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Guarding Navajo mind and soul

BACK when Truman was winding up his White House stay, when Hollywood was dreaming up 3-D movies, and more than 2,000 new TV stations were popping up across the nation, Robert Roessel Jr. left life's mainstream for the neon-nude terrain of the Navajo reservation in Arizona. He went there to teach school - bringing with him the white man's ways, and a box of gold stars. ``When someone got a 100, I'd give him a gold star. But then that kid never got another 100. So I began to wonder. Eventually I understood,'' Dr. Roessel says. ``I was singling out the child, showing him to be better than the others. And this doesn't work in a society that values cooperation over competition. I threw my gold stars away.''

Most Anglos can't hack the isolation of the reservation. But Roessel did. For nearly 37 years he has taught little ones, high-schoolers, college students. He's even taught teachers how to teach, because Anglo pedagogy doesn't always make the grade in a Navajo classroom.

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Besides his endurance feat, Roessel has made a lasting mark on Indian education. With pen and rhetoric he's labored to get Indian education into the hands of Indians. For too long, he says, ``Indians were denied education as a friend. Education was used to scrub them white ... to make them lose their culture ... to make them lose their language.''

Roessel's views are respected in the halls and corridors of Washington, and when Indian education issues surface, he's always tuned to the scene. The latest item to capture his attention is a draft report by the Bureau of Indian Affairs - the Interior Department branch that serves as paternalistic guardian of Indians, including their education. The report, which will soon be sent to Congress, rates Indian youth in BIA schools at the bottom of the educational ladder.

``But what people don't often understand,'' Roessel says, ``is that you have some of the nation's most isolated youngsters attending these schools. They're economically disadvantaged; their parents speak no English: they come from way-out regions, where there's no running water, no TV, no phones. These kids are out of touch with the modern world.'' It will take both funding and top-flight educators, he says, to turn out kids capable of compartmentalizing their lives - moving freely between Indian and Anglo worlds.

During the last 30-odd years, Roessel (pronounced Russell) has raised more than $40 million from corporations, foundations, and government grants for Navajo educational programs. All the while, he's consulted and written (he's published 21 books on the Navajos) from his reservation study in Round Rock. Cluttered and log-walled, the study is actually a hogan, the Navajos' traditional circular dwelling with the entrance facing east to greet the rising sun.

The story of Roessel's adopted role as a champion of Indian education started with his marriage to Ruth Wheeler, daughter of a prominent Navajo medicine man. She taught him to see life through a Navajo prism, to view education from an Indian perspective. ``Ruth opened the hogan door for me - figuratively speaking - and that allowed me to be accepted among the Navajo people,'' explains Roessel, who speaks Navajo, a complex tonal language.

The Roessels' home stands next door to his hogan study. Because Navajos are a matriarchal society, this land was passed to Mrs. Roessel from her parents. The couple's five children are now grown: Faith, a lawyer; Mary, a physician; Monty, a photojournalist; Robert, a civil engineer; and Raymond, a geologist.

``I first met Ruth right there,'' says Roessel, pointing past the hogan door, where a road ribbons through sage and scrub. That was in 1952, when she was still in high school. ``She was riding a horse, going real fast, her hair flying free,'' he says. They married three years later. Mrs. Roessel, like her husband, now holds an advanced degree in education, is a published author, and works in the field of Navajo education.

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During the couple's early married days in the '50s, they took on the challenge of teaching at Low Mountain - ``supposedly a community that didn't want education, because they [the Navajos] went around at night shooting guns at the trailer school,'' Roessel recalls. But he soon found the community did want education, even though many parents spoke no English and didn't know how to hold a book.

Roessel went on to develop (in 1966) the first Indian-controlled college on a reservation, now located at Tsaile, Ariz. Several years ago he joined with Peterson Zah, a former Navajo tribal chairman, to raise more than $5 million to build an education center at the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Ariz., and to establish a foundation for Navajo scholarships and educational research.

Roessel sees momentum rolling toward the day when Indians will control all their own education. ``But first,'' he says, ``the state and federal governments must sit down and determine what percent of financial responsibility each has.'' (Most reservation land isn't taxed, and property taxes are generally a solid source of revenues for schools.)

``Bob is the prime person who pioneered to improve Indian education,'' says Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, who keeps a watchful eye on Indian issues in Congress. ``And he's done it in a way that tried to retain the traditional cultures.''

Letting Indians keep their culture is what it's all about with Roessel. But his educational creed doesn't exclude the three R's and other essentials of the dominant culture. Those are survival's fulcrum. He merely advocates adding Navajo history, culture, and language to the reservation curriculum, so kids get a sense of their worth.

Former Navajo chairman Zah says, ``Bob is the one person who really promoted the idea ... that the retention of Indian culture and language is just as important as learning various Anglicized aspects of life.'' And he did this, says Zah, when federal policy wanted to wipe away an Indian child's Indianism.

To Roessel, ``education is like a cafeteria. All knowledge is in that cafeteria. And the Navajos have to select the best of the Anglo culture, the best of their own culture.'' He hopes, for example, that the Navajos will preserve ``their concept of beauty and harmony; their concept of religion as life instead of a segment of life; their respect for age. And their sharing. They believe in sharing; Anglos believe in saving, sometimes hoarding.

``I remember when I first came here, Ruth and I would buy food and deliver it to my poor in-laws - who were poor in a material sense only,'' he explains. ``I felt so noble bringing them food.'' But before the day was gone, ``they'd be left with just a sack of potatoes.'' They had shared it, giving almost all of it away.

``That was their belief. At first, I couldn't understand this,'' says Roessel. ``But now I do.''

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