Amid the desert mountains and red sandstone formations of northeast Arizona, Elaine Benally leans over an outdoor fire pit to grill mutton and roast tortillas the way her grandmother taught her as a child growing up on the nation's largest American Indian reservation.
She hands warm tortillas, called náneeskaadí in Navajo, to a dozen reservation guests and directs them to fill the flattened bread with meat for a traditional meal of mutton, corn, squash and herbal tea.
"Listen with your hearts," instructs the soft-spoken Benally, 57, administrator for San Juan College's satellite campus in Kirtland, N.M. (pop. 6,190), as her guests sit on camping chairs for an on-site, hands-on lesson on the Navajo people and the values they hold dear—land, life and spirit.
For almost two decades, Benally has brought non-Navajo people onto the Navajo reservation to visit schools, trading posts, tribal offices, historic sites and other indigenous places to help them appreciate and better understand her unique and proud people.
Larger than 10 of the United States 50 states, the Navajo Nation, or Diné Bikéyah, encompasses 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and is home to more than 250,000 American Indians, whose ancestors settled along the Colorado Plateau centuries before Christopher Columbus landed in America.
On this day, Benally is at a former sheep camp and is sharing Navajo traditions with fellow educators from San Juan College's campuses in Farmington, Aztec and Kirtland, N.M., whose classes include many Navajo students. In recent years, she has taken dozens of other college faculty and staff members on similar outings.
"The only way I could get them to understand our students was to take them into the communities our students come from," explains Benally, who lives on reservation land in Upper Fruitland, N.M., with her husband, Buddy.
The cultural immersion experience includes Benally driving guests in a van across the reservation on unpaved, single-lane roads recently washed out by rainstorms. Navajo travel the routes daily, sometimes waiting hours for water to recede so the roads become passable. "You can grasp the frustration a student feels when a teacher doesn't understand why they are late," says Benally, who slowly maneuvers the van over bumpy terrain to keep her passengers as comfortable as possible.
"When I compare this to how I grew up (in Illinois), I can't imagine how the students get an education," says Jack Kant, 59, a business instructor on the trip.
Benally grew up on tribal land in Shiprock, N.M., born to Navajo parents who worked for the U.S. Indian Affairs bureau but did not speak Navajo in their home. She learned the native language and practiced tribal traditions during visits with nearby grandparents, who taught her to grind corn on a milling stone and let her ride horses through knee-high sagebrush on historical Navajo trails.
In 1992, as part of San Juan College's Elderhostel program for nontraditional students, she began taking people onto the reservation to visit geographical sites described by American author Tony Hillerman, who set many of his mystery novels in the Navajo Nation. As she drove her students across the sweeping landscape, shared a Navajo meal or watched a rug weaver at work, Benally gained a deeper appreciation of her own land and people.
"These were everyday activities that I was familiar with, and I didn't realize they were different to other people," she explains.
When the program ended in 2008, she began taking college groups onto the reservation to experience a wider range of Navajo culture. Many who sign up live in towns that border the reservation but have had little knowledge of or direct contact with the Navajo.
"That's pretty powerful when you can take people out and show them the culture," says San Juan County Commissioner Jim Henderson, 77, who was president of San Juan College when Benally launched her first student tours.
"The visits not only have helped non-Navajo better understand their American Indian neighbors, but have laid the foundation for a lot of shy Navajo students from deep on the reservation to make a transition to college," says Vicky Ramakka, 61, a math and science teacher.
"Elaine is the epitome of a cultural bridger," Ramakka says.