While I taught at St. Michael Indian School (SMIS), a school serving youth from the…
Yá’át’ééh means “hello” in Navajo. It’s hard to explain why I took the risk of moving across the country, to this unknown place, leaving behind everything and everyone I knew in Buffalo, NY, to live and work with complete strangers, but I’m so glad I did. I have been in St. Michaels, AZ for almost 5 months now. I’ve been able to immerse myself in a new culture, develop new relationships, and experience so many new things I never thought I’d do.
To begin, I attempted to be a vegetarian for a month. I never really considered trying this before, but one of my community members who I live with is a vegetarian so I thought I’d give it a try. I told her I wanted to try being a vegetarian for a whole month at some point during this year. I said I’d do it during whatever month had the day for vegetarians (because you know how there is a day for everything). Well, World Vegetarian Day is observed annually on October 1st (which was the next day) so, I quit “cold turkey.” I don’t eat too much meat to begin with so it wasn’t very difficult for me, but I say that I “attempted” to be a vegetarian for a month because I didn’t quite make it. I made it 28 days…
On October 28th, my community members and I got invited to a sheep butchering. Sheep butchering is a big part of the Navajo culture. Boys and girls learn and practice sheep butchering, some beginning less than age 10. There is a sheep butchering contest during the Navajo Nation Fair to determine who will be Miss Navajo Nation. I knew moving onto the Navajo reservation was going to provide me with so many new experiences but I was not expecting anything like this. Now, it might sound horrifying when I say that we helped clean out the intestines and everything else inside the sheep with our bare hands, but the Navajo women who were teaching us made it such a natural process, more of an art than anything else. And, the only way to learn is to do! So I even helped chop up the lungs of this sheep to make goulash. We then helped cook the meat over a fire. After all that work, I decided I had to try it, and that’s how I broke my vegetarianism.
I’ve also learned how to make fry bread, I’ve helped herd sheep, and I’ve assisted in hauling wood, which are all everyday activities that are part of the Navajo culture. A few weeks ago, I spent my entire Sunday helping a Navajo family haul wood. I learned how to use an axe to chop the wood, and I was pretty sore the next day. We filled five truckloads full of wood. The family fed me some mutton stew afterward too! Trying all these new things has allowed me to look at the world in a new way. I see the beauty of family, hard work, and the Navajo culture.
Speaking of being sore, at the end of October, one of my coworkers introduced me to CrossFit and I actually really like it! I go every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and I think I’ve been sore every single day since I’ve started. But it’s a good kind of sore, #GetSwole. Through CrossFit, I discovered that I cannot jump rope for my life. I just can’t seem to jump with both feet. It’s pretty embarrassing. The CrossFit coach thinks it’s because I’ve been a runner for so long. And I still do run pretty much every day, but it gets difficult to run outside because I get followed by dogs, or it’s less than 10 degrees outside. (“Less than 10 degrees in Arizona???” YES! In the mornings it’s COLD. I live in the high desert at an elevation of 7,000 ft.) So yeah, I never imagined I’d go from “cross-country” to “cross-fit,” but I’m really glad I gave it a try because I like it a lot.
And then there’s school. I teach in the multi-sensory classroom at St. Michaels Association for Special Education (SMASE) which consists of the most medically fragile students, who are so amazing, inside and out. It took me a while to get used to taking care of all the medical needs in my classroom. 3/5 of my students are tube fed and need suctioning done almost every day. I also spend about 25% of each day wiping butts, but there is still nowhere else I would rather be. There was one day when I had to wear one of my student’s extra pair of sweatpants around the classroom because I got thrown up on by him because he was laughing so hard while dancing to Taylor Swift. Now I always have an extra pair of clothes in my backpack! I’m always learning! 4/5 of my students are non-ambulatory and all of my students are nonverbal. They cannot communicate things like “I’m hungry,” “My stomach hurts,” or “My mosquito bite itches.” It took me a while to get comfortable talking and never getting any verbal responses back from my students, but I’ve gained a new comfort zone in that aspect and I have so much fun with my students.
I’ve learned to be comfortable in situations in which most people would consider uncomfortable. For example, the only ambulatory student in my class has to be constantly moving, in order to stimulate his senses and keep him calm/relaxed. I took him to one of his doctor’s appointments where we had to walk around in circles in the waiting room. As people were giving us strange looks, he had a smile on his face the entire time, and that’s all that mattered to me. Another example is when we went on class field trip to the annual Navajo Nation fair. I had to respectfully respond to peoples reactions when they would ask, “Is he okay?” as he was rolling around in the dirt. I also had to apologize to a vendor because he snatched a piece of pizza right out of the concession stand, as I was buying him a lemonade. He’s quick! I’d like to say thank you to the vendor, for understanding and not allowing me to pay for the pizza. My students are so strong and they bring so much joy, laughter, and love into my life every single day. It’s so easy to wake up in the morning, knowing that I get to work with these amazing human beings, see their smiles, and hold their hands.
These experiences will stay with me and impact me for the rest of my life. So I’d say, embrace as many new experiences as you can, take chances, and do what makes you happy. You might surprise yourself and discover new passions. I am so thankful for Mercy Volunteer Corps (MVC) and the Navajo Nation for giving me the opportunities and experiences I’ve had so far. My journey continues.
Rachael Weissenburg: St. Michaels Navajo Reservation, Arizona