Art-based learning

(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

This wicker tray under construction is held in the light by Berdella Masayumptewa, of Oraibi, Ariz., at Hopitutuquaiki, the Hopi School, in Hotevilla, Ariz.

Hopi summer school plays to students' strengths, enlists cultural knowledge

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

HOTEVILLA, Ariz., July 16, 2009

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Donna Humetewa of Hotevilla, Ariz., weaves a wicker tray during a class at Hopitutuquaiki, the Hopi School, in Hotevilla.

When Bob Rhodes was looking for a topic for his dissertation in music education at Arizona State University back in 1971, a member of his committee suggested he count eighth notes in a Mozart symphony.

"I'm not kidding, that's what they wanted me to do," Rhodes said. "I frankly couldn't imagine anything more boring - or less useful."

Rhodes cast about for something - anything - else to study. He recalled the pleasant visits he'd made to the Hopi mesas to watch the dances that mark the passage of seasons there.

"What about something on Hopi music?" he countered.

"What's a Hopi?" asked one of the professors.

It was the first step in a circuitous journey involving a Greek princess, former Hopi Chairman Vernon Masayesva, and a love affair with both the Hopi mesas and a beautiful Hopi silversmith that led Rhodes to found Hopitutuqaiki, the Hopi School.

More on that story later - it's way too good to pass up - but first, let's take a peek inside the school.

Today, the topic is woven trays, and six women of varying ages are intently poking dyed, soaked reeds into a crosshatch of rabbitbrush sprigs.

"This is the Third Mesa style," explains instructor Harriett Lomatska, adding that the women should be able to pick up the styles of their own areas after learning the basics.

If Rhodes had peeked in at that point, he would have been pleased, because Lomatska is not just teaching the women how to weave.

The sunflower pattern they are working on, she explains, represents the beginning of creation and is an appropriate first gift for a granddaughter during the Bean Dance.

Lomatska had looked for reeds locally, but the dry weather of the past few years has made the plant scarce, so she had to purchase some.

In a few minutes, the women have learned: a) how to weave a traditional tray; b) that weaving styles vary between the villages; c) the cultural significance of the sunflower pattern; and d) the local climate may be changing, which will in turn affect the availability of traditional materials.

If you want to classify this knowledge, as Westerners are wont to do, they have received a lesson in art, anthropology, science and economics.

But if 38 years studying Native American learning styles have taught Rhodes anything, it's that Natives learn better with a holistic approach - they don't relate well to putting things in boxes.

"There've been hundreds of attempts to design curriculum for Native students," Rhodes said, "but as soon as you start developing a curriculum, you start categorizing it into subjects, and you always fall into the same process."

The process is a Western one that has been imposed on Native Americans for 120 years with "very minimally effective results," Rhodes said, and yet states and school districts are still reluctant to try anything else.

Years as a teacher and then an education consultant left Rhodes frustrated, as so many of his suggestions for teaching Native kids fell on deaf ears, or couldn't be implemented because they departed from state and federal standards.

It was Masayesva, a principal at the Hotevilla-Bacavi Community School when Rhodes started his teaching career, who first got Rhodes thinking about an art-based curriculum.

Rather than mold students to a fixed curriculum, "Vernon suggested we look at our students' strengths and mold our teaching techniques to the students," Rhodes recalled. "The first thing you have to do is reach your student where he's at, or you'll never get anywhere."

One thing the Hopi kids seemed almost universally good at and excited about was art. But although the new (at that time) BIA contract school format gave schools some flexibility, it wasn't enough to implement a whole art-based approach.

Ten years ago, the stars aligned for Rhodes to finally try out some of the ideas that had been swimming around in his head.

By then he had met and married silversmith Verma Nequatewa and was living in her beautiful home/studio atop a hill overlooking Hotevilla.

A friend of the couple, the dean of fine arts at the University of Connecticut, called one day to report Her Royal Highness, Princess Irene of Greece and Denmark, was looking for a project on an Indian reservation.

"What could we do for the Hopi?" the dean asked.

Rhodes spent the next few weeks preparing a proposal for a school based on Hopi values and learning styles.

Princess Irene, who is founder and president of the World in Harmony Organization, was intrigued. She had funded several projects in India, where she had come to the conclusion that British colonial strictures had suppressed the Indians' natural talents and intelligence to the point that they felt ill equipped to tackle their country's problems.

Rhodes' description of the education gap on Hopi struck an immediate chord.

Before he knew it, the princess was sipping coffee at Rhodes' kitchen table in Hotevilla.

"If you believe so strongly in this thing, why aren't you doing it?" she demanded.

"Because we don't have any money," Rhodes replied.

"We'll take care of that," said the princess. "Now why aren't you doing it?"

It took a couple of years to bring the idea to fruition. Princess Irene kicked in enough money to start Hopitutuqaiki, and Rhodes found enough other funding to create a summer art school that is now in its fifth year.

Local experts provide the teaching talent for subjects as diverse as glass blowing and "Hopi Knowledge for Boys," and the students have ranged in age from 3 to over 60.

Classes have been as small as one and as large as 10, though Rhodes believes 10 is probably too large a class for the apprenticeship model the school provides.

"We may limit it to seven next year," he mused.

The eventual goal is a year-round arts magnet school that fulfills all state requirements but uses an art-based, holistic curriculum.

"But to do that, we'll have to go from $30,000 a year to $300,000," Rhodes said.

The $60 per week the school charges its students doesn't begin to cover the $1,400 per capita cost.

But Rhodes is optimistic. Heck, if a princess can appear out of the blue to found a school on the Hopi Reservation, anything can happen.

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