Lighting a fire for culture

Pinon Elementary after-school club focuses on Diné teachings

By Candace Begody
Navajo Times

PINON, Ariz., June 7, 2012

Text size: A A A

(Times photo - Candace Begody)

The Atsaa Native club performs during Cottonwood Day School's eighth grade promotion May 17. Left to right are Brandee Keyonnie, Quintana Long, Vanessa Gene, Precious Robinson, Shinella Clay and Aliyah Joe.

I t isn't just about getting them on stage to sing and dance. It's about getting the students excited to learn their culture.

Those were the thoughts Andrea Charlie had when she decided to form the Astaa Native Club, an after-school club at Piñon Elementary that meets twice a week.


'Somebody stole my girl': Bilagáana student masters Diné singing and dancing

"It's really important because we have a lot of people telling us our language is dying, people are saying no one's learning our culture and it's going away soon," she said. "I think it's because we as older people are somewhat lazy to do the part but through my job, I try to fire them up about their own language and culture."

And part of firing the students up is getting them on stage.

"They have gotten nothing but positive feedback and they feel really good about themselves," she said. "And when other kids see them on stage, they want to be a part of it too."

The Atsaa Native Club has about 20 students. In addition to learning Navajo language, stories and other Navajo teachings, the students also perform twice a school year, in the spring and winter.

Those in the after-school club learn as many a 20 songs and several dances for the summer and winter seasons each including the skip dance, two step, round dance, partner circle dance, line dance and more.

"My main focus is to have them interested through singing and culture," she said. "I like to teach them old songs - hardly any of the contemporary songs."

They are now seeing the fruits of their labor.

During a song-and-dance competition in Rock Point, Ariz., in early May, the group won the high-point award, which means the group won in all categories claiming a total of 14 trophies.

Charlie said she is even more excited because the group competed against schools like Rock Point, which historically has been dominated by Navajo-speaking students.

"The students are really excited about it and we've been invited to many events," Charlie said.

The group's most recent performance was May 17 during the Cottonwood Day School eighth-grade promotion.

"I have very high expectations for all of them," Charlie added. "It's not everyday that I see them but when I do see them, they get really into it. And that might be why they learn it so quickly."

Club members Vanessa Gene, a third grader, and Precious Robinson, a fifth grader, hope the club will prepare them for an even bigger dream.

"My mom wanted me to be Miss Navajo because I always like singing in Navajo and like doing stuff that are Navajo," Gene said. "I'd like to learn more songs and dances. I'm going to stay in the club for as long as I can."

"I want to be very Native like, learn about culture and want kids to be proud of who they are," Robinson said. "My grandma always talked to me about being Miss Navajo. My grandma and mom wanted me to accomplish something in Navajo."