Hearing focuses on mistreatment of Navajo, Native American students

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
From left, Leonard Gorman, executive director for the Office of Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, and Jennifer Denetdale, chairperson of the commission, listen to testimony during the public hearing on Thursday at the Farmington Civic Center.

FARMINGTON — This month the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission held public hearings to assess the mistreatment of Navajo and Native American students attending primary and secondary schools on and near the Navajo Nation.

The commission was directed by the Navajo Nation Council's Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee in December to investigate the issue.

The mandate was in response to incidents involving the mistreatment of Navajo and Native American students by education professionals, including an incident in October where a former teacher at Cibola High School in Albuquerque allegedly cut a Native American student's hair and called a Navajo student a racial slur.

Commission chairperson Jennifer Denetdale said the mandate comes at a time when officials in New Mexico are working to implement a court order to overhaul its public education system to address deficiencies in education toward Native American and Hispanic students.

"The public hearing gives us an opportunity to hear what issues and problems our Diné citizens have," Denetdale said at the public hearing on Thursday at the Farmington Civic Center.

She added a report will be developed using comments and information gathered from the sessions. The document will be presented to the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee, which serves as oversight for the commission.

Jennifer Denetdale, chairperson for the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, talks about the purpose of the public hearing on Thursday at the Farmington Civic Center.

Although the focus was on primary and secondary students, Byron Tsabetsaye called on the commission to consider disparities for students in higher education.

Tsabetsaye is director of the Native American Center at San Juan College, where enrollment for Native American students is approximately 30 percent.

Included in his remarks was the need for colleges and universities with large Native American student populations to conduct cultural sensitivity training.

"I think that when issues arise around cultural sensitivity, I feel that a lot of the issues are silenced and handled internally," Tsabetsaye said adding many students are not aware of their rights, so they cannot advocate on their own behalf.

Such training is necessary so instructors can understand cultural and traditional teachings Native American students honor while pursuing higher education. Examples include when students miss classes due to traditional observations of events like solar eclipses, or participating in traditional ceremonies, something which can last more than a day.

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission was directed by the Navajo Nation Council to investigate occurrences of discriminatory behavior against Navajo and Native American students.

The absence of ownership by a college or a university to understand that relationship can lead to students being penalized for missing classes, Tsabetsaye said.

Through his service in a national organization that advocates for Native American college and university students, he noticed that several higher education institutions with high percentages of Native American students lack faculty and staff members who are Native American.

"Our Native students will learn better and be more successful if they see a greater representation in faculty and staff as well within the college administration where positions are made, where policies are made," Tsabetsaye said.

At San Juan College, Tsabetsaye and colleague, Elfreda Harvey, started a group that encompasses faculty and staff who are interested in bringing cultural awareness and sensitivity to the campus. 

"It's our way of, at least, giving them the opportunity to be provided with some of that information," Harvey said.

The commission has conducted public hearings this month in Cuba and Albuquerque and in Holbrook, Flagstaff and Page, Arizona. This week they visited Blanding, Utah and Cortez, Colorado.

A final hearing will be from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Gallup Community Service Center in Gallup.

Written testimonies are also being accepted online at the commission's website, nnhrc.navajo-nsn.gov.

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.