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Dine College Blends Two Cultures in Learning

A herd of sheep graze peacefully outside the library of Dine College on a recent afternoon as a student casually strolls by with a laptop case in his right hand.

“This is awesome,” says an enthused Ferlin Clark, president of the college, as he sees the image from a distance.

For Clark, the immediate image is symbolic of the school’s purpose: to provide a balance between traditional Navajo knowledge and Western education.

The sight of sheep wandering outside campus facilities is unique for a college, but then again, nothing about Dine College is ordinary.

Everything from the deliberate placement of the buildings, reflecting the shape and concept of a traditional hogan, to the college’s arrowhead emblem, symbolizing protection, has a strong Navajo philosophy embedded in it.

Since the groundbreaking of the school on April 13, 1971, implementing a Navajo viewpoint into the curriculum has been a top goal for educators. Dine’s core classes also include Navajo language, culture, history, philosophy and government.

“That’s what makes us unique as a tribal college,” says Clark.

The institution is grounded in the philosophy and principles of S’ah Naagh Bik’eh Hzhn, the Dine traditional living system, which places human life in harmony with the natural world and the universe.

The philosophy provides for protection from the imperfections in life and for the development of well-being.

Establishing the philosophy and creating an equilibrium between what some refer to as “two worlds” remains a continuous challenge.

“There’s a lot of Western influence here, but it needs to be balanced,” says Clark.

Many years ago, educators and leaders came to a realization that instead of incorporating Navajo knowledge into Western education, it should be the other way around.

“We said, ‘Wait a minute. We’re doing it backward,’” says Jack Jackson, the college’s director of cultural and legislative affairs. “We already have an education system. Let’s get what fits.”

Clark says: “We’re using Navajo knowledge to verify Western knowledge.”

Before the school opened, there was concern among several medicine men about teaching traditional knowledge in the classroom.

“They said, ‘Why are we integrating this in a school setting’?” says Anthony Lee, the director of Dine studies.

At the same time, he says the medicine men recognized times were changing and new ways were needed to educate the younger generations. Eventually, a compromise was made where basic concepts of Navajo teachings would be taught.

Today, similar concerns are still discussed among faculty.

Just recently, it was proposed that a Navajo language course be taught via the Internet. However, there was objection from some staff members, who protested that the language is sacred and teaching it online was inappropriate.

While Clark acknowledges that the language is sacred, he also says there are many Navajo students who don’t come from a traditional background and who want to learn the language.

But to genuinely teach students about traditional Navajo ways in a school setting is unrealistic.

“To teach the real thing to students is hard for them to understand what this means,” says museum director Harry Walters, referring to the deep meaning of Navajo sand paintings.

While that knowledge might not be completely attainable in a school environment, the staff attempts to get students to “think in Navajo” in each of their courses.

“How do you include Navajo into a periodic table?” asks Clark.

Students are also encouraged to talk with the staff and faculty, especially the Navajo faculty who have knowledge of stories and traditional ways.

Clark compares their knowledge to the equivalent of a doctorate. A weaver, for example he says, would probably be placed at master’s degree level.

“We need to protect that intellectual property,” he says.

Along with reaffirming and rekindling cultural components of the college, the school set a number of other goals when Clark accepted the position of president in July 2003. Some included securing long-term funding, preparing for accreditation, and offering bachelors degree programs.

Each of the goals has made headway.

In 2004, the 20th Navajo Nation Council and president Joe Shirley, Jr., approved 20 years of funding that will provide the college with $4.2 million per year.

“We basically secured the future viability of Dine College from the Navajo Nation,” says Clark. “We brought some stability.”

— Associated Press


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