Tribal Voices Speak Through Arts Lessons

Magazine Issue
Spring 2021


The BYU ARTS Partnership’s Native American Curriculum Initiative Provides Tribe-Approved Ways to Explore Indigenous Cultures

One of the most powerful ideals of the Navajo Nation is hózhǫ́ , a way of living in which one is ordered, in balance, and “walking in beauty.” 

The spirit of hózhó also guides the Native American Curriculum Initiative of the BYU ARTS Partnership. The initiative’s lessons amplify tribal voices and meet teachers’ needs for meaningful, culturally accurate materials. Check them out! 

“We were propelled into it by teachers and their desire to make sure they were being culturally responsible,” said the initiative’s coordinator, Brenda Beyal, who is herself Diné, or Navajo. “That’s what made us decide to go to the tribes.” 

Talk to the Tribes and the Teachers 

While its partnership with the Utah Division of Arts and Museums is essential, the initiative’s foundation is the eight tribal nations of the Ute, Paiute, Goshute, Shoshone, and Diné. 

“We just ask, what would you like people to know?” Beyal said. “We are giving power back and a bit of reconciliation.” 

Even well-intentioned teachers can make mistakes, she said. For example, schools have performed the Bear Dance, which should be performed only by Utes. 

“We felt it was important to get that seal of approval from a tribe that said, ‘We like this lesson. This is what we want,’” she said. The initiative also respects the needs of teachers, many of whom want to amplify indigenous voices in class but aren’t sure how best to do it. 

“We don’t consider ourselves the police; we want to share what we learn so teachers feel confident,” Beyal said. “We give enough background information that, however teachers adapt it, they are still being true to what the tribe wants.” 

Put in the Work and “Honor the No” 

The Diné wanted children to learn about hózhǫ́ and the tribe’s Long Walk, in which the Diné were forcibly removed from their Four Corners homeland, Dinétah, to a resource-starved reservation hundreds of miles to the east. Thousands of Diné—a quarter of all tribal members—died. Four years later, tribal leaders Barboncito and Manuelito negotiated the people’s return to Dinétah. 

How to make that story an arts lesson? “The wonderful thing about indigenous art is that if you dig beyond the artifact, you are able to learn about the culture,” Beyal said. “They allowed us to share the song ‘Shí naashá’ that helps tell the story.” 

Using the tribe’s ideas, Beyal and her team discuss how best to present a lesson: with music? Drama? Visual arts? They write the lessons. Then it’s the tribe’s turn. 

“We go through line by line with them,” Beyal said. What happens if a tribe doesn’t like part of a lesson? It’s out, Beyal said. No questions asked. 

“One of our guidelines is that we “honor the no.” If a tribe says no, the answer is no,” she said. “That is another thing that surprises tribes: ‘Wow! You’re accepting our no!’ . . . Honoring that no gives us more yeses than we ever thought possible.” 

Make Art a Bridge 

That trust leads to lessons that extend beyond their content to show tribal culture and values. “We’re working on a lesson on tipis,” Beyal said. “In most classrooms, kids make a cone out of paper and draw their own tipi. That misses out on teaching students that a tipi took between 15 to 25 hides and that everyone worked on those hides, from acquiring them to tanning, sewing, and decorating.” 

The initiative’s lesson groups students to make tipis together. This collaboration reflects tribal culture and is a natural part of art making. 

Beyal’s team is working with the Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation, the Paiute Tribe of Utah, the Navajo Nation, and the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, with the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute up next. The initiative also offers professional development and a school assembly featuring both student-created dances and indigenous dances performed by tribal members. 

Balancing education and culture, tribal input and teachers’ needs, as well as history’s wounds and reconciliation’s healing, it is delicate work but, like hózhǫ́ itself, well worth the effort. 

“To have a true partnership, both entities need to be able to glean something,” Beyal said. “We get content approved by the tribes that teachers can feel confident teaching. For the tribes, I hope they feel a sense of reclamation— reclaiming that native voice and bringing it into classrooms.” 

Native American Ruge
Anonymous—North America, Navajo Two Grey Hills Rug, no date, wool, 70 x 48 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of the estate of Harold M. and Mary V. Johnson, 2012.

Shí naashá 

“Shí naashá” expresses the joy of the Diné returning to Dinétah and can be performed by non-Diné. Hey ya hey ney ya marks verse endings and is a vocable— a chanted phrase with no specific meaning.

Shí naashá, shí naashá, shí naashá biké hózhǫ́ lá 
I am going, I am going, I am following the path; 
the way of beauty is around me. 

hey ya hey ney ya 

Ahala ahalágó naashá, ahala ahalágó naashá 
Freedom, I am going in freedom. 
Freedom, I am going in freedom. 

Shí naashá, shí naashá, shí naashá biké hózhǫ́ 
I am going, I am going, I am following the path; 
the way of beauty is around me. 

hey ya hey ney ya 

 

Written by Stacey Kratz

Read Time: 7 minutes