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Navajo Leaders Struggle To Understand University of Arizona Tragedy


That they had made it off the reservation at all was no small feat in a place where adversity runs as deep as tradition. But they were success stories: Two Navajo girls gone to the big-city university, planning to come home one day and give back.

Mia Henderson, the one they called “Princess Mia,” was captain of the softball team and a star student who had a flair for science and yearned to work in genetics or sports medicine.

Galareka Harrison, “Reka” to friends and family, was the track standout and rodeo girl who excelled in roping and dreamed of becoming a pharmacist.

On this remote stretch of land where kids sometimes have neither the means nor the desire to reach for something more, Henderson and Harrison stood out. They studied hard, played sports and won scholarships — then set out to make their mark at the University of Arizona in Tucson, hundreds of miles and a world away from the rolling hills and hogans of home.

They were just 18, the kind of young people Navajo elders hope and pray will carry on for them. Now, one is dead; The other is charged with her murder; And a community struggles to understand.

The loss is felt deeply here because it goes beyond one unfathomable act of violence. Among a people who consider life sacred and their ritual teachings the path to salvation, they wonder what this tragedy says about the survival of a belief system — and the next generation of Navajos.

“We pray for our young to get knowledge,” says medicine man Wilbur Begay. “We pray for them so they can help our Indian people. They are our future leaders.”

His face, etched with five decades of wisdom, hints at the despair that has pervaded the Navajo Nation since word spread of the Sept. 5 killing and arrest. His words ring of doubt, the kind that accompanies unanswered questions of why and how.

“Did we do something wrong?” he asks. “Didn’t we pray hard enough?”

Life for the young has never been easy on the reservation that spans 27,000 square miles of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. Poverty levels, dropout rates, teen pregnancies, suicides, violent crimes — the many markers by which non-Indians measure success or failure — have long been higher here, along with substance abuse among both teens and adults.

In the face of these many challenges, Navajo leaders have long grappled with how to keep their heritage alive among future generations. They fight to instill the traditional principle of k’e — respect for yourself and others — as well as kinship, balance and harmony.

“We’re all family,” says Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. “We’re supposed to be getting along. We’re supposed to be looking out for each other. That’s supposed to be the philosophy, the belief, the way.

“In spite of us wanting to save the ways,” he adds, “we’re losing a lot of it.”

Education is meant to be part of the answer; only about 18 percent of the adult population on the reservation have earned a four-year degree, below the national average of 24 percent. So the tribe has worked to provide scholarships and other assistance to those wanting to pursue a college degree. Some schools even go so far as to develop promotional DVDs of their top students.

Henderson, in fact, won a prestigious Chief Manuelito Scholarship, a $7,000-a-year, four-year award for college-bound Navajos named for a legendary chief who was dedicated to providing quality education for his people.

Henderson grew up in Tuba City on the western edge of the reservation, 85 miles north of Flagstaff and east of the Grand Canyon. Her father once worked as a principal and administrator for the Tuba school district, while her mother taught middle school.

Friends liked to call her “Princess,” though she used “Mighty Mia” for her e-mail address and MySpace page. At Tuba City High School, she excelled as both an athlete and an academic, a National Honor Society member who graduated in May as one of the top 10 students in a class of 184.

The summer before her senior year, Henderson was one of 25 Arizona students picked to spend seven weeks working on biomedical research projects at the University of Arizona. She worked eight hours a day, five days a week in a lab studying albinism in American Indians.

At the end of the program, when each student stood before an audience of professors and researchers to show a slide presentation of their work, Henderson spoke quietly but confidently for 12 minutes. She then thanked her parents, “because they pushed me during school.”

Henderson was “this incredible comet coming across the sky,” says program director Marlys Witte.

“There’s nothing she couldn’t have done,” Witte says. “She loved the reservation. She loved her culture. She loved her family. She loved her grandmother. But she saw something outside the reservation, as well, that she wanted to be a part of.”

Harrison, meanwhile, grew up 100 miles east of Tuba in the reservation village of Chinle, a wind-swept slice of land where cows and horses graze along the highway.

One of seven children, she, too, was an accomplished athlete, a member of the track and field team at Many Farms High School. But the rodeo was her love, and she was especially good at breakaway roping, where a contestant on horseback attempts to rope a calf around the neck. Two years ago, the All Indian Rodeo Cowboys Association named her rookie of the year in the event.

