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A Navajo charter school is decolonizing its curriculum through Diné teachings

Kayla Dawn Begay is a co-founder and current head administrator at Dził Ditł’ooí School of Empowerment, Action and Perseverance, otherwise known as DEAP. The school is in Navajo, New Mexico, in the Chuska Mountains, and was created out of a desire to Indigenize education for students by including traditional Navajo practices and spaces in the curriculum – especially after decades of cultural erasure due to the U.S. Indian boarding school system.

Dawn Begay: My clans are Tódích'ii'nii Nishlí, Táchii'nii Bashishchiin, Bit’ahnii Dashicheii, Tséikeeheé Dashinálí. And I'm from this area. Traditionally we call it Red Lake, because of the lake over here.

And if you just see around the hogan, the original dirt came from this area, so it's a red color. But also to the east over here we have Fuzzy Mountain. And in our language we say Dził Ditł’ooí, which means hairy mountain, so if you look at it, it does look a little fuzzy. That's what the school is named after.

We hear from a lot of people about how, for a lot of different reasons, whether it's the boarding school era, whether it's just even the way that Western education is set up, our culture isn't always the core. So for us, it's really important that our students have the opportunity to learn who they are, because that's how they're going to survive. So Diné culture is a really important piece.

We always say that our best and most important teacher is the land. That's who we're going to learn with. That's who we're going to learn from. And that's how our people have learned historically, as well. So a lot of our learning takes place outside, our students spend a lot of time outside, they grow their own foods from the beginning of the seeds, all the way to cooking a meal. And it's really important, especially in this time of climate change, that we understand, one, just how to have a relationship with the land.

But two, how do we take care of each other? And how do we take care of the land? And how does it take care of us? So those are the big components of DEAP.

It’s not an easy thing to run a school. There’s expectations to meet the Western frameworks of what learning is supposed to be, and then of course there’s our ancestral knowledge and ancestral wisdom. So we’re really trying to balance that.

This interview was edited and condensed.