Home of the first contract school

Rough Rock was a model of self-determination

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

(Editor's note: In an effort to chronicle the beauty and diversity of the Navajo Nation, as well as its issues, the Navajo Times has committed to visiting all 110 chapters in alphabetical order. This is the 72nd in the series. Some information for this series is taken from the publication "Chapter Images" by Larry Rodgers)

ROUGH ROCK, Ariz., Feb. 6, 2014

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(Times photos - Cindy Yurth)

TOP: Rough Rock’s pleasant, hogan-shaped senior citizens center serves a hot lunch daily. It is, however, in need of a roof repair which the chapter this past weekend refused to fund.

BOTTOM: One of the older buildings at Tsé Chizhi Community School is used for administration today.

This pretty chapter was named after the outcrops of blond sandstone that rise at the foot of Black Mesa. But it could as easily have been named for the rough and rocky road it has had to travel in recent years.

Chafing under financial sanctions, watching its beloved community school descend into turmoil, losing its Head Start staff when they were found to lack federal qualifications and, most recently, experiencing a rift between the senior center administration and the chapter officials, it's safe to say Rough Rock -- often called by its Navajo name, Tsé Ch'izhi -- has seen smoother days.

"We're known as a community that has kept to its traditional ways," said the chapter's community services coordinator, Lorene Yazzie. "We need to get back to that."

Yazzie was chapter president in the late 1990s when the beautiful hogan-shaped senior citizens center and the now-vacant Head Start building were completed. Those were Rough Rock's salad days; the money was flowing and education visionaries Robert and Ruth Roessel were still alive, keeping an eye on the school they helped to found in 1966.

That came to an abrupt halt in 2003, when the Navajo Nation Auditor General determined that the chapter had not made a good-faith effort to correct 21 findings from the 2002 audit, and sanctions were imposed.

Today, every check the chapter writes has to be approved either by the Local Governance Support Center in Chinle or tribal authorities in Window Rock.

"It takes at least a week for the check to come back to us, sometimes more," said Yazzie. "Now Chinle is telling us we can only bring checks in on a Tuesday."

Yazzie says the chapter has corrected all the findings, but between high turnover at the LGSC and high turnover at the chapter, they haven't been able to schedule an evaluation.

She showed the Times the dollar figure in Rough Rock's general fund: $201,013.78. To put this in perspective, all the other chapters in Chinle Agency have between 0 and $3,000.

"We just can't spend our money," Yazzie sighed. "It takes forever to get our checks out."

Rough Rock at a Glance

Name: A direct translation of the Navajo Tsé Ch'izhi, referring to the sandstone outcrops throughout the chapter

Population: 947 at the 2010 Census

Land area: 53,000 acres

Major clans: ÔAshiihi, Honagháanii, Tsi'naajinii, Táchiinii, To Aheedl’inii, Kin Lich’inii

Famous sons: Code Talkers Andy Tsinajinnie (also an artist of some renown), Frank Todadheenie and Blair Tsosie hailed from here. The area has also produced some notable rodeo cowboys such as Erich Rogers, Lucius and Marco Sells, and Kesley Phillips. But perhaps the most well-known Rough Rock residents were not born here. Robert and Ruth Roessel, who helped found Rough Rock Demonstration School, were from St. Louis, Mo. and Round Rock, Ariz., respectively. Their son, Monty Roessel, headed the school for a while and is now director of the Bureau of Indian Education.

Assets: Rough Rock Demonstration School, a historic trading post, beautiful scenery, an AmeriCorps program

Problems: livestock in the roadway, tribal sanctions for not complying with a corrective action plan after a bad audit in 2002

Meanwhile, next door at the senior citizens center, supervisor Pauline Bahe was fuming. With all that money just sitting there, she said, the chapter can't cough up $18,000 to help fix the center's leaky roof, although by the center's calculations, they should have about $20,000 in carryover funds from last fiscal year.

"They need to remember the seniors are the body of this community," she charged. "They're all going to be seniors some day."

Chapter Secretary Sylvia Hadley, whom Bahe accused of conspiring with the vice president to pull the plug on the money after the center had already put the project out to bid, did not return a phone call Tuesday.

Down the road at Rough Rock Community School, the jewel of this proud community, the scene was no more pleasant. The principal and several other higher-ups in the administration had been placed on administrative leave, and the superintendent was on travel. The acting principal refused to be interviewed unless the reporter promised to report only "the positive."

The situation at the school is distressing to Ernest Dick, 66, whose father, John Dick, was an early school board member and taught in its traditional medicine program. Ernest continued the tradition, working as a bus driver and later a teacher, and ultimately serving on the school board himself.

Dick said the school should remember its proud history.

"Rough Rock was the place," he said, "that started it all."

The Rough Rock Demonstration School was the brainchild of Robert Roessel, a bilagáana educator from St. Louis, Mo., who came to the reservation in 1950 and was shocked by the cultural insensitivity of the BIA boarding schools.

Roessel thought the Navajo deserved the same rights as other parents -- to elect a local school board that would govern the school and hire its administrators. He also thought subjects like English and math should be taught alongside Navajo language and culture, including horsemanship, traditional medicine and crafts like silversmithing.

He persuaded the BIA to instigate Rough Rock Demonstration School in 1966 -- a bilingual, bicultural school governed by a five-member board, later expanded to seven.

The first board, in Roessel's own words, "didn't have five years of formal education between them."

"It was amazing," said Yazzie, a current board member, "what those seven people with no education were able to accomplish. They're heroes to us."

The school, said Dick, set an example throughout the Navajo Nation and the land.

"Other Indian tribes were coming to us, even other countries," he said. "We were the first contract school."

The school continues to this day its emphasis on language and culture; last week its students took second place in every category at Rock Point Community School's annual song and dance competition except for corn grinding, in which they placed first.

Between the school and Rough Rock's isolation, said Candace Bia, a young clerk at the venerable Rough Rock Trading Post, a lot of young people like her are fluent in Navajo. Other traditions survive; because of the school's horsemanship program, Bia said, Rough Rock has one of the few trading posts that still has a hitching post.

"When the horsemanship program was going," she said, the kids would ride here and tie up their horses, just like the old days."

Horses are huge here. Rough Rock has produced some of the best Indian cowboys around, and when the Indian National Finals Rodeo rolls around, practically the whole chapter packs up and travels to Las Vegas, Yazzie said.

"One time I counted five trucks that came to this community" as rodeo prizes, she added proudly.

Other local legends include the literal kind. Locals avoid the odd little knob known as Cone Hill; the story is that climbing it will strike you blind. A huge landslide on Black Mesa reportedly warned the populace of the Long Walk.

"It happened about a year or two before the Long Walk," Dick recalls hearing from his elders. "The medicine men said it meant something bad was coming for the Navajo people."

Some people, said Dick, started storing food in caves near the top of Black Mesa, and were able to hide out when the cavalry came for the Diné in 1864.

If Rough Rock is bogged in bickering now, it has a proud legacy it can always look back on.

Yazzie believes the chapter can retrieve its former glory if it can just hang on.

The chapter has a lot of irons in the fire in spite of the slow flow of funds: a new water line should assure everyone has running water by next year; bathroom additions are in the works and some BIA roads are on the list to be paved or surfaced.

Rough Rock is hoping to withdraw land for a convenience store/laudromat/gas station on Navajo Route 59, and is considering putting up fencing along the road to reduce livestock-car collisions.

"In our Navajo way," she said, "we know life can't always be good. You have to keep going even though it's good or bad. You don't just give up."

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