The traditional iconoclast: Justin Willie on education

Published in Indian Country Today in 2004.

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, Arizona, and works in a preK–8 school as a diabetes-prevention specialist. Willie, shown left in Leupp, runs 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 labelled “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 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 says. 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 eachother and for eachother’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 Navahos 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 underway. 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.”

        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 storm."

        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 grazing’s positive effects 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 noone 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 re-establish 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.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo by Stephanie Woodard.