arts and crafts stations, birds-of-prey games developed by the education staff at the zoo, and food sales to raise money for future projects, including a petting zoo to be unveiled at ZooFest.
Peggy McCormick and Amelia Porter of Hawks Aloft were a big hit, with audiences crowding around to get a close look at the red-tailed hawk and the merlin and peregrine falcons they brought with them. The organization does avian research, conservation, and education.
“Hawks, owls, all those guys, they kill from above. They come down to their prey and grab the sides and squeeze, because all the vital organs are pretty much along the sides. Falcons actually eat other birds of prey,” said McCormick.
“Falcons dive over 200 miles per hour,” Porter added. “The fastest ever recorded was 240 miles per hour. That's so they can catch birds in mid air and break their neck and then go off and eat them.”
Like most of the animals housed at the zoo, the birds they brought, including the merlin and peregrine falcons, were injured at some point and are unable to survive in the wild. The red-tailed hawk, which is just about a year old, was found last October.
“She's a juvenile, that's why she doesn't have a red tail,” McCormick said. “She doesn't get her red tail and her adult coloring until age 3.” Red-tails are very common and love to hunt in open country, she added.
“The hawk was dropped off in the yard of one of the volunteers and they took her to the vet and the vet had to remove the eye because of infection,” Porter said. “She was so tame we figured that somebody had her illegally, so when her eye got sick, they couldn't take her to the vet. We took her in. She can fly really well.”
Half the birds the organization receives come in with gunshot wounds, according to McCormick. “People shoot things they're not supposed to shoot. It's illegal to shoot these birds,” she said.
Sunny Dooley, who captivated audiences with her storytelling inside the hogan, would say that those people who shot the birds have become “careless.”
“They say a hogan is an upside-down bird's nest that was found laying on the surface of the earth. As Navajo people this is our nest – our hogan,” she said.
“We're so lucky to be invited from the birds, the animals, reptiles and insects to live with them,” Dooley said. In the animal kingdom, you don't hear about domestic violence, or alcohol, or driving under the influence. “We don't hear about the Canadian goose flying in the opposite direction because they don't have a GPS. It's us humankind, us five-fingered that are a little nutty,” she said.
There is a Navajo word that is used; people think it means you're “crazy,” she said. “But when you break the word apart it means they're 'careless.' They don't have any sense of responsibility for anything around them. I think for Dine people – and I only speak for Dine people because I'm Dine – we're moving away from 'caring for' to 'caring less.'”
Dooley recounted the story of Bluebird and Plain Brown Bird and their role in the creation of the hogan, delighting young and old alike with her bird “voices.” Her reality stories and tales of sheepherding were just as entertaining.
“I don't care how hot it is in the summertime, no tank top was ever put on my body! Because my great-grandmother, she always said, 'Only if you are careless would you take off your clothes for the sun. Because if you know the sun, it's going to burn you.' If you have on layers and layers of clothes, your internal body temperature stays the same.”
The long dress and sparkling shirt Dooley wore Saturday was pretty much like her sheepherding attire, she said. “Most of my clothes came from the Whitewater Mission Church used-clothes box. We got all kinds of crazy clothes in there. We looked like we were going to a prom more than we were sheepherding.
“We loved wearing those petticoats and those prom dresses that came. I guess petticoats were in style. In the '70s they were out of style but they all came in the used clothes box. One of my cousin's brothers always used to tell me that I had tumbleweeds under my dress. He always used to say, 'She's down in the canyon rolling in her skirt.'”
Living in a hogan, Dooley said, one becomes more aware of the environment. She and her daughter spent Christmas break in her mother's hogan. Her daughter, who was sleeping near the hole in the roof, was very excited at first about the snow coming in. But as the night wore on, she said, “ 'Mom, can you close the roof?' I'm tired of hearing the snow hitting the stove.'
“I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' And in my brain, quietly inside, 'What kind of Navajo are you?!'” she said, laughing. “I told her it never bothered me as a child to have it rain in the hogan or snow in the hogan. We didn't need the Weather Channel. All we had to do was look up and see what the weather was.”
Native Mother Seeks Help To Save Community School
I am an urban Navajo who lives in Tucson and I am calling for help from everyone in Indian Country. My daughter attends a local school within the Tucson Unified School District and has been notified of its closure. This process is happening quickly, and without outside assistance. I don't know what will happen to this small village. NEED HELP TO SAVE THIS COMMUNITY - AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
Richey Elementary School began in 1924 by Miss Thamar Richey. Miss Richey, who had experience teaching Native American children, saw the need for teaching theYaqui kids at the Old Pascua Village located in Tucson, AZ.
In the beginning, the original school was a small hut made from cardboard and tinscraps. As Tucson grew around this small Native community, TUSD In 1924 made aninvestment in the education of Yaqui children and paid for Miss Richey to teach in a new building. The District continued to be committed to the teaching of Yaqui children in Old Pascua and in 1954 a new school was built at 2209 N. 15thAve.
The building in was named in the honor of Miss Richey, who believed ineducation of all and was especially committed to the community of Old Pascua.
Let us fast forward to today, TUSD has requested for the closure of Richey Elementary School. The school's current enrollment is 105 students, some of the students are from the Old Pascua Village, however it has a population of almost 50% Native American. It is proposed that the students attend other schools inthe district, the nearest is 4 miles away.
We would like to see the community stay intact and to see the kids in the Richey community succeed and continue on to bigger and better things. These students are the future and deserve ourcommitment to the preservation of their education and to increase the awareness of cultural diversity in TUSD.
There was a parent meeting and a TUSD administrator had the nerve to say that kids need to be in a diverse environment, "it will benefit them in the future." Obviously, we as Natives, have heard this before. Navajo children were forced to assimilate. Every last bit of culture and history was taken away from them as they became westernized. Its sad that today, especially here in Arizona, everyone is not sensitive to diversity.
ONE NATION FOR QUALITY EDUCATION!! Please help if you can. There are many pictures of the school and also stories about the origin of this unique desert school.
My contact information is Mrs. Ernette Leslie-John,
474 W 19th St #3,
Tucson, AZ 85701.
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