School News

Teaching on a Native American Indian Reservation

by Stephen Falkenbury SMA '70, as told to Lee Stockdale SMA '70

We are grateful to Lee for getting and sharing this story with us. - SAS

We are Sewanee Military Academy, Class of ’70, and will not be deterred by a mere global pandemic from celebrating our 50th anniversary. In that spirit, Stephen Falkenbury and I convened for a reunion of two at my house in Asheville in June. We hadn’t seen each other in fifty years so there was much ground to cover. I spent thirty years in the Army and retired as a colonel in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Stephen went into education.

Over grilled salmon, as Stephen related the chronology of his teaching career, leading him to Germany where he’s lived for the past 34 years, he mentioned, “I taught in a one-room schoolhouse on a Native American Indian Reservation,” then went on to describe his next job.

“Wait,” I said, “go back. You taught in a one-room schoolhouse on an American Indian Reservation?”
“Yes.”
“Have you ever written about it?”
“No.”

“Wait,” I said, “go back. You taught in a one-room schoolhouse on an American Indian Reservation?”
“Yes.”
“Have you ever written about it?”
“No.”

It sounded fascinating and I asked Stephen if he’d be willing to work on an article about it. He said, “Yes.”

1979. After graduating from Memphis State University with a BS in Education, Stephen drove his Dodge Ramcharger from Memphis to Greasewood, Arizona, located on the fringe of the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, where he could drive for two hours and pass maybe one oncoming vehicle, likely a pickup towing horses or carrying people in the back. “I think the reason I applied for the job on the Navajo Reservation was to try and understand a microculture found within the culture of America. I still remember the kids in the class, they were unforgettable.” One would become a world champion bull rider on the Professional Indian Rodeo circuit.

The Navajo were friendly and readily helped him acclimate, even to the point where one family adopted him into their clan, Kinyaa'áanii, The Towering House clan. He became very close to the family, spent weekends with them, and had the opportunity to attend Navajo ceremonies such as the Enemy Way; and the Yei'bi'chi Dance, held during the winter months, that can run nine days, though he never stayed that long. As a non-Navajo, those were the two main ceremonies he was allowed to attend and, remembering them now, he says, “still sends chills up my back.”

As a non-Navajo, those were the two main ceremonies he was allowed to attend and, remembering them now, he says, “still sends chills up my back.”

In the middle of the Navajo Reservation—Diné Bekayah—was the Hopi reservation. The Hopi lived on plateaus in the area, maintained a culture totally different from that of the Navajo, and mostly kept to themselves. Some of his Navajo friends would tell him he was “pretty good for a white man,” which was never meant to be racial, but from the Navajo, a compliment.

He taught at Greasewood from 1979 until 1982 when he accepted a position at the Navajo-controlled Little Singer School, to serve as the school assistant administrator and 7th- and 8th-grade teacher. The Little Singer School, reached by eight miles of dirt road, permitted indigenous tribes to provide their children an education that included their culture, beliefs, and language.

Stephen said it was “a real eye-opener for anyone coming there the first time. One becomes desensitized to certain environments—the abject poverty and the acceptance of not being able to control the situation.” He taught in a Hogan, the traditional Navajo house, where the door always faces to the east for wealth and good fortune, part of their cultural beliefs.

The school had a woodburning stove in each classroom; a radio telephone which was basically a party line for outlying ranches that didn’t have standard phone service and sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t; and, presciently, wind generators and solar panels. “It was totally forward-thinking and I thought it was pretty cool.” The largest number of children he had in a class was around eighteen; some of the science and reading classes were smaller.

At his new job in California, he taught in the “one-room schoolhouse,” which was not exactly small. “California law has a minimum size for such situations, 40,000 square feet. I got to turnkey the building on the Chemehuevi Reservation. California does not allow the Bureau of Indian Affairs to have schools, so it was part of the Needles Unified School District. There were three ‘one-room schools’ in the district. My school was on the Colorado River, directly across from Lake Havasu City. To buy groceries, it was either drive 90 miles round-trip or buy a boat and cross the river at the lake. You can guess what I decided to do.” He bought a boat.

While he taught on the Navajo Reservation, Navajo had been the primary language of most of the children. Many were brought up without English speakers in the household; if there was one, English wasn’t emphasized. It was only children who lived in or around the school compound who had access to English speakers. This was not the case with children in the California school; most were bilingual in Spanish and English. “In fact, I only met two people who could actually say they were Chemehuevi.”

The boys enjoyed their rodeos and basketball; the girls, softball. Stephen coached cross country and one day asked a student why they were such excellent runners. The boy responded, “My older brother will put a rope around my waist and make me either run after the horse or be dragged by the horse.” The boy was not joking.

Parent-teacher conferences were essentially nonexistent. Parents may have simply felt uncomfortable meeting or may have been recalling their own experiences attending Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. In those mostly boarding schools, previous generations had been forced to reject or unlearn their culture and heritage in order to become assimilated into “white” culture. Children were harshly disciplined, forced to cut their hair short, dress like “whites,” and not allowed to see their parents for weeks on end. Today it would be called child abuse. This treatment came to an end during the ’60s and ’70s. “I did a research paper,” said Stephen, “and was appalled at what went on. The culture I encountered had shifted away from this, but it was not an easy task.”

The task may have been made easier for Stephen through skills he acquired during his 1973-77 Army service. He trained as a High-Speed Morse Interceptor, and then as a Communication Specialist. Ultimately, he’d be assigned to Headquarters, Army Security Agency, Arlington Hall, Virginia, outside Washington, and serve as a briefer and signals analyst. Of course, he learned the greatest skills for success at Sewanee Military Academy, itself a strange and wonderful “microculture found within the culture of America.”

Stephen Falkenbury

Stephen Falkenbury SMA '70

Lee Stockdale SMA '70

Lee Stockdale SMA '70