Crownpoint library technician racks up mileage serving the Navajo Nation

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

CROWNPOINT — For almost two decades, Jean Whitehorse has traveled to chapter houses on the Navajo Nation to teach residents about computer literacy and the importance of reading.

Whitehorse has worked 19 years for the New Mexico State Library's Tribal Libraries Program, which supports services at public libraries on 18 reservations in the state.

For her tireless service, she will receive the Unsung Hero Award from the Mountain Plains Library Association on Thursday during the annual conference in Cheyenne, Wyo. The award is given to a group or individual whose service has not been previously recognized and who has worked on a project that has significance to a community, according to the association's website.

Whitehorse is a library technician and works in the Crownpoint Outreach Center, an extension service of the program inside the library at Diné College's Crownpoint campus.

Tribal Libraries Program Coordinator Alana McGrattan said Whitehorse provides a valuable service because there are no public libraries in the 50 chapters that comprise the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation.

"The only services that are provided are through Jean, going from chapter to chapter to do computer training, financial literacy and summer reading," McGrattan said in an interview earlier this month.

Topics during the free computer training classes range from basic computer skills to using Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

In an interview Sept. 10, Whitehorse said she travels with 12 laptops, a video projector and an assortment of cords, storage devices and surge protectors. Travel can take her from Crownpoint to chapter houses and senior citizen centers as far away as Alamo, Beclabito, Manuelito, Ramah and Tóhajiilee.

"I always carry a sheet," Whitehorse said with a chuckle, explaining some facilities do not have projector screens.

Since the majority of participants are Navajo, she typically teaches the classes in the Navajo language and uses English when computer terminology cannot be translated.

"There's no Navajo word for hard drive, software, but I try to explain," she said.

McGrattan said if there are non-Navajo speaking students in class, Whitehorse transitions between Navajo and English to make sure no student is left behind.

If a participant does not understand the lesson, she explains the concept by relating it to an everyday task.

Occasionally, she has had an individual who has never used a computer mouse. In those situations, she explains using a mouse is similar to driving a car.

"When we're driving, we don't look at our hands. ... It's the same with the mouse. Move the mouse around and watch the screen," she said.

In addition to computer training, Whitehorse teaches about financial literacy with a focus on subjects such as identity theft, telemarketing, co-signing, sweepstakes scams, payday loans and the state's pawn shop laws.

"I think that's also some very important information that she is providing," McGrattan said.

This summer, Whitehorse visited 30 chapter houses to share the message of the summer reading program with students enrolled in the tribe's Summer Youth Employment program.

The theme of the summer reading program was "Every Hero Has a Story," and rather than focusing on superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman, Whitehorse taught about prominent Navajo leaders such as Henry Chee Dodge, Annie Wauneka, Raymond Nakai and Claudeen Bates Arthur.

Throughout the years, Whitehorse has demonstrated she can adapt lessons to serve different communities, and that is why she was nominated for the Unsung Hero Award, McGrattan said.

"I've traveled with her, and I know what is put into it and how unique her skills are for this particular need for this particular community," McGrattan said.

Whitehorse, of Smith Lake, is Dzilt'aadí (Near the Mountain Clan), born for Tódích'íi'nii (Bitter Water Clan). Her maternal grandfather clan is Tl'ógí (Zia Clan), and her parental grandfather clan is 'Áshiihíí (Salt People Clan).

She is the daughter of Gladys Henry and Edmund J. Henry Sr., who was a Navajo Code Talker. Whitehorse served for more than 10 years with the Navajo Code Talkers Association.

Prior to working with the Tribal Libraries Program, Whitehorse worked for the tribe for 16 years and then worked for St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School in Thoreau for five years.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.