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First Lady's literacy campaign tour stops at Navajo

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KAYENTA, Ariz. - It was all the buzz among the noon lunch crowd May 8 at the hogan-shaped Blue Coffee Pot Restaurant seeking shelter from the wailing, Iraqi-like sand storm outside.

First Lady Laura Bush was coming to this remote town on the Navajo Nation, at the south edge of Monument Valley's towering desert spires, in a couple hours.

Would there be a starstruck reaction among the locals like when actor Adam Beach came to town last year for the premier of the movie "Windtalkers"? Would George W. tag along? Would anyone even see her amid the swirling dust clouds?

Those questions were soon answered when Bush and her entourage pulled up without pomp or circumstance - or her husband - to the Kayenta Health Center.

Bush was making her first trip to western Indian country to read to children and push her Reach Out and Read literacy program, which enlists doctors to stress the importance of reading by parents when they bring their children to clinics for checkups.

Bush, a former schoolteacher and librarian in her native Texas, has made literacy her calling during her time in the White House, like her mother-in-law Barbara Bush did more than a decade ago.

And, as the cameras of proud, smiling parents flashed, Bush took a seat covered by a finely woven Navajo storm-pattern blanket in the middle of the clinic's waiting room and opened the pages of her favorite childhood book, "I Love You Little One."

As 20 traditionally dressed children listened attentively, Bush, dressed in a black pantsuit, repeated the book's most common phrase, that mothers "love you forever and ever and always."

In a speech later at Monument Valley High School, Bush said she was thrilled that her literacy program was taking root on the nation's reservations, especially in Kayenta where her best childhood friend, Linda White, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, is chief executive officer of the local Indian Health Service clinic. The program provides books to youngsters about Navajo poetry and language.

"I know that educating and nurturing children is one of the strongest traditions of the Navajo people," Bush said, speaking at a podium in front of the largest Navajo rug in the world, which weavers from the nearby community of Chilchinbito brought to Kayenta for the speech.

Bush noted that Navajo poet Lucy Tapahonso visited the White House last year during the National Book Festival in Washington.

"Lucy spoke about the importance of tradition and of sharing stories and language with children. The words inspired everyone there and today I hope they will inspire all of us to continue to share the joy of books, reading and education with children," Bush said.

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But there are numerous challenges ahead. Most of the Navajo Nation's schools, like other tribal schools in Arizona, rank near the bottom of the state's standardized testing results.

That fact wasn't lost on Navajo Vice President Frank Dayish Jr.

In an unusually sharp speech for a First Lady appearance, Dayish encouraged Bush to think more of helping Native Americans and less about foreign military adventures when she's "back at the White House and passing coffee" with George W. Bush.

"As we wage war on foreign nations and allocate resources, you can see our needs," Dayish said, adding that Navajos are a "proud people who need help in education" and many other areas.

"Allocate resources to our Dineh Nation," Dayish implored Bush.

At a press conference afterward, Bush didn't directly respond to Dayish's criticisms but said that she and the president are "very interested in Indian education and health issues." Bush also said that she was in support of bilingual education programs around the country.

"It would be a shame if the Navajo language was lost," Bush said. "It's a huge advantage to be bilingual and biliterate and very few Americans are biliterate."

On her way to Kayenta, Bush met with the family of slain Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa, a member of the Hopi Tribe who was the first Native American woman killed in combat on foreign soil when her unit was ambushed in southern Iraq on March 23.

Bush said a large contingent of Piestewa's family, many of whom live in the town of Tuba City on the Navajo Nation, journeyed to Page, Ariz., to meet with her during a flight stop on the way to Kayenta, population 5,000, which Bush said is the smallest town she has visited for her literacy campaign.

"Their strength was very obvious," Bush said of Piestewa's family, adding that "because of Lori, the world focused" on the role of Native Americans in the military and the tragedy of the death of the 23-year-old woman, a single mother of two children.

But, for the most part, this day was devoted to Kayenta.

"I would have never believed that a president or his wife would ever come to Kayenta," said Virgil Dalton, a Kayenta construction worker who brought his 8-year-old daughter, Tyra, to listen to Bush read the book. "Wow, this really puts us on the map."