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Navajos gathered at tribal fair worry over tragic university death

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By Felicia Fonseca -- Associated Press

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) - Wilbur Begay has been practicing traditional medicine for more than 30 years, praying and performing ceremonies for young Navajos in hopes they'll gain as much knowledge as possible in their lives.

But with the death of an 18-year-old Navajo woman police say was killed by her fellow tribal member and roommate at the University of Arizona, Begay now wonders whether the community and the culture somehow failed.

''There's always a feeling, 'did we do something wrong?''' Begay said. ''We have to step back, refocus. What do we need to do more?''

Among the thousands gathered Sept. 8 for the tribe's biggest event of the year - the 61st annual Navajo Nation Fair - the incident involving the two young women, Mia Henderson and 18-year-old Galareka Harrison, was on many people's minds.

Both grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, Henderson in Tuba City and Harrison in Many Farms, 100 miles to the east. Both were freshmen who had started classes at the UA just three weeks in late August.

According to court records, Henderson had accused Harrison of stealing her Social Security card, a debit card and a check. Police accused Harrison of stabbing Henderson multiple times early Sept. 5. She has been charged with first-degree murder.

Fairgoers called the incident a tragedy and questioned how it happened to two bright and promising Navajo girls.

''I was really saddened about it,'' said Erin Toadlena-Pablo, a Gallup police sergeant and mother who was attending the fair while off duty.

''I think it more emphasized that we can teach our children as much as we can but they make their own decision,'' Toadlena-Pablo said.

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The fair, a mix of tribal meeting, pow wow and county fair, is a huge draw on the sprawling reservation, which covers much of northeastern Arizona and parts of Utah and New Mexico. Navajos from across the region camp out and line up as early as 5 a.m. to get in the gates and see the rodeos, traditional dancers and walk the carnival midway.

Yvonne Kee-Billison, 38, of Window Rock, was at the fair with her daughter's softball team to raise money for tournaments. When she heard about the incident, she said she felt ''a little bit of everything.''

''Some disbelief, some shock. That's probably what hit me first,'' Kee-Billison said. ''But right after, some sadness and disappointment.''

She is baffled and doesn't understand how it happened.

''Everybody's wondering why,'' Kee-Billison said.

A program supervisor for the Navajo Office of Youth Development, Kee-Billison said staff members plan to discuss the incident and try to come up with ways to teach the tribe's young people the ways of their elders.

The Navajo culture teaches that members should have respect for all living things and do no harm. Navajos are taught they are part of the same family and should watch out and take care of each other.

Louise Manuelito, a tribal elder from Tohatchi, N.M., said if she had one piece of advice for Navajo youth it would be to get an education, something Harrison and Henderson were seeking. But she said it is critical to also have a grounding in tribal culture because that's what helps guide Navajos through life.

Others questioned how the university handled the conflict between the two girls, which had been simmering for more than a week. Henderson filed a police report on Aug. 28, and a police affidavit filed in court showed that Harrison admitted stealing the items during police questioning the next day. But she wasn't arrested until Henderson was found slain in the room the two shared a week later.

''What precautions were taken?'' asked Darlene Salibiye, 45, of Gallup. ''They were already arguing about space. Why wasn't something done?''