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History, art, public health: A look at the Exploring Hopi and Diné Nations May Term

Native American petrogyphs in Tuba City, Arizona. The Exploring Hopi and Diné Nations May Term trip gives Westminster College students the opportunity to learn and immerse themselves in different Native American cultures while seeing historical sites, said one of the trip leads Marsha Morton. (Photo courtesy Marsha Morton)

Historical landmarks, beautiful scenery, basket weaving, pottery making and an introduction into several different Native American cultures. These are the things students will experience in the Exploring Hopi and Diné Nations May Term study experience, according to Marsha Morton, one of the trip leaders.

Morton started the class in 1985 and has taught some version of it for the past 26 years.

The class is currently co-taught by Morton, an adjunct nursing professor, Cordelia Schaffer, a nursing professor, and Rebecca Penerosa, an arts education professor.

This year, the trip goes from May 13 through May 22, and the group will make multiple stops throughout Southern Utah and Northern Arizona.

“This is not a trip I recommend for the faint of heart,” said Meghann Clare, a student who took the trip, in an email. “This trip is good for those willing to break through their comfort zone and experience the good, as well as the hard reality, of what indigenous people face and have to offer the world.”

Morton sat down with The Forum to discuss the background of the trip and what students who take it have to look forward to. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

Q: How long have you been teaching this course?

A: I first started it in 1985 with some nursing classes, and over the years I gradually expanded it, and we’ve modified it to include education, justice studies, political science. It’s open to all majors now, and it’s one of the classes that receives the engaging the world credit.

Q: How has it felt teaching this class for this long?

A: I’ve enjoyed it. One of the nice things about this trip is that the Hopi potter is a personal friend of mine, I’ve known her since she was 13 years old. Her aunt used to do the [basket weaving and pottery] demonstration when we first started the trip, and she has since died. She taught Evvy Trujillo to do the pottery and the basket weaving and so she carries on now for us. So, I enjoy going down all the time.  

Q: How often is it offered?

A: Only in May Term, and for the last 10 years we’ve offered it every year.

Q: What places do you go to on the trip?

A: We drive down to Bluff, Utah, and we’re hoping to stop at Arches National Park for a brief, little tour. In Bluff, we stay at recapture lodge and the education students and some of the non-nursing majors go to Bluff Elementary and doing projects there. While we have the nursing students in Monument Valley, Blanding and Montezuma Creek in the clinics for the Utah Navajo Health Incorporation. We spend two days in clinics and schools, and then we do a 26-mile river trip with Wild Expeditions, on the San Juan River from Bluff to Mexican Hat, and there [the students] usually get to see a cliff dwelling and Native American art on the Butler Wash Panel.

Then we go to Chinle, Arizona, where they get to have a talk at the Indian Health Service hospital there with a medicine man, who talks to [the students] about the Navajo or Diné health care practices. Then in the afternoon, we let them hike down to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, to the white house ruins.

Then the next day, we go to Ganado, Arizona, to the Hubbell trading post. Then we go to Walpi, which is in the Hopi reservation. Walpi, [a first mesa village], is one of the old, traditional villages where they don’t have running water or electricity. From there we go over to Moenkopi, Arizona, which is right by Tuba City, Arizona. Then we have demonstrations by my friend, Evvy Trujillo and she demonstrates Hopi pottery-making one day, and basket-weaving another day. We also visit some petroglyphs the Hopi have, and we usually go to Wupatki National Monument, which is some dwelling sights of some of the ancestral puebloan people that were kind of the forerunner to the Hopi today. Evvy also makes some traditional Hopi meals for them, and shows them piki bread making and parched corn, they call it the ‘Hopi popcorn.’

Then we’ll come home after that, so that’s 10 days that we’re gone, two of them are travel and the rest of them are doing all those activities.

Q: What do students do in the class?

A: We’re hoping to introduce them to some of the cultural issues [within the Native American community], so we talk about health care issues, some of the disparities with the health service to the Native Americans. While there, we show a film called “Return of Navajo Boy” which talks about some of the environmental issues with the Uranium mining, and how it has affected some of the people in the area. We talk about economic issues and we talk about employment issues for them down there.

