Navajo trip takes students out of comfort zone

Zach Knapp and Zach Knapp

Pine Springs, Arizona was the last stop for the recent Summer Navajo Trip—a two-week student venture to the Navajo Nation in the Southwest United States.

University students surrounded a fire on the property of June Burnside, who has opened her home to students on the trip for years.

Approximately 50 people cycled through the campsite on the last night. Neighbors of Burnside walked out from behind the piñon trees with their children on their shoulders and food in their hands for the dinner that night.

This is a special place to Bill Thompson, director of the Common Good and University instructor, who organized the Navajo trip.

Thompson retired in the Spring after working at the University for 26 years as a campus minister and adjunct instructor. He has been leading the Navajo trip for 19 years.

The trip can be taken for Peace and Conflict Studies field experience credit. Thompson also leads a trip to South Bronx, New York for credit.

During the Navajo trip, students get the opportunity to explore the ruins of Chaco Canyon, hike in Canyon de Chelly and live among the Navajo people in Black Mesa.

An important part of the trip is the public service element, said Thompson.

Three days on the recent trip were spent at a Lutheran mission working on putting on a play with the local children.

Wayne Wilson, Diné-Navajo of the folded arms clan and Pine Springs resident, separated himself from the group before dinner, the last night in Pine Springs, to clean up the sweat lodge he had helped build earlier that day for the students. Wilson recounted the first time he met Bill in 2004 in Pine Springs. Wilson was working with the Pine Springs Association, a community non-profit organization. The organization was in the middle of a conflict with the Bureau of Indian Affairs over the rights of students to get a proper schooling and retain their native language, said Wilson.

“I remember Bill came to one of the meetings with all of the students from his trip and showed support for us,” Wilson said. “Having all of the people in attendance helped the politicians from [Washington] D.C. take us seriously as a community. I really appreciate what he did as an educator, and, whether he knows it or not, he had an effect on education for Native American students in that way.”

During the construction of the sweat lodge, a Ford Ranger drove up on Burnside’s property. The shaggy-haired white man that stepped out was not Navajo, but Wayne and June greeted him like family, with open arms.

Eric Peterson went on the Navajo trip as a University student with Thompson in 2008 and 2009.

“The trip took me out of my comfort zone and showed me what was really going on in the world,” Peterson said.

Peterson came back after his first trip in 2008 to finish earning his degree at the University. When it came time to go back the following year he decided he would be staying for good, said Peterson.

“It changed my views on what my options are the rest of my life,” Peterson said. “I realized I could move out here and start a new chapter.”

Now working in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Peterson stayed at Burnside’s home until he could make it on his own.

Keeping the connections like Peterson, Wilson and Burnside will be important for keeping the spirit of the trip going, said Thompson.

“We have been going to the same places year after year and we have established relationships,“ Thompson said. “The people we visit are used to Bowling Green students, so they are very welcoming.“

Gordan Ricketts, director of the Arts Village, and Phil Dickinson, an English instructor, will lead the trip in the coming years, but Thompson will try to stay involved with the trip from his new home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said Thompson.