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.
were so many awards going to a tiny high school in an obscure corner
of an impoverished Indian reservation?
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."
there something in the water at Red Mesa, besides uranium?
just a teacher who loves History Day and encourages his students
to enter. Perhaps "coerces" would be a better word.
basically teach my honors world history class around History Day,"
Cobb said. "Everybody submits either a group or an individual
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.
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.
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do you learn the difference between absorbing historical content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."
history, Cobb explained, involves going to what historians know
as "primary" sources: oral histories, letters, diaries,
contemporary newspaper accounts.
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."
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"
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
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
may or may not be true; a Page High School student named Debbie
Begay qualified for state this year with a project titled "The
connecting history with the students' own experience, the Native
history projects are adding to the state's historical record.
filling in the gap of perspective," Cobb said. "Most history
- even Native history - was written by white people."
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.
once the kids zero in on a close-to-home topic, they usually discover
primary sources close to home. Or even in their homes.
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.
put this vine design around the edges because we thought it looked
like ivy that would be climbing up the school buildings," Benally
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."
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
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."
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.
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."
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).
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.
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."
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.
brings up another point.
discovering their own voice," he said. "That's maybe the
most important thing."