Not just for the birds

Tsidi To'ii boasts oases for the body and the mind

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

TSIDI TO'II CHAPTER, Ariz., November 1, 2012

(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. This is the seventh in the series. The series was supposed to be in alphabetical order, but the author was unaware Birdsprings Chapter had officially changed its name to the Navajo translation, Tsidi To'ii, until she arrived there.)

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(Times photo — Cindy Yurth)

TOP: Small class sizes at Little Singer help assure that no student falls through the cracks.

SECOND FROM TOP: The odd agglomeration of buildings that comprise Little Singer School is due to be replaced by a new structure, but some residents hate to see old school go. The wind turbine and solar panels are the result of a partnership with Northern Arizona University; the school often works with the state universities on various projects.

T his chapter was named for a beautiful spring high on the mesa that attracts flocks of little birds.

But it's famous for another oasis of sorts — an oasis of learning.

At least, that's how the principal of Little Singer School describes her workplace. As you bump along N-71 over a lunar landscape and colorful, otherworldly domes appear on the horizon, Little Singer more closely resembles a human colony on some desert planet.

Enter the compound, however, you see what Principal Etta Shirley means. There are trees and even little lawns of grass. In each brightly decorated classroom, a handful of students are gathered in a circle or semi-circle, focusing almost raptly on their lessons.

You would expect a school founded by a medicine man to be different from other schools, and Little Singer is.

Most of the classrooms are round and hogan-like. Class sizes are miniscule, ranging from 9 to 20 students. Teachers meet weekly to discuss students' performance as a whole and individually, and if anyone is falling through the cracks, he or she is immediately appointed a tutor.

Education at Little Singer literally starts before birth. Pregnant women are encouraged to join the Family and Child Education Program, where they learn what to do to enhance their future child's learning ability. According to Shirley, FACE teachers have even been known to accompany moms to the delivery room.

On the other end of the spectrum, adults can sign up to get a GED or job skills; the school will design a program where they can work in the office, read to children or help out at the greenhouse.

Each season, the children study a different set of traditional Diné values, symbolized by the four sacred mountains — one of which, Dook'oo'osliid, looms out every western-facing window. There's a foster grandmother to practice Navajo language with and answer cultural questions.

A sense of Hozho

But what makes Little Singer really unique is the sense of hozho that pervades the campus. It's Shirley's No. 1 focus, and she has won international awards for it, including one from the Dalai Lama.

"I believe children have to have a safe place to learn," stated the soft-spoken principal, sitting in the outdoor shelter that functions not only as a gathering spot but a peacemaking arena.

If there's ever a hint of conflict between two students, two teachers, a student and a teacher, or a parent and a teacher, Shirley invites all concerned, and their families, to a conference here.

The conference is mediated by herself and Melvin Nez, a family therapist who functions as sort of a supercharged school counselor.

"A lot of times," Shirley said, "the conflict can be traced to something that happened at home."

If there's evidence of some serious issues, Nez follows up with six-to-eight weeks of family therapy, visiting the student's family at their home.

If the family is traditional, a sweat lodge or other Diné healing methods may be prescribed.

The school, which dates back to the early 1970s, was the brainchild of a local medicine man known as Hataali Yazhi, or "Little Singer" in English.

"He became concerned that too many of the local children were being shipped away to boarding schools and never saw their families," Shirley explained.

Hataali Yazhi donated his own homesite for a school. To this day, the hogan he lived in is used as a classroom.

"He actually moved somewhere else so that the school could use his land," Shirley said admiringly.

A hybrid school

The school that emerged is sort of a hybrid, with the elementary a BIE grant school and the junior high a state charter school.

"We're kind of like the Navajos and the Hopis," joked Melvin Tsosie, a coach and teacher supervisor at the junior high.

Little Singer died before he could see his dream through, but his son, Benny Singer, often visited and taught the kids traditional skills like making a bow or hunting rabbits with a slingshot.

Benny is gone now too, but the homes of Hataali Yazhi's descendants dot the desolate landscape surrounding the school like so many sentinels. Some of the Singer clan teach here and many send their children here.

"We have some great-great-great grandchildren of Little Singer here now," Shirley revealed.

In an ironic turnabout, the school no longer only serves its community. Some Diné parents from Winslow, concerned that their children were losing their Navajo culture, send them here.

Back at the iconic igloo-like chapter house, modeled after the concrete dome that functions as Little Singer's junior high classroom and gymnasium, the staff of the recently certified chapter is busy preparing to serve Birdsprings residents on the other end of life's continuum.

A beautiful 10-bed assisted living facility sits on the chapter compound — entirely vacant.

"We did it a little bit backward," said Chapter Manager Eileen Hardy. The chapter built the building and now is in the process of creating a non-profit corporation to run it.

When it's up and running, it will employ 20 people, hopefully luring home some of the skilled workers who have fled to Winslow or Flagstaff for employment.

The chapter is also looking forward to the completion of the Twin Arrows Casino on I-40, which will employ some 800 people.

The next important project for the chapter, Hardy said, is to pave N71, the shortest route to Winslow, making the commute easier for people who want to live in Tsidi To'ii and work in the border town. The washboardy dirt road goes to Little Singer as well, making for a bumpy school bus ride.

Speaking of Little Singer, it's also due for some improvements. A new school is on the drawing board, replacing the current hodge-podge of buildings that include the twin geodesic domes lovingly assembled by volunteer college students from California as the very first classrooms.

The funky multicolored buildings have become obsolete, but they carry a lot of nostalgia in this chapter. Even Shirley, who pushed for the new school, confesses she will miss them.

Hataali Yazhi, were he still around, might have to give the old-timers a lecture.

"Sometimes," the wise old singer might say, "the old has to move out to make room for the new."

Tsidi To'ii at a glance

Name — "Birdsprings" is the English translation, for a spring on top of the mesa that attracts flocks of birds

Population — 532

Land area — 194,587 acres

Features — Little Colorado River, clear views of Dook'oo'osliid

Local notables — the late Hataali Yazhi, or Little Singer, founder of Little Singer School; President Ben Shelly's aide Isabelle Walker, who is also the chapter vice president

Recent projects — Senior citizen center, assisted living center, scattered NHA homes, water and power line extensions, paved parking lot

Most noticeable landmark — The iconic domed chapter house can be seen for miles

Energy — chapter bisected by Transwestern natural gas pipeline; wind turbine recently installed at chapter house; 10 homes outfitted with solar panels

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