Damon J. Clark, Diné, led the PBHA Navajo Service Trip to New Mexico, a public service trip for seven Harvard undergraduates to Navajo, NM from December 30th of 2016 to January 8th of 2017. This is his narrative:
On December 31st, New Years Eve, our trip began with all seven participants having their first, or second, experience riding a horse. They were either very excited or very nervous, nonetheless, they all were courageous enough to mount and ride the beautiful horses in the bright New Mexico sun.
As the official guests of Governor Edward Paul Torres, Governor of the Pueblo of Isleta and Chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, we were hosted with great hospitality. A
s an avid rancher, Governor Torres was eager to teach Harvard students about a subject passionate to him. That last day of his time in office Governor Torres and his family spent the entire morning being patient and accommodating with our group, and I was deeply appreciative of his leadership and openness. Following this experience, we would spend the rest of the trip having the Harvard students embrace these moments of difficulty as opportunity to learn and experience issues first hand.
After our incredible hospitality at the Pueblo of Isleta, we traveled westward that afternoon toward the Navajo Nation, only stopping for lunch at the Pueblo of Acoma for the world famous Acoma burger. Because we had to plan our schedule around the roads to our house being frozen or muddy, we had to spend more time before trying to get to our home. Therefore, during the eve of the New Year we decided to attend the Navajo Nation’s New Year’s celebration at the Navajo Nation Museum, which included traditional Navajo shoe and string games.
I live beyond the “road to nowhere”! It’s an infamous road in my community that has been incomplete for years at a certain point, but my family and I live beyond that point. Having our home site several miles from the incomplete highway, we have to manage with the roads in the rain and snow. Thus, the participants began to see how our family has to be aware and plan accordingly with the weather and road conditions. This was evident when we arrived at a certain point to find snow on top of a still muddy road at 10 PM, therefore we parked the vehicles and had to hike to our home.
Hiking two miles in slick clay in the dark, our group ventured into the New Year in a completely different environment. Imagine venturing into the middle of nowhere, only being able to see sagebrush, the participants probably held great concern and questions about their decisions. But they trusted my family and I to be adventurous.
Arriving at our home site, we welcomed the students to our homesite: a hooghan (an eight-sided home) with dirt floors where they would be sleeping on sheepskin and sleeping bags, the one room log cabin for the kitchen, dinning room, and where my parents slept, and the two outhouses. Retrieving their luggage and our supplies from our parked vehicles my father and I used our UTV and returned to the house minutes before the midnight countdown. In our hooghan, all of us celebrated the new year in Asaayii (Bowl Canyon), NM.
It is an amazing spectacle to see a group of Harvard undergraduates wake up before the sunrise, and this a constant theme for the group because my family values the light of day as valuable time to work. Thus, every morning the students would wake up, brush their teeth, eat cold & hot cereal, and be ready for the adventure of the day. That first day at home, like other days, required us to hike the two miles. During our walk, the students were able to see the surrounding red rocks that form the Bowl Canyon, while carrying empty water contains. Thus, although the students realized our lack of utilities, they saw the natural beauty that makes our home so special to us.
“5 Degrees Fahrenheit”, that was the registered temperature from our truck’s thermometer. At at an altitude above Denver, Colorado, our our home receives several inches of snow & rain annually, while also holding great sunlight and droughts during the summers. Because our homes are heated by our fireplaces, all participants learned how to split wood with an axe, stack the wood, and build a fire, because it’s essential in the cold winter. Naturally, the participants became competitive on who could chop more, faster, etc. and their enthusiasm was there. Therefore when we chopped wood for elders and families we visited as public service, the families were impressed by their enthusiasm.
These extremes and lack of many utilities have made our homesite a difficult place to live a modern lifestyle. But, what we lack in modern technologies, we gain in silence, beauty, and components of Diné culture. This reality allowed the participants to immerse themselves into the experience without distractions and be able to learn and think without structures.
Although we did a great amount of public service throughout the trip, we rewarded their work with beautiful hikes within Canyon De Chelly, meeting with governmental leaders in Window Rock, and a showers in Gallup, NM. The trip within Canyon De Chelly represented a historic Diné stronghold for the Diné people while also showcasing an environmental beauty. During our unplanned visit to the Navajo Nation Council meeting, we were recognized by the tribal council and met with the Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez and Attorney General Ethel Branch. And, half-way through the trip we rewarded the participants with a hot shower at the Gallup Aquatic Center. These experiences were amplified by the unique cultural exchanges that took placed between the participants, my family, and the communities we visited.
I aspired for this trip to not be a trip that exploited Navajo culture but rather a sharing of culture, thus I challenged all the participants to share their own experiences and cultures. Community members were curious about our group and our reason for hosting this group of students, but overall they were interested in where the students originated from. This concept of diversity was shown during our introductions when they would list the various cities they came from and the wide array of concentrations and extracurriculars. The students invested in this idea of cultural exchange by cooking their cultural foods for the group, and hence our family was treated to home-made meals of tandoori chicken and chinese noodles. These cultural exchanges indicated an equal value of culture and an ability to share our beliefs, thoughts, and experiences with each other.
This idea of diversity was further shown by their engagement with the Navajo Pine High School and Middle School students. Helping in classes, sometimes leading the classes in some cases, it was crucial for our Harvard students to engage with students who don’t see Harvard, nonetheless college, as a possibility. For me, the time in the school, although short, was an important encounter for both sides to meet and engage in a meaningful way. Making “Harvard” a group of normal people, rather than an unreachable or unattainable goal it was crucial for us to be at their level and learning with them. The cultural exchanges were definitely visible in the Navajo language course, when Navajo, Chinese, Hindi, and Spanish were all spoken in one hour. Our presence at the school was finished by our group presentation to the high school seniors and juniors about our collegiate experiences.
Finally, on January 8th, the trip ended with new friendships, experiences, and energy to return to Harvard and our communities. It was a true honor and pleasure to have led such a unique Harvard group that I consider as my my sister and brothers.