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Middle Ground Project balances western and indigenous concepts

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FARMINGTON, N.M. – Reconciling customary but sometimes contradictory points of view occupied Navajo teachers and others who toured urban areas and visited Navajo Dam, where traditional Diné homelands lie submerged beneath Navajo Lake.

The teachers journeyed from Denver, Colo. where they discussed urban Indian identity, to Farmington, and then to Navajo Lake June 27 as part of the Middle Ground Project, a program of the Presidential Academy in American and Civics Education that seeks to improve education quality in underserved areas.

“Our goal is to get two paths of a question and then find methods to unravel and look at both sides in a scientific way,” explained Dr. Michael Welsh, University of Northern Colorado, who heads the project now in its fourth – and possibly last – year.

The $2 million five-year, federally funded program is one of two small projects of the U.S. Department of Education on the chopping block because of budgetary cutbacks. Although funding could be restored, as of now this year’s program will be the last, Welsh said.


Photo courtesy Gregory Hobbs Roberto Treviso (left), interpretive ranger with the New Mexico State Parks system, discussed the geology of the Navajo Lake area with Jeorj Morales, a teacher in the Bloomfield, N.M. school district, and Katie Gilbert, a teacher at Kirtland, N.M. Central High School, as part of a recent field trip in connection with the Middle Ground Project.

The Middle Ground Project has conducted weeklong institutes for 20 to 25 educators and scholars who explore Diné and mainstream U.S. traditions of history and government for use by schools in Navajo land and adjoining areas.

The project attempts to reach the middle ground or meeting place of Western and indigenous histories at points where they intersect or diverge.

Last year’s theme was Western science and Native knowledge and the field trip concerned uranium mining on the Navajo Nation, while this year’s theme centers on urban Indian life. It included field trips to urban Denver programs and the Farmington area.

The teachers’ weeklong activities in Denver included a search of primary sources in the National Archives, seminars in history and writing, discussions of sovereignty and federalism, and talks on the federal relocation program and federal laws.

Among places visited in Farmington were the city’s Indian Center and its human rights commission, but teachers also studied the ways in which “into this landscape comes a large water project” – the Navajo Dam and Reservoir, built in 1962 by the federal government for irrigation and flood control.

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“This field trip was an opportunity for Native and American people to put stories alongside each other,” Welsh said. “Also, when the railroad came in, it brought Spanish-speaking towns. With the 20th century came change, and part of the legacy is Navajo Dam.”

Navajo Dam and the reservoir, now called Navajo Lake, are on the San Juan River and adjoin the Diné place of origin, where historic sites are under water, including a place of particular significance that is beneath the dam itself, he said.

In developing differing accounts of the site and its development, the “middle ground” can emerge that represents a new way of looking at things, in what Welsh acknowledges is a revisionist view of Navajo and non-Navajo perspectives.

“We explore how America created an identity for the Navajo that may or may not be an identity Navajo agree with,” he said, and after the outside world develops the Navajo identity, it may operate on that premise.

What follows from the Middle Ground Project’s interdisciplinary approach may be understanding of the way in which Navajo people have been living up to someone else’s definition of their identity, he said, stressing that things are “not all bad or evil.”

Things change, he pointed out. For example, Navajo code talkers are now honored, when in the 1960s they were regarded by some as “sell-outs.” Uranium mining made it possible for people to make a living on the reservation, but direct and indirect health effects were not part of the context at that time.

A documentary is planned in which a young Navajo and non-Navajo meet on Facebook and discover a gap in understanding when the Navajo talks about his grandfather, who died from the effects of uranium mining, and the other does not understand. They do research, and join in a journey of historical understanding, Welsh notes, in a depiction of “how to understand the impacts of uranium through the eyes of a 16-year-old.”

“Are we still trapped in the old positions, or is there another way to look at this?” he said of the program’s approach to conflict and a new approach to the questions confronting the current generation.

In addition to having discussions with Farmington Indian Center and city human rights officials, the teachers were scheduled to talk about health issues with Leonard Tsosie, a Navajo Tribal Council member, about how Native peoples can get better care in urban rather than rural areas, health disparity issues, and such old and new health problems as obesity, diabetes, addictions and alcoholism.

Welsh said 100 teachers have been trained in the last four years. The program reaches about 2,000 students in 25 school districts of the Navajo Nation and in some border towns in Arizona and New Mexico.

Additional objectives of the project are to increase standards of reading and writing, encourage advanced placement courses in U.S. history and American government, develop graduate coursework in history and government for teachers on and near the Navajo Nation, and incorporate Diné language and cultural resources into schools served by the program.