If you drive onto the Navajo Reservation, and visit any town, or small village, or even just some nameless congregation of hogons, you’ll always find a rodeo arena. In the lesser places, it’s just a small enclosure, fenced in with juniper poles. The larger villages have a more elaborate facility, built with rough-sawn timber, with a rough chute for launching bronc and rider. In towns large enough to merit a stop sign or two, the rodeo arena is a serious affair, with chutes, stands, public address system, and snack bar. Rodeo is the ‘national pastime’ of the Navajo People.In the fall of 1982, my first semester as a teacher in Navajoland, I quickly identified a central problem of my program, which was that many students simply didn’t come to class. By the fourth week of the semester, attendance was down to 20%, at best. I’d only met some students once, on registration day, and had never seen them since.
Some of the most recalcitrant were rodeo athletes, who felt they had special dispensation to ignore anything that resembled actual education, they being varsity athletes, and all. Many of the rodeo athletes were friendly, and very bright; many were neither. To push these athletes into my classroom, I had some options.
One effective activity was to walk around the campus, collar any miscreants I might run into, and, with chastisements and threats, chase them into class. I’d vary my route, which might take me past the dorms, the cafeteria, or the gym, and find wayward athletes and students in various places, who, upon my approach, would hop over a wall, or disappear around some corner, or suddenly need to be somewhere else.
Of course, there were grades; if the student-athlete failed to maintain a minimum grade-point average, they’d lose eligibility. Via the registrar’s office, I sent numerous warnings and drops notices to my students, with varying success, but for the rodeo athletes, the consequences could be especially dire. So, I would let the team’s head coach know of impending disasters regarding an athlete’s eligibility; that was usually effective, if only for a little while.
The college’s rodeo team competed with the best teams in the country. In preceding years, the rodeo program had produced several national champions. Rodeo had support in high places in the Navajo Nation, where rodeo at all levels is a passion. Most of the young men and women on the team were Navajo, but other tribes as well, and one or two Anglos. Riding on scholarships, traveling around the western states in air conditioned bus, with a fleet of trucks and trailers pulling horses, tack, saddles, etc, these young riders felt like royalty. I liked most of the rodeo athletes in my program, but they were endless trouble.
Some of them were great and interesting people, and I generally enjoyed them, although I always had to goad them into class. Many were energetic, positive, handsome, and often cocky. Likewise, the rodeo ladies were attractive, athletic, and spunky. Some of the team members were quite literate and academically talented, and took an active leadership role in the community of students.
A certain number of the rodeo guys were true primitives, with little or no education, limited reading and writing skills, abysmal math, rough, and prone to fight, in fact no redeeming qualities of any kind, except for the ability to stay on top of a large, murderous, angry bucking animal for eight to ten seconds. Thus qualified, their coaches had them enrolled in our trades program, and in my welding classes. Early on, I developed a strategy for dealing with this bunch, which involved speaking softly, maintaining a clear avenue of retreat, and letting the rodeo team coaches handle any discipline problems that came up.
One morning in mid-October, I arrived and opened up the shop, then waited in vain for students to appear. By midday, it became clear that something was up; the shops were empty. When one of my older students arrived, he told me that this was the week of the All-Indian Pro Rodeo championships in Albuquerque, and that I was unlikely to see most of my students. Resigned to the situation, I made do as best I could.
At first, I saw nothing wrong with our college’s strong support for the rodeo team; after all, I was a graduate of the University of Michigan, where football is almost a religion. I thought, at first, why shouldn’t our students have a sports program to support, and be proud of? But as time went by, I began to see things in a different light. In a period of intense financial stress, when even the most basic institutional functions were hard to sustain, the college administration lavished money and support on the rodeo program. While our academic programs languished, and our infrastructure crumbled, the rodeo team thrived, and seemed to be immune to the general budget turmoil around us.
So, I adopted the attitude that since the rodeo athletes were so generously supported, the least I could do was get them into class, learning some useful skills, even if they only made a minimal effort. Haranguing and threatening had little effect, but dropping, or dis-enrolling, a student-athlete worked wonders.
In order to stay in the dorms, a student had to be carrying a certain minimum number of credits; if a student fell below that threshold, they were asked to move out. This meant that if I dropped a student, they’d have to pack up, get on a bus, and travel back to some remote village in a far corner of the reservation, where there was no electricity or indoor plumbing, no active social life, no girls, and few prospects for the future. You’d think that this prospect would motivate our athletes to keep at least a minimum level of attendance, but that was not the case.
When, after all other communications were ignored, I’d drop a student-athlete, he’d usually show up at my office in a state of furious indignation. We’d come to some agreement, and I’d re-enroll him. The guy might show up for two or three classes, then drift off, and we’d repeat the whole cycle. At the end of the semester, the worst offenders would fail all my classes, effectively ending their career. This would usually generate a heated argument between me and the team coaches. I always threw the problem on the coaches’ shoulders, and washed my hands of the most troublesome cases.
My approach to the truancy problem created a lot of tension between me and some members of our college administration. Since the rodeo team was so high profile, and so strongly supported at the highest levels of our school, and of the Navajo tribal government, my attempts to corral the rodeo athletes, to get them into the classroom, put me at odds with many of the college’s top staff. The whole affair may be seen as culture clash, an incongruence of expectations, and maybe just plain stupidity on my part, but I felt I was doing the right thing at the time, and still do. In any event, the whole constellation of issues surrounding the college rodeo program, and my dealings with it, eventually poisoned the air in some quarters for me, although, at the time, I thought the whole thing hilarious.