Her mother, Janice, says Galareka was a good student who won a full-ride to college. “The way I taught my kids [was that], it’s the only way to go to school,” she says.

The two girls, strangers until only a few weeks ago, were brought together under the University of Arizona’s First-Year Scholars Program, intended to help American Indians make the transition from home to campus, where just 812 of nearly 37,000 students were Indian in the 2006-2007 school year.

Fifty native students, most of them Navajo, were selected for this year’s program, which requires participants to live together in a wing of Graham-Greenlee dormitory called “O’odham Ki,” or The People’s House.

When school began on Aug. 20, Harrison and Henderson were matched as roommates.

Clearly, things went very wrong, very quickly. But the bare-bones police blotter account raises more questions than it answers.

On Aug. 28, Henderson filed a police report accusing Harrison of theft and forgery after she saw her Social Security card and a campus debit card sticking out of Harrison’s wallet, according to a court affidavit.

The next day, Harrison admitted in a police interview that she had stolen the cards and fraudulently bought a sweat shirt. She also admitted stealing Henderson’s checkbook and cashing a $500 check, and using another stolen ID as her own, according to the affidavit. University police declined to explain why Harrison wasn’t immediately arrested, citing an ongoing investigation.

Harrison then went home for a Labor Day weekend visit with family, returning to school Sept. 4. At 5:45 a.m. the next morning, students called university police to report hearing screams in Graham-Greenlee hall. Police say Harrison bought a knife on her return to campus, then wrote a note pretending to be Henderson. She had falsely accused her roommate, the note said, and she mentioned ending her own life. Then, police say, Harrison stabbed Henderson numerous times as she slept.

University police Sgt. Eugene Mejia says Harrison had been accused by a second student of theft, but that there was no indication that she presented a physical threat to any of her classmates. Harrison’s mother maintains that her daughter had no history of violence, and those who remember her from high school were stunned by her arrest.

“Our whole staff was just numb when we heard the news,” says Dave Lepkojus, an assistant principal at Many Farms High.

“Those who did know her just couldn’t imagine that she would be involved in anything like this. She was a good student, an honor student, was accepted to the university. She was just a really good kid.”

A Navajo medicine man whose own son is a freshman at the University of Arizona has since performed a cleansing ceremony inside Graham-Greenlee hall. The university wanted to do something to help their students start anew, says Kendal Washington White, the school’s director of multicultural affairs.

At least one student in the Indian scholars program has already withdrawn from the university. Still, says White, “It was important to bring in the medicine man to provide a sense of spiritual relief.”

But healing may be a long ways off for many on the reservation.

A few days after Henderson’s death, Navajos gathered in Window Rock for the 61st annual Navajo Nation Fair. It is the tribe’s biggest event of the year, but pride and exultation were infused with concern as Navajos tried to make sense of what had happened.

“I think that people will start to wonder about Navajo Nation people, are we teaching our kids the values of our elders?” says Yvonne Kee-Billison, a program supervisor for the Navajo Office of Youth Development. “It just saddens everyone, that two of our young children are involved in something like this.”

“If there’s any lesson to be learned it would be: How do we nurture and how do we support our kinship among our children?” says Tanya Gorman Keith, a vice president at Dine College, the first college established by Indians for Indians. “They are of the same family and of the same people … they have to care for each other. The question now is really, moms, dads, grandparents, educators: how do you make sure this happens?”

Harrison was to have competed in the rodeo at the fair, along with her sister, Garveda. The family instead watched only one of the girls perform, sitting somberly in the grandstand. Harrison remains jailed on a first-degree murder charge as her family tries to raise the money for her $50,000 bond.

Henderson was laid to rest on Monday. Navajo tradition calls for four days of mourning, after which those left behind must find a way to go on. For Henderson’s loved ones, that time has come, if they can somehow find a way to begin.

“In Navajo culture, we cherish life to the fullest. To lose someone like this, this tragically, it’s very hard to accept,” says Flora Sombrero, the girl’s softball coach and friend. “Look at all the potential she had, what she could have brought back to her people, what she would have taught them, what she could have contributed. That’s all gone.

“A lot of people are saying: Why?” she says. “Why?”

– Associated Press

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