Breck Students Rally to Support the Navajo Nation

Stacy Glaus

Learning about indigenous societies and American Indians has been a part of the Upper School U.S. History curriculum at Breck throughout the school year.
 
“We have discussed issues of the displacement of American Indians and have focused on tribal sovereignty,” notes Upper School History instructor Catherine Pearson.  “The policies of the U.S. government have impacted native communities significantly, and I wanted my students to have a thorough understanding of that.”
 
“For example, when we studied the forced assimilation of native youth through boarding schools in the 19th century, I spoke about access to educational opportunities today on the Navajo Nation,” explains Ms. Pearson.  “I hope that my students have an understanding that native communities, despite centuries of policies that have deprived tribes of their homelands and ways of life, are still present in 2020.  The diversity of native cultures should be understood and celebrated, and I strive to do this in my classroom.”
 
The Navajo Nation is a vast territory spanning portions of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.  With 174,000 residents, the reservation is approximately the size of West Virginia.  The rapid onslaught of COVID-19 has turned the Navajo into a national hot spot.  30-40% percent of Navajo households do not have running water or electricity, so CDC hand-washing protocols are unrealistic, seen as wasteful and even a luxury.  Directives to “self-isolate” are difficult to implement within crowded multigenerational households and small interdependent settlements that are widely separated from one another and from basic services.  With only 13 grocery stores reservation-wide, food scarcity and lack of fresh foods have led to worsening food insecurity and increased health and medical issues.
 
Education has also been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  With no internet access, the type of distance learning Breck has implemented is impossible, and the reservation students’ school year has come to an abrupt halt.
 
While she was teaching in Washington, DC, Ms. Pearson got to know a Navajo family:  Faith Roessel and her sons Carl, Aaron, and Sam.  All three sons attended the school where she taught, and they organized an annual trip for students to the reservation in Arizona and New Mexico. 
 
“As soon as I heard about the COVID-19 outbreak, I reached out to Faith to offer support,” says Ms. Pearson.  “Faith’s response: ‘We have always known there is inequity.  This outbreak is exposing the canyons of inequity.’" 
 
Ms. Peterson and her students discussed the devastating effects of the pandemic on the reservation, and they were even able to have a Zoom call with a Navajo family to hear about how communities have been affected.  
 
“I thought it was important that they heard firsthand from members of the Navajo Nation who are able to describe the challenges and hardships that have been exacerbated by the outbreak.  From there, we have been in regular communication with our contacts out on Navajo to ensure the academic resources we are compiling and the donations we are collecting meet the needs of the communities where they will be distributed,” she reveals.
 
To offer support to students whose access to education is at an essential standstill, Ms. Pearson’s Advanced Placement U.S. History students have designed culturally-appropriate activities and lesson plans that will be distributed to elementary and middle school-aged students in the communities of Round Rock, Rough Rock, Red Mesa, Lukachukai and Tsaile/Wheatfields. Utilizing the lunch distribution site that has been established at the local public school, the activities developed by Breck students will be handed out directly to students whose education has been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

From there, the Breck community has taken this project and run with it.  Mustangs Elise Penn ’22 and Nicole Blake ’22 stepped up to spearhead the effort.
 
“After taking U.S. history this year, I learned a lot about the darker side of America, including our long and horrible history of inflicting harm on Native Americans, and how much our past has affected Native communities to this day,” notes Elise. “I felt that it was my social responsibility, coming from a place of privilege, to use the resources I have to benefit a community in need.”
 
“Many of these injustices are still prevalent during this pandemic as the Navajo Nation is one of the hardest-hit groups and has not had proper relief nor funding from our government,” adds Nicole.  “With so much inequity occurring during this pandemic, I didn't want to let my privileges and opportunities at Breck just go to waste, when there are thousands of Navajo students stuck at home with little to no supplies nor resources for a proper education.”

Elise and Nicole’s work truly embodies Breck’s commitment to fostering a sense of social responsibility among students.
 
“I’ve learned that all it takes to make a difference is empathy and action,” says Elise.  “I never imagined that the drive would evolve into something this large. I think that a lot of people want to help, but they just don't know where to start.  As soon as I began to get a grasp of the challenges that the kids are facing on the reservation, I became motivated to initiate this project.  I really hope that this drive inspires other people to push themselves from the familiar so that they can find a cause they are passionate about and make a difference.” 
 
“This project has allowed me to combine my drive to do well in my classes and my passion for helping others,” adds Nicole.  “Not only has this project taught me about the struggles the Navajo are facing during this time, but it also reminded me how much I have to offer in an attempt to mitigate the disparity that COVID-19 has imposed upon many of the children in the Navajo Nation.”
 
“My students came up with the idea to also do a school supply drive for the Navajo youth,” concludes Ms. Pearson.  “They are even writing notes in a pen pal program.  The ingenuity and generosity of Breck’s community members has been overwhelming and inspiring.”  
 
We couldn’t be prouder of our Mustangs!
 
How You Can Help

Breck community members who wish to make a donation may drop off items at the following locations on Sunday, May 31, from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm:

11450 Aspen Way, Hopkins, MN 55305
3532 Girard Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55408 
16921 Hampton Ct, Minnetonka MN 55345
9728 Laforet Dr, Eden Prairie, MN 55347
 
Requested items:  New or gently used school supplies and backpacks, books (K-8th grade), personal protection equipment (PPE), and cleaning supplies. 
 
 

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