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Willie advocates practical, culture-based learning

TURIN, Italy - The conventional educational system is not working for a lot
of Navajo kids, according to Justin Willie, a Navajo educator and gardener
who lives in Leupp, Ariz., and works in a pre-K - 8 school as a diabetes
prevention specialist. He and his wife, Linda, run the Indigenous
Permaculture Center, which promotes sustainable living with demonstration
gardens, cultural workshops and more. I interviewed Willie this past
October in between meetings of Terra Madre, an agricultural conference
sponsored by Slow Food, an Italian organization that supports the
production and consumption of traditional food worldwide.

Willie sees Navajo kids labeled "Special Ed.," flunked out, kicked out and
sent to detention centers. "The disabilities and disciplinary problems are
created by the school environment," he claimed.

His solution? He advocates a close examination of the underlying values of
the schools and the larger society they represent. Then, he feels, once
those are understood - and in large part rejected - Native schools should
develop culturally-based instruction that gathers children back into the
community, not curricula that promote the kind of individual achievement
that encourages them to leave home.

As he looks at it, one fundamental problem is that worship of cash has
taken over even the school system in this country. "We tell children to
educate themselves so they can get a good job, but that's false," Willie
said. "It encourages them to leave the reservation. It weakens the family
structure, because parents travel 100 miles to work, five days a week. All
they're working for is the money to get to work and back. They have no time
for their families or communities."

There are many ways to diminish the importance of money, he said. One is
putting in household gardens, so families can produce food right in their
own yards. Another is barter. While attending the conference in Italy,
Willie found locals there developing a moneyless system of exchange. "It
allowed people to have a deeper respect for each other and for each other's
livelihood," he said. "I noticed many people smiling. We have to recapture
that sense of belonging. We must learn to feel good about ourselves without
thinking so much about money and acquiring things."

Traditional Navajos foresaw these problems. "When we were kids," Willie
recalled, "my mom told us that we're now in the fourth world - the glitter
world. At night, you can see the glitter everywhere - like coals in a dying
fire. That's the state of the world today. The catastrophic events
prophesized by many cultures are under way. The signs are in nature - in
the wind, the rain, the climate change, and the droughts. Nature is telling
us that Mother Earth is frustrated with us, and that we have to change if
we want to survive."

For the past 20 years, Willie has taken the prophesies to heart, designing
innovations for his school programs that might seem radical: "The first
thing I do is eliminate books and paper. Kids must learn who they are in
terms of their culture and their clans. They must learn the taboos, the
proper behavior." But in another sense, his approach - which centers around
traditional knowledge - is as old as the hills.

It's not an easy methodology by any means. "You have to earn the right to
learn our wisdom and traditions," he said. "Right now, many Navajo grandmas
and grandpas are worried that our kids are not ready to carry on our
knowledge, so my job is to prepare the children - just as my elders
prepared me, telling me to observe which plants the sheep were eating while
I herded them, for example."

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To do this, he takes a school group to visit a grandma. It may be the first
of many visits. At the beginning, the kids must prove themselves to grandma
- by hauling water, chopping wood and cleaning sheep pens, for example. As
they do so, Willie points out the lessons those chores offer: "When we go
to the forest for wood, we talk about a forest community and how it
sustains itself. I explain that we're managing the forest by taking dead
trees and eliminating material that might catch fire during a lightning

Back at grandma's house, it's time to chop the wood - and to find out what
they can learn from that task: "I show the kids that the exercise we get
this way is more valuable than calisthenics they might do in Phys. Ed.
Their muscular, circulatory and respiratory systems are exercised
holistically - and the stack of wood we produce makes grandma happy."

Manure cleaned out of sheep pens is saved for the school's compost heap and
garden, where it helps produce nutritious food. Watching sheep becomes an
opportunity to observe the positive effects of grazing on the land; Willie
also points out areas that have been undergrazed or overgrazed. "The kids
learn how we Navajos manage the land and why we need to be walking the land
and eating food from the land," he said.

Plant identification lessons are a way to teach the Navajo language,
because each plant has various names, depending on its use - for food,
medicine or dye, for example. "Language learning is critical," said Willie.
"Without our language, we're nothing. We'd still walk the earth, but we
wouldn't have a spiritual side."

He shows the youngsters how to make plants into medicines, which they can
then give to elders. "The grandmas shed tears," Willie reported, "because
nowadays no one is encouraging them to use the old medicines." Bestowing
these gifts has another effect: "The kids become comfortable with giving
things away; possessions no longer determine who they are."

Then, one day, after much work and many lessons, grandma decides the
children are ready for more. She sits them down and tells them to listen.
"That's when the knowledge comes out," said Willie. "Not all at once - a
piece at a time - along with a sense of belonging and mutual respect."

Documentation is part of this educational process, but it's not a paper
record. From time to time, back in the classroom, the children reflect on
their activities in a talking circle. "That becomes memory, which is very
important to Native people," he said.

After working in this mode for about 22 years, Willie evaluates its success
by the way the affects the entire community, rather than through
quantitative testing of any given student. When the children get their
parents and other relatives involved in their projects, he feels that the
circle of learning is complete.

For Willie, there's more at stake than a diploma: "We must tap into the
things our ancestors were tapped into - the spiritual side of existence,
the symbiotic relationship with the land, and the umbilical connection to
the womb of Mother Earth. We must reestablish that for our kids - through
education that is based on our cultural concepts. The dreams are sitting
there - like land that's waiting for rain. The elders know that. They're
waiting, too, but they're getting impatient."