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Dine' College blends cultures in its teaching philosophy

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By Natasha Kaye Johnson -- Gallup Independent

TSAILE, Ariz. (AP) - A herd of sheep grazed peacefully outside the library of Dine' College on a recent afternoon as a student casually strolled by with a laptop case in his right hand.

''This is awesome,'' said an enthused Ferlin Clark, president of Dine' College, as he viewed the image from a distance.

For Clark, the immediate image is symbolic to the school's entire purpose: to provide a balance between traditional Navajo knowledge and Western education.

The sight of sheep wandering outside campus facilities is unique for a college, but then again, nothing about Dine' College is ordinary.

Everything from the deliberate placement of the buildings, reflecting the shape and concept of a traditional hogan, to the college's arrowhead emblem, symbolizing protection, has a strong Navajo philosophy embedded into it.

Since the groundbreaking of the school on April 13, 1971, implementing a Navajo viewpoint into curriculum has been a top goal for educators. The school's core classes also include Navajo language, culture, history, philosophy and government.

''That's what makes us unique as a tribal college,'' Clark said.

The institution is grounded in the philosophy and principles of s'ah naagh bik'eh hzhn, the Dine' traditional living system, which places human life in harmony with the natural world and the universe.

The philosophy provides both for protection from the imperfections in life and for the development of well-being.

Establishing the philosophy and creating equilibrium between what some often refer to as ''two worlds'' remains a continuous challenge.

''There's a lot of Western influence here, but it needs to be balanced,'' Clark said.

Many years ago, educators and leaders came to a realization that instead of incorporating Navajo knowledge into Western education, it should be the other way around.

''We said, 'Wait a minute. We're doing it backward,''' said Jack Jackson, director of Cultural and Legislative Affairs. ''We already have an education system. Let's get what fits.''

Clark said, ''We're using Navajo knowledge to verify Western knowledge.''

Before the school opened, there was concern among several medicine men about teaching traditional knowledge in the classroom.

''They said, 'Why are we integrating this in a school setting?''' said Dine' Studies Director Anthony Lee.

At the same time, Lee said the medicine people recognized times were changing and new ways were needed to educate the young people. Eventually, a compromise was reached where basic concepts of Navajo teachings would only be taught.

Today, similar concerns are still discussed among faculty.

Just recently, it were proposed that a Navajo language course be taught via the Internet. However, there were objections from some staff members, who protested that the language is sacred and the setting to teach it online was inappropriate.

While Clark acknowledged that the language is sacred, he also said there are many Navajo students who don't come from a traditional background and who want to learn the language.

But to genuinely teach students about traditional Navajo ways in a school setting is realistically not practicable.

''To teach the real thing to students is hard for them to understand what this means,'' said museum director Harry Walters, referring to the deep meaning of Navajo sand paintings.

While that knowledge might not be completely attainable in a school environment, the staff attempts to get students to ''think in Navajo'' in each of their courses.

''How do you include Navajo into a periodic table?'' posed Clark.

For Clark, looking at the question from a Navajo way of thinking, the possibilities are endless. He broke it down in relation to math, engineering, chemistry and medicine.

Students are also encouraged to talk with the staff and faculty, especially the Navajo faculty who have knowledge of stories and traditional ways.

With their knowledge, Clark compares them to having the equivalent of a doctorate degree.For example, a weaver, he said, would probably be placed at master's degree level.

''We need to protect that intellectual property,'' said Clark.

Along with reaffirming and rekindling cultural components of the college, the school set a number of other goals when Clark accepted the position of president in July 2003. Some included securing long-term funding, preparing for accreditation and offering bachelor's degree programs.

Each of the goals has made headway.

In 2004, the 20th Navajo Nation Council and President Joe Shirley Jr. approved 20 years of funding that will provide the college with $4.2 million per year.

''We basically secured the future viability of Dine' College from the Navajo Nation,'' Clark said. ''We brought some stability.''