It is a Thursday evening in May in the Hopi village of Moenkopi, at the home of Laura Dashee and her sister, Delores Seckletstewa. Tonight their house is full to bursting with college students.
The young people lounge in the living room, filling every inch of couch and chair. They flow over into the kitchen. They lean against the walls to wait for dinner, sniffing hominy stew as it bubbles on the stove.They wonder aloud if the stew is made of mutton - and are relieved to learn it's beef. They remind each other that hominy is merely corn.
The students - from Westminster College in Salt Lake City - are majoring in education, premed or nursing. They are spending two weeks in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, visiting the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations. They'll get four semester hours of credit for this trip.
To an outsider, their class looks like fun. The course has many vacation-like aspects - including river rafting and visits to archeological sites.
But this is school. The syllabus shows they had 12 hours in class before the trip. Then students are required to read, observe, take notes, and have discussions for 120 hours while they are on the road. They'll have lectures from a medicine man, a tribal leader, a principal, and teachers and nurses.
Today, the premed students went with home nurses to the far reaches of the reservation. The education students spent the day working in local schools. All the students keep journals, which will make up 35 percent of their grade.
Next week they will visit hospitals and schools on the Navajo reservation. When they are finished, the education students will turn in lesson plans and the nursing students will turn in a paper on some aspect of reservation medicine.
Their professors call this "experiential learning." Firsthand experience with another culture increases understanding, they believe. Understanding makes students better able to teach, or to heal.
Nursing professor Marsha Morton has been taking her students to the reservation for 10 years, ever since she and Laura Mae Dashee became friends. This year, for the first time, she is joined by education students and two faculty members from the education department - Carolyn Kuehne and Janet Dynak.
The group arrived in Moenkopi on Sunday afternoon, as a kachina dance was beginning in the town plaza. It was their introduction. The students watched the festivities and met their teacher's Hopi friends.
For this first part of their trip, the Westminster students are staying at a motel in nearby Tuba City. But each evening, Dashee and Seckletstewa welcome them into their small stone house and feed them dinner. The students are also invited to watch while the women make pottery.
The young people seem to appreciate having a place to gather. Every evening they flop on the couch, play with Dashee's dogs, tease each other and unwind. They are especially appreciative tonight, of all nights. It is the last episode of Seinfeld. They want to watch the last episode together.
This turns out to be fine with their hostesses. Here's a cross-cultural coincidence: Seinfeld happens to be the sisters' favorite TV show, too.
Morton thinks the students were surprised at how much modern stuff there is on the reservation. Teenagers munch Twinkies in the halls at school. Plastic bags litter the side of the roads. Having read the students' journals, Morton thinks some of them romanticized the reservation, before they saw it.
Education student Andy Wolfe says he certainly thought he'd see more people living off the land. And though the Navajos and Hopis he met may have had different values and perceptions, in many ways they live like he does. Hold down jobs. Plant and harvest and perform ceremonies only on weekends.
Dashee and Secklewstewa figured heavily in most of the student journals, says Morton. Seinfeld aside, these women are fairly traditional. When they make pots, they dig their own clay. They use their own hair for paint brushes. They make their piki bread of blue corn and ashes and cook it on a hot stone.
Being in their home gave students a sense of the home life of the students they met in the classrooms and the patients they saw in the hospitals. Being in their home gave the students a chance to practice what they'd been taught before they left Westminster.
The way to approach another culture is to listen, their instructors said. Listen. Don't rush to judgment. Listen and watch.
Before they came on the trip, everyone read essays written by Navajo and Hopi people. They learned about clan relationships, tribal history and religion. The nursing students also read studies from medical journals, studies about blending Western and native medicine to better care for Indian patients.
The education students read a textbook. "Nurturing Learning in Native American Students" was written by an Anglo who taught on these reservations. As the students worked in various classrooms, they watched closely and tested the premise of the book: that Indian children learn differently. They don't ask questions, are not competitive, learn more by doing than by reading.
Wolfe says he found the noncompetitive part to be true. Moenkopi kids don't seem as impressed by brand name tennis shoes as Salt Lake kids are, he says.
Meanwhile, the premed students, too, were observing differences. Jamie Heers said she had read that Navajos have different values about time and ap-point-ments. She didn't realize what that meant until she rode along with a nurse. They drove for two hours to a far-away hogan, only to find that the man who had the appointment for a diabetes checkup wasn't home.
The nurse, who was Anglo, said he probably had a chance for a ride into town. So he took the ride. And the nurse understood, says Heers.
Nursing student Noelle Skilton gained a certain insight on her first night on the reservation, at the kachina dance. She watched as kachinas gave out their gifts. Everyone got something - a treat, some candy. But some people, many of them elderly, got a special pot of gifts. "Because the families are so close, they knew who really needed the help," says Skilton."In our culture, we barely talk to our neighbors, much less know who's really hurting."
When she read the students' journals, Carolyn Kuehne looked for changes in attitudes. Change is what shows her that the students were learning, growing.
She found some changes, she said. She found students who were ready to be surprised. ("They were not expecting the Navajo students to be so friendly and open.") She saw students appreciate clan and family relationships more as they saw them in action.
She says, "I guess we were hoping the students would not just keep a travelogue but would engage in critical thinking."
This fall, she will be teaching a class on how to reach pupils from other cultures. It is kind of daunting, she says, to think how much more meaningful the experience could be if she could take them to the res-er-va-tion for two weeks. Instead, they will do the readings and watch the videos and hear some lectures.
One of the truths they will hear on the video about Hopi culture is this: "In the Hopi belief, if you want to teach someone your history, you plant the story. You feed them corn." You invite them in for hominy. Then they learn.