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Navajo Shoe Game brings songs, laughter and teachings to Navajo Prep

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Kevin Belin, a Navajo language teacher at Navajo Preparatory School, leads students in a Navajo Shoe Game song at Navajo Prep's shoe game on Feb. 19, 2020, in Farmington.

FARMINGTON — Shane Jones' voice carried as he sang during a Navajo Shoe Game on Feb. 19 inside the student lounge at Navajo Preparatory School.

Jones, a freshman at the school, has been learning the protocols, songs and principles of shoe game – or késhjéé – this winter.

Késhjéé is foremost a ceremony, but it is regarded as a guessing game. It is only conducted at night during in the winter. Its origin is from a match between the day animals and the night animals, who could not agree on the cycles of the sun and moon.

The rules of the game include using 102 yucca leaves to keep score, and each team takes turns hiding a ball made from yucca root inside one of four boots and guessing which boot contains the ball.

Among the lessons taught by the game are sportsmanship, problem solving and how to strengthen communal bonds.

Since December, students and staff at Navajo Prep have been conducting shoe games.

Freshman Nanabah Adakai, left, and Evan Lewis, right, participate in Navajo Preparatory School's shoe game on Feb. 19, 2020.

The experience for Jones, who is Navajo and San Felipe Pueblo, has helped him connect to Navajo culture.

"Just hearing the songs and paying attention in class really broaden my perspective on my Navajo side," he said.

Teacher Kevin Belin has taught up to 30 songs associated with shoe game to students enrolled in his Navajo language class at the school.

Shane Jones sings a Navajo Shoe Game song at Navajo Preparatory School's shoe game on Feb. 19, 2020, in Farmington.

His students sing the songs, which center on the animals that participated in the first késhjéé, when playing.

"It moves my heart, my soul to hear them because now I know that I'm doing my job," Belin said. "It's not just about my job, it's about our culture is going to survive. Our culture is not just going to get by, it's going to thrive."

Navajo Prep students have played students from Northwest High School in Shiprock and high school students from Aztec and Bloomfield this season. The Feb. 19 game was between a team comprised of students and a team of parents and staff.

Yucca leaves, used to keep score in a shoe game, sit on a Navajo ceremonial basket at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington during the school's shoe game on Feb. 19, 2020.

At the game, the occasional "yaadilah" was spoken among students when a guess went awry. When a member of the parents and staff team hesitated to guess which boot held the ball, the students teasingly said, "follow your heart."

Not to be outdone, a member of the parents and staff team told a student to "use the force" before she used her hand to dig into the sand that filled the boot.

"In the first shoe game, the animals teased each other. Teasing is a big part but what we teach in the game is appropriate levels of teasing and how to deal with criticism," Belin said.

Freshman Nanabah Adakai did not know how to play késhjéé but has developed an appreciation for it because of its songs and its teachings.

Leland Becenti, dean of student life at Navajo Preparatory School, prepares to play the Navajo Shoe Game at the school in Farmington on Feb. 19, 2020.

"It makes me feel calm because everyone is playing this because they want to," Adakai said.

Leland Becenti is dean of student life and joined his wife, Kim Becenti, on the parents and staff team while their son, LaShane Becenti, and daughter, Lalaina Becenti, played with the Navajo Prep students.

The shoe game is part of building the school's community as well as furthering student understanding of lessons from Belin's class, Leland Becenti said.

"We have other cultural activities that we do. It's just a way for a lot of our students to get engaged with what we have to offer," he 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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LaShane Becenti, 8, searches for a ball made from yucca root as a part of Navajo Preparatory School's shoe game in Farmington on Feb. 19, 2020.