Living Among the Navajo Nation

Maddy Kosinski, Physician Assistant Major

Service can be defined as “the action of helping or doing work for someone.” I believe people are more inclined to think of service as a physical action of building a house, collecting donations or helping clean a community. After my Alternative Break Service Trip (ABST) to the Navajo Nation in Arizona, I have discovered that the service of giving your time while learning is invaluable in itself.   

ABST programs can be divided into the following categories: Reach Out, Explore Within and Live Among. My trip was classified as Live Among, where the focus is for students to learn about systems that oppress and marginalize people. The overall goal is to educate students so that they can inspire change wherever they may go in life. My experience with the Navajo Nation is one that not only broadened my cultural horizons, but one that touched my heart as well.   

During our journey we learned so much about the Navajo culture. Gannon partnered with Amizade to host the first ABST to this destination. Amizade is a non-profit organization dedicated to mutual empowerment through service and learning that works with universities, high schools and community groups to design and manage?safe and empowering global service-learning and volunteer programs. 

“Although Gannon University and Amizade have only worked together for one season, the organizational synergy around the values of community, service and learning is profound,” said Bibi Al-Ebrahim, Education Director of Amizade. 

“The level of connectedness and trust that Amizade has experienced with Gannon University’s Center for Social Concern is like that of an old friend. Being new, however, this relationship comes with the excitement of a newly blossoming friendship,” she said. “Amizade is excited to continue exploring the potential of the relationship and looks forward to discovering the breadth and depth of possibility with the Center for Social Concern and the greater Gannon University community.” 

Our facilitators coordinated through Amizade, Vanessa Brown and Lawrence Kaibetoney (Mr. K), served as cultural ambassadors and personal guides for our trip. They taught us about the significance of the sweat lodge and the hoop dance.   

"My experience with the Navajo Nation is one that not only broadened my cultural horizons, but one that touched my heart as well."   

The sweat lodge is a dome-shaped structure made of clay where large volcanic rocks are placed inside. It is used as a means of purification for the Navajo people at least once per week. The hoop dance features a solo dancer who uses a dozen hoops to create a variety of animal shapes for the audience. Each hoop symbolizes a struggle one has in his or her life and teaches that an individual should tackle one problem at a time.   

Learning about these and many other culturally significant experiences opened my eyes to the beautiful and symbolic way of the Navajo life.  

Mr. K and Vanessa showed us various locations to experience the history and beauty of the Navajo Nation. We saw Coal Mine Canyon, where Navajo people hid when they were forced on The Long Walk to Fort Sumner. We visited the Code Talker Museum, where we learned the importance of the Navajo involvement in the creation of an unbreakable code used in World War II. After experiencing the indescribable beauty of the Grand Canyon, we had a reflection centered around the frustration for the industrial push for uranium mining nearby.   

The Navajo people live a life full of symbolism. They cherish the land, and through all their hardships, they have maintained a love for humankind. Through my time, participation and active listening, I am changed as a person because of my ABST. 

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