Navajo students capture oral histories in new book about life in Monument Valley

When COVID-19 hit the Navajo reservation last year, families lost more than their loved ones. According to Denece Kitto, principal of Tse’Bii’Nidzisgai Elementary School in Monument Valley, they lost the stories those loved ones were telling.

“I kept hearing this line that they left with their stories,” Kitto said. “After hearing it so many times, I was like, ‘Oh my God, is there anything we can do to help tell some of the stories of our seniors?’ “

This idea blossomed into a 135-page book filled with oral histories and drawings recently published by the San Juan Education Foundation. High school and elementary school students in Monument Valley asked their grandparents and loved ones about life in the Navajo Nation for the book “Hózhó, A Walk in Beauty”.

Monument Valley High School graduate Shannon Luna interviewed her 79-year-old grandmother, Bessie Holiday. Luna said her grandmother always emphasized the importance of learning from elders.

“’They are not here forever’ is what she would tell me, and ‘Learn to know as much as you can about them because later it will help you in life,’ Luna said. “So I guess passing on information is really important for our culture.”

Kate groetzinger

The title of the book, “Hózhó”, is an important concept in traditional Navajo culture. It means “to walk in beauty” or “to be in harmony with nature”. Fourth-grade teacher Jason Quinn illustrated the book.

Luna said she learned new things about her grandmother from the experience, despite her grandmother helping her raise her.

“I didn’t know she was going to school,” she says. “Our family doesn’t really emphasize the importance of education, so hearing that she went to school was pretty cool.”

She said she also learned that her grandmother wanted to go to college but was unable to do so as she had to stay home and take care of the cattle and her siblings. Luna said it made her proud to go to the University of Southern Utah this fall, where she plans to major in psychology.

English teacher Doug Freed, who edited the book, said he was initially intimidated by the scope of the project. He said it took hundreds of hours to edit, but the response from the students was well worth it.

“What we got in return – well, that surprised me – there was a level of engagement on this mission that we don’t usually see,” he said.

Freed attributes the enthusiasm for the project to its cultural relevance and focus on family. He said that when read together, the interviews paint a picture of life in Monument Valley in the 1930s to 1970s or 1980s.

“There are some really strong themes,” he said. “We never told anyone to ask about the horses, but the horses were very, very important. The gardens were also very important. Unfortunately, the gardens are gone, because there is simply no water.

All proceeds from the book will go towards scholarships for students planning to go to college, like Luna, or pursuing alternative forms of higher education.