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Five-day program takes place at Navajo Technical University

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CROWNPOINT — Kristy Kayaani stepped back to read the words she had written on a dry-erase board during a creative writing exercise at the Emerging Diné Writers' Institute on Thursday.

On the other side of the classroom, Brenneih Nelson was writing a narrative about protecting herself from a presence in a nightmare.

"I see it staring at me. I tremble in fear, no words to say," Nelson wrote.

The two teens were among 30 high school and college students who were selected to participate in the five-day writing institute at Navajo Technical University.

Throughout the program, the students learned writing techniques from acclaimed Diné writers, including Navajo Nation Poet Laureate Laura Tohe; poets Orlando White, Esther Belin, Matthew Jake Skeets and Rex Lee Jim; and writers Byron Aspaas, and Lydia Fasthorse.

Skeets started writing poetry when he was a junior in high school a decade ago. Since then, his poetry has been published in the Boston Review and the literary journal Waxwing.

The first assignment Skeets had for Kayaani and Nelson was using narrow pieces of paper to write a poem or short story about a place that provided comfort when they were children.

The next lesson involved composing a short story that covered the dry-erase boards.

Skeets stood by and watched as the students wrote. Sometimes they paused, chossing to erase some words before resuming their writing.

The exercises are designed to teach students about word choice and spacing, Skeets said.

Kayaani said she applied to the institute because she wanted to improve her writing skills. She said each instructor has her or his own approach to writing, and she enjoyed learning about perspective.

To illustrate her point, she pointed at a tree near the university's hospitality center.

"If I was this tree, I can write, 'I sit here every day. I get sunlight. I watch you walk by me,'" Kayaani said.

Lemanuel Loley, a co-founder of the institute, said it was designed to ignite interest in writing and to encourage young Diné writers to produce material that reflects their experiences and environments.

By having established Diné writers serve as instructors, it shows there are writers from Native communities who can be mentors to the next generation, Loley added.

"By teaching youth writing skills and the value of writing, we're hoping to increase our voice as a collective," Loley said.

The institute, a joint project of NTU and the Navajo Nation Women's Commission, increased its enrollment this year, and students were selected by an application process.

"We tried to look at students who were very passionate and serious about writing," Loley said. "Because our goal is to increase the number of published Navajo authors. High school and college is the moment to get them inspired."

One reason Daniel Vandever wrote his children's book "Fall in Line, Holden" was to tackle the under representation of Native American characters in the genre, he said.

Vandever's presentation highlighted a 2015 study that examined diversity in children's books. The study, completed by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin, showed that less than 1 percent of characters were Native American or First Nation.

Children look for books that reflect their communities, Vandever said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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