Rising sophomore Mackenzie Zepeda captured this image of Arizona's stunning land forms.
Rising sophomore Mackenzie Zepeda captured this image of Arizona's stunning land forms.

Alternative Spring Break goes to Navajo Nation

Writer: 
April 19, 2017

Spring Breakthrough brought academics right to students at Duke during mid-March; however, other opportunities took place off-campus. Alternative Spring Break, which, as part of Duke Student Affairs’ Alternative Breaks Program, allows students to both serve communities and gain awareness of problems that they wouldn’t otherwise encounter: Last year’s trip, for example, took students to San Diego to learn about human trafficking.

This March, nine students and a supervisor from the Women’s Center, Bibi Gnagno, traveled to northern Arizona to visit the Navajo Nation, which is disproportionately plagued by domestic violence—an issue of little note to the wider population. The struggle stems from both the media’s lack of coverage of indigenous issues and the tribe’s occasional difficulty in communicating such problems. Said Gnagno, “It’s problematic—even the language doesn’t have terms to describe what happens in domestic violence situations.”

The program, which required students to apply and interview for a spot, included trips to nearby Chinle and Kayenta, as well as conversations with law professor Melissa Tatum at the University of Arizona, a traditional native healer, and a U.S. attorney specializing in this sort of litigation. Given that the Navajo Nation is a sovereign body, many cases involve questions of authority—does the crime fall under the Navajo or U.S. jurisdiction?—which only get more complicated given that, quite often, non-Navajo individuals are committing the crimes. Any partnership between the two institutions is, unfortunately, shadowed by a backstory filled with broken promises and “historical animosity,” as sophomore Mumbi Kanyogo described it. And the Nation lacks many of the resources necessary to effect changes.

“You could just see the contrast between the reservation and the rest of Arizona,” said Kanyogo, a gender, sexuality, and feminist studies major who, as an intern at the Women’s Center, was the group’s student leader. She noted how the houses—which were mostly trailers—spanned the desert, sometimes separated by twenty miles along a single dirt road; she recalled the natives’ comments about lacking electricity and running water. “Someone said the conditions on the reservation were comparable to a third-world country. It was sad to hear, but also [sad] to go and see that—that this was the reality.”

While the trip did have its highlights—including a stop at the Grand Canyon, and “many impromptu photo-shoot sessions,” according to Kanyogo—the attitude now is of work that isn’t done. Upon returning, the group began fundraising for the Tohdenasshai Shelter, a Kayenta-based organization that provides support for domestic violence survivors, during Duke's annual Native American powwow. The attitude mimicked something Gnagno said before the week, with the goal of “bringing that activism back to Duke.”

“We talk about amplifying voices, but it’s also about seeing the individuals affected,” she said, mentioning how the program builds community among the students on the trip and encourages new trajectories. This trip was simultaneously a taste of how frustrating yet inspiring activism can be. “The fact that there’s so much distance between North Carolina and Arizona, there’s only so much we can do,” said Kanyogo. She added that it’s ”also motivating, in that North Carolina has such a large Native American population. So it’d be interesting to figure out whether that’s a similar problem for them.”

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.