7 graduate from Navajo Mountain High

By Krista Allen
Special to the Times

NAVAJO MOUNTAIN, Utah, May 31, 2012

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(Special to the Times - Krista Allen)

TOP: Seven students, from left, Tyson Atene, Kristen Chee, Iris Chief, Elisha Deschenie, Reetika Henry, Maria Jensen, and Montayo Navajo - graduated from Navajo Mountain High School May 21 in the Jaguar gymnasium.

SECOND FROM TOP: Elisha Deschenie stands with her family after the 12th commencement ceremony May 21 at Navajo Mountain High School. From left, Owen Holmes, Kayo Deschenie, Leveda Holmes and Deshilah Holmes.

THIRD FROM TOP: Maria Jensen stands with her parents, Alan and Ella Jensen, after the 12th commencement ceremony at Navajo Mountain High School. Seven students received their diplomas May 21 in the Jaguar gymnasium.

FOURTH FROM TOP: Reetika Henry poses with her family after the 12th commencement ceremony May 21 at Navajo Mountain High School. From left, Darvina Lee, Quaiton Henry, Jackie Chief, Gabriella Henry, Kianna Henry and Courtney Henry.

N ineteen years ago when the state assistant attorney general, John S. McAllister, was asked to deal with a lawsuit filed by six school-age Diné children and their parents who requested appropriate educational opportunities, a grades 9 through 12 school did not exist.

"They would come up to us during visits and say, 'We would like to have our children home. They're not growing up in our family. We want them in their own bed at night,'" McAllister said about the emotional pleas from the parents in a press release from the Utah attorney general's office.

Diné children were given a choice to attend school hundreds of miles away in Richfield, Utah, or Flagstaff or take a four-hour bus ride each day to the nearest high school in Monument Valley.

According to the press release, Terri James attended a school in Flagstaff 170 miles away while her parents lived in Navajo Mountain.

"It was hard, it was stressful at times. I only saw my parents about once a month," James told McAllister back then.

Parents were not easily convinced that anything would ever change.

However, the situation changed when 11 governmental agencies, including the Navajo Nation and the Navajo Mountain Chapter, decided to provide educational opportunities for Diné children in the San Juan County, Utah, school district.

After complex legal briefs and lengthy trips to visit the future school site, state legislators contributed $2 million and the school district organized a bond election for $2 million for a brick facility.

In 1999, Navajo Mountain High School opened its doors for enrollment.

The school is five miles north of the Utah-Arizona border. Its current enrollment is about 33 students.

Seven students - Tyson Ray Atene, Kristen Carri Chee, Iris Marie Chief, Elisha Sheila Deschenie, Reetika Angel Henry, Maria Brianna Jensen and Montayo Buck Navajo - graduated May 21 in the school's 12th annual commencement ceremony.

More than 100 people attended the ceremony in Jaguar gymnasium. The gym was decorated with blue, silver and white colors with matching balloons.

Edwin Tano, a Greyhills Academy High character education teacher, delivered the speech to the graduates.

Tano, a Hawaiian who speaks fluent Navajo, urged the students to never give up. His said to develop as behaved, civic, critical, successful, and traditional adults.

"Today seems like it's the end, but in reality it's the beginning," Tano said. "Never give up, today is your future.

"If you want something you've never had, you've got to do something you've never done," he said. "I wish that in 50 years and for the rest of your lives, to be happy, be respectful."

The valedictorian was Elisha Deschenie, 17, who will attend Utah State University-College of Eastern Utah in Blanding this spring. Her delighted guardians Owen and Leveda Holmes cheered when Elisha received her diploma.

"I'm very proud of her, we're all very proud of her," Leveda said in tears. "I wish her mother was here."

Owen and Leveda have taken care of Elisha since her mother, Shelia Holmes-Speck, died May 2, 2006, from complications of pneumonia and respiratory failure while battling cancer.

The commencement ceremony ended with "One Day Too Late," a song by Skillet.