[…] A lot of our course objectives are about having them learn cultural issues, and then getting an introduction to the Hopi and the Diné people. We have speakers before we go [and] we have them read “The Scalpel and the Silver Bear” which was written by the first Navajo woman surgeon. We do historical things, we talk about migration and some of the Navajo’s way of life, and we talk a lot about the symbols they use. Sometimes they get to go out and make home visits to the hogans to see how spread out they are [on the reservation]. So, we talk about a lot of the issues that make it hard for them to assimilate into our culture, and that they don’t necessarily want to assimilate.     

Q: Why do you think this is a class students should take?

A: Well, it’s fun. It’s not as expensive as going over to Europe. It really shows a lot of the hidden problems with Native Americans in our culture, and some of the historical wrongs that have been done to them, but also some of the bright and good things that are happening.

I think sometimes they’re a hidden minority in our culture and in the greater American culture and I think it really introduces and sensitizes students to some of the issues, that they maybe haven’t really thought about. I think in the American culture we either want to ignore the Native Americans, or we idealize them so much […] but it’s not necessarily correct. And even among the Native American culture you see a wide of variety of how much they embrace their culture, and how they have a hard time fitting in with the larger culture.

I know even in nursing and health care, there’s not as many health care providers who are Native America, partly because of the cultural taboos, and also because their lack of hard science education. We’ve had students say “I didn’t even realize, I’ll never look at Native Americans the same way again,” after taking the class.   

Q: Why is this subject important for students to learn about?

A: It helps them to see, there’s greater diversity than sometimes they realize in our American culture. Sometimes the ways we’ve set up our education or political system, it makes it hard for some of those minorities to really hold true to their cultural values and yet be successful in modern American life. I think that this is a good way of helping our college students to see some of these problems, and get to know some [Native Americans] on a personal level.    

Q: Why did you start teaching this class?

A: I’ve always been interested in other cultures. After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in nursing, I moved Phoenix, Arizona. I got to know Evvy [Trujillo]’s mom, Marlinda, they were neighbors of mine, and we would go to some of the Kachina dances. So, when I started at Westminster, the nursing program in the 70s had taken all the nursing students down to Bluff, Utah and they did immunization clinics for a week. So, one of the other faculty was interested in resurrecting a program where we took and introduced our nursing students to another culture and they could kind of live it for a week.

Q: This May Term trip goes to Southern Utah and Arizona, what does this class provide that a May Term trip overseas does not?

A: Overseas is wonderful, but it is expensive. But it’s a total different culture down there, that maybe [students] haven’t been exposed to. There’s a lot of wonderful cites, like the cliff dwellings, and petroglyphs, and I think they get to see some beautiful country. So, they’re introduced to beautiful scenery, but also a different culture or two.

Q: Have there been any bumps in the road?

A: Probably the biggest bumps, are sometimes, because of the heat down there, we had one student faint on the hike, because they got dehydrated. We kept warning them to drink, drink, drink. So a few little issues like that, but really not to many. It’s been a pretty smooth going for the most part. My Hopi friends love having us come, and they enjoy interacting with the students.

Q: What is the most memorable thing that has happened on the trip?

A: I don’t know, it’s all memorable down there, it’s hard to pick out one. I’ve been going for so many years. I think the students really enjoy the day we do the basket weaving. We actually have them learn how to basket weave by taking pipe cleaners down and they can practice and work with the Hopi on learning to weave. I think they enjoy the interaction, and one nice thing about this class is when Evvy is demonstrating, she’s also talking a lot about Hopi values, their way of life, and their beliefs, and the students get to ask questions. [Whereas] if you go down there as a tourist, it’s pretty closed, they don’t want you asking questions. But inside the homes where [the students] are actually meeting and knowing these people personally, they get a chance to ask questions and interact on a more personal level.


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Alex is a junior communication major who is currently trying to survive college. She loves superheroes, hanging out with her friends and pasta. When not at school, she can be found curled up with her cat watching TV.

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