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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Hands-on History
Red Mesa Students Sweep History Day
by Cindy Yurth - Navajo Times, Tséyi' Bureau

Even to the casual observer at the Northeastern Arizona Regional History Day competition, it was obvious that there was obvious that there was something a bit out of whack.

Why were so many awards going to a tiny high school in an obscure corner of an impoverished Indian reservation?

As Red Mesa High School's honors history teacher, Wesley Cobb, proudly observed, "We took 25 percent of the group awards and 20 percent of the individual awards."

Is there something in the water at Red Mesa, besides uranium?

Nope, just a teacher who loves History Day and encourages his students to enter. Perhaps "coerces" would be a better word.

"I basically teach my honors world history class around History Day," Cobb said. "Everybody submits either a group or an individual project."

Out of the 13 students in the class, 11 had projects that qualified to move from regional to state competition. Since the regional fair in Prescott, Ariz., Feb. 27, the kids whose projects qualified have been allowed to use class time to improve their boards and prepare them for the state competition April 10.

It's not that Cobb is a competitive guy, although he is. It's that he feels entering projects in History Day is the best possible way for the kids to learn history.

"When you and I took history," he said, "It was, 'Do you remember this fact, that date?' Not until you get into a graduate course do you learn the difference between absorbing historical content and actually doing history."

"Doing" history, Cobb explained, involves going to what historians know as "primary" sources: oral histories, letters, diaries, contemporary newspaper accounts.

"A textbook is usually a secondary or even a tertiary source, meaning it's that many generations removed from the actual observation of the event," he said. "Yet that's how we usually teach history, out of textbooks. No wonder kids find history boring."

History Day Diné

Thirteen Navajos qualified to compete in Arizona History Day, to be held April 10 in Fountain Hills, Ariz. The theme is "Innovation in History." Some projects were also nominated for separate awards. Here is a list of students and their projects:

Debbie Begay, Page High School: "The Sewing Machine" - nominated for Best Use of Archives or Museum and Best Entry on Women's History

Kayla Kaniatobe, Red Mesa High School: "Yellow Rock Mining"

Kashala Velasquez, Red Mesa High School: "The American Indian Loom - An Innovation in North American Textile History"

Taran Lameman, Red Mesa High School: "Annie Wauneka's Public Health Campaign: An Innovation in Navajo Health" - nominated for Best Entry on Women's History

Erin Poweles, Christie Benally and Autumn Warren: "American Indian Boarding Schools: An Innovation in the History of the U.S. 'Indian Problem'" - nominated for Best Entry on Ethnic or Family History

Abigail John, Leeandra Begay and Jasmine Topaha: "American Indian Forced March Relocation: An Innovation in the History of the U.S. 'Indian Problem'" - nominated for Best Entry on Ethnic or Family History

Ryan Sagg, Jerrick Tsosie and Brandon Deschene: "The Navajo Code Talkers - an Innovation in World War II History" - nominated for McFarland Award for Best Entry on Arizona History or History of the Southwest, and Best Bibliography

In the case of Navajo kids, they could go through an entire American history textbook without reading a sentence about the Long Walk, Chief Manuelito or Annie Wauneka.

"World history, the way it's taught in most of our schools, has nothing to do with them," Cobb said. "They feel no personal connection to most of the events they're reading about."

So Cobb not only requires his kids to do a History Day project, he steers them toward projects that have something to do with Navajos or at least Native Americans.

"It seems controlling, but I've learned over the years that if you let them do something random like the sewing machine or the steam train, they lose interest halfway through and don't finish," he explained.

(That may or may not be true; a Page High School student named Debbie Begay qualified for state this year with a project titled "The Sewing Machine.")

Besides connecting history with the students' own experience, the Native history projects are adding to the state's historical record.

"They're filling in the gap of perspective," Cobb said. "Most history - even Native history - was written by white people."

The topics the kids (with Cobb's help) come up with usually wow the judges. Unless they've spent time on the Navajo Nation, they probably know little about Navajo weaving, for example, or Annie Wauneka's health programs - two topics students are working on this year.

And once the kids zero in on a close-to-home topic, they usually discover primary sources close to home. Or even in their homes.

Autumn Warren and Christie Benally, for example, discovered Warren's own father and Benally's grandparents are boarding school survivors, and had something to say about the girls' project on Indian boarding schools. Warren's dad even provided some symbolism behind the design the girls came up with for their display.

"We put this vine design around the edges because we thought it looked like ivy that would be climbing up the school buildings," Benally explained.

"But my dad said that in our culture, vines represent ties between family and generations," Warren added. "So that's what we told the judges. They loved that."

For several of the students, the projects were an excuse to get to know their relatives better. When he opted into a group project on Navajo Code Talkers, Brandon Deschene turned to his uncle, code talker Samuel Holiday.

"I knew he was a code talker, but I had never really talked to him about it," Deschene said. "Then I started reading books about it, and I'd ask him, 'Do you know about this?' and he'd tell me all about it. It made me look at him in a whole different way."

On Monday, the students were working on making their display boards more attractive and seeing if they could collect more sources. But History Day isn't just about creating an attractive display.

"The judges ask you questions," explained Owen Grey, who placed first in state last year with his project, "Leading a Resistance for His People: Manuelito and the Navajo-U.S. War of 1863 to 1866." "You have to know your facts like the back of your hand."

It's obvious these kids do. With no prompting, Kayla Kaniatobe rattles off the number of unreclaimed uranium mines on the Navajo Nation (1,300) and the estimated quantity of uranium-contaminated groundwater under Tuba City (1.5 to 3 million gallons).

It's easier to remember facts, say the kids, when the facts tick you off. Kaniatobe has several relatives who still suffer from health problems they incurred working in the uranium mines.

"When I started to learn about it," said Kenissha Joe, who also did a uranium project, "I felt mad and a little bit sad. The people they worked for, the whites, didn't tell them uranium was dangerous. They didn't even give them the right safety equipment."

(According to documents presented in the 1984 trial of John N. Begay et al. v. the United States of America, brought by former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall on behalf of Navajo uranium miners, "the whites" - federal scientists, to be exact - did tell Navajo leaders, in open sessions of the tribal council, that radiation exposure from uranium could endanger human health. But with all the jobs and money at stake, the tribal council ignored the warning and approved uranium development on the Navajo Reservation.)
When a student has an emotional response to her project, Cobb knows he has hit the mark: giving her a personal connection to history.

Which brings up another point.

"They're discovering their own voice," he said. "That's maybe the most important thing."

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