Courtesy NASA
Students and counselors from the NASA and the Navajo Nation project’s 2012 Summer Camp at Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

Weaving Diné Knowledge With NASA Science for Community Education

Jeannie Allen/SSAI at NASA

A movement is ongoing to reclaim and rebuild original Diné (Navajo) culture while building and maintaining relationships with “Western” society. As part of this movement, Diné educators, government officials, and elders have worked for 12 years in partnership with the federal agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), to weave together the very different ways of knowing embodied by these two groups. The guiding vision has been for Native youth to succeed in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) without compromising their cultural identity or undermining culturally-based priorities. Toward this end, the partnership now known as NASA and the Navajo Nation co-created culturally authentic and relevant education materials and programs, and has succeeded because of mutual respect and a great deal of time spent listening to each other.

This work is critically important. “There are powerful forces that pull Diné youth and their families away from the original worldview and culture toward Western society,” explains Angela Barney-Nez, Project Manager. “Western lifeways and approaches to education are almost completely contrary to Navajo education and the foundations of what it is to be Navajo. Youth need cultural relevancy, and to understand what it means for us to function as a sovereign nation within a nation. We must deal with the climate of the U.S. state-based school system. How do we infuse our Navajo ideas into this? How can we move forward without losses of our own?”

The relationships that inspired NASA and the Navajo Nation began in 2001 when Diné spiritual leader Leland Anthony Jr. met film producer and educator Alice Carron and introduced her to then President of the Navajo Nation, Joe Shirley Jr. and to his sister-in-law, Ms. Barney-Nez.

“We all started talking about what could be done to improve conditions on the reservation, and education is what came front and center,” explains Carron. The team won a grant from NASA in 2005. When Daniella Scalice, Education Lead for NASA’s Astrobiology Program, wrote to congratulate the team, she was invited to become involved in the focus group dialogue that laid the groundwork for the next decade of the partnership.

The project team for NASA and the Navajo Nation poses for a photo in 2006 with then Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, Lawrence T. Morgan, and Diné Medicine Man Leroy Nelson. Pictured from left, are: Barney-Nez, Carron, Scalice, Morgan, Nelson. (Courtesy NASA)

Relationships were nurtured, and trust was built over time. The team co-created educator guides that brought together cultural and scientific knowledge. These materials formed the core of student summer camps and workshops for teachers. “We aspired to cultivate a dual-learning environment in which scientific and cultural ways of knowing could peacefully co-exist,” explains Scalice.

“This was by Diné for Diné,” says Barney-Nez.

NASA and the Navajo Nation is led on the NASA side by the NASA Astrobiology Program in collaboration with ArtReach International, Carron’s company. Over the years, the seat of partnership on the Diné side has involved the Navajo Nation Council’s Office of the Speaker, the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President and the Department of Diné Education, as well as the Diné Bi Olta School Board Association.

At a seminal meeting in 2005, members of the Diné education community identified needs and desires in partnering with NASA. Many voices including parents, teachers, and a variety of tribal leaders participated to create a rich dialogue. “We asked a lot of questions,” says Carron. We all listened to each other much more than we spoke.” The project took more time than NASA was accustomed to. “Daniella gets huge credit for slowing us down and answering many questions about NASA and the work in response to Diné elders’ needs to understand the whole picture,” Carron says.  

One issue the team faced was which language to use in the materials. “We want to re-discover the original speakers of Navajo language,” says Barney-Nez. “When you speak the language, certain elements emerge that hold people together.” Ultimately it was decided that the materials should be in both Navajo and English, with some of the materials in Navajo alone.

Another issue was STEM content. How could NASA science and the Diné worldview be integrated? “We started with the stars,” explains Barney-Nez. “For Navajo, they are our guides. They tell us what to do each season, each day. Sometimes we make a new plan, but it’s always based on the foundational guidance of the stars.”

Two educational booklets were developed: The Story of the Stars or Sq’Baa Hane’ and Navajo Moon or Tl’éhonaa’éíNihemaá and accompanying learning activities and films. Diné teachers helped to draft, review, and pilot-test the activities with their students. “We talked about what could be written better, what was missing,” said Michelle Brown, one of the participating teachers. “It was awesome because every question we had about Diné culture we took back to the project team, they were able to provide us with Diné knowledge and resources.”

The first booklet was designed for use in community events. Bringing together parents, grandparents, family, and friends in a community setting extended the depth and reach of the activities. The second booklet was designed for use by teachers in classrooms. The partnership also produced star parties, community nights, teacher workshops, and summer camps. “For the camps, we brought together scientists and Medicine Men, educators and learners,” says Scalice. “We visited sacred sites with the blessing of the elders. Students learned geology, astronomy, and Diné cultural knowledge, all outside, all on the trail.”

The team also created an immersion experience for Native American education program directors at agencies including NASA. Carron explained, “It’s one thing for NASA folks to fly in for a one-day meeting, but it’s an entirely different thing to spend days and nights with Diné people on their land, seeing where and how teachers teach, students learn, and people live.”

Brown, now at Diné Immersion School, has spearheaded several Star Night events. “At one event over 500 people came.” Diné people have an oral tradition, and she was concerned that she might offend her grandparents and other elders by showing the film and printed materials with Diné stories. “But the elders were so blown away by the material,” she says. “They were happy! I will never forget my grandfather watching a video on a huge screen. He sat there for an hour watching it over and over and over. He was almost in tears.”

Parents, children, and grandparents gather in 2006 at a Community Night event in Cameron, Arizona to field test the activities for NASA and the Navajo Nation in the project’s first educator guide. (Courtesy NASA)

The partnership is still very much alive. “The energy and the relationships are still there, even now in our 12th year of partnership,” says Scalice. “I continue to get e-mail messages from parents, such as, ‘My youngest is ready. Are you having a camp this year?’” Carron too gets phone calls from the parents and grandparents of the children who attended the very first camp. “When are you holding a camp?  Where are you going to hold another workshop?”

“We’ve been on a journey which frankly still to this day is evolving. I have dreams and wishes about next steps,” Carron shares.

Brown adds, “As I see it, it’s up to me to keep bringing this material to people. It’s critical to our survival as a people.”

Barney-Nez adds, “The Stars are our guides; the Earth is our Mother; the Universe is our Father. Living on Earth may take greater definition. If we as Diné reached to our cultural life tenets, there would be no suicide, less depression, and better health for ourselves and our young people.”

Angela Barney Nez is the Executive Director of the Dine BiOlta School Board Association, Inc. (DBOSBA), a school board organization comprised of 66 school boards of federally funded schools on the Navajo Nation.

Alice Carron, the founder of ArtReach International, has worked on the Navajo reservation since 2002 and served as the Director of Education Outreach at Navajo Technical University for five years.

On behalf of NASA, Daniella Scalice continues the partnership with the Navajo Nation, now in its 12th year, and also leads a special working group at NASA for those involved in science education with Native American communities across the country.

For more information on the NASA and the Navajo Nation project, and to access the educator guides, visit the website.

For information about opportunities to participate in NASA student internships and in professional development programs for college instructors, contact Torry Johnson, at [email protected].

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