A Navajo journalist makes it the hard way


On May 11, after much struggle and sacrifice, I received a master's degree in English.

What that tells me is that if I could run a startup magazine on a zero budget, graduate with distinction and win some journalism awards from a national journalism association along the way, then others can do it, too. But it’s anything but easy.

My mother, Rose Ann Joe, was born sometime around Mother's Day in 1933, 1934 or 1935 -- no one really knows. She grew up on the Navajo Reservation without electricity or running water and was raised in the traditional Navajo way: herding sheep, gathering herbal medicine plants, planting corn, waking up at dawn to pray and taking part in age-old ceremonies. She and my dad, Robert Sr., raised all nine of us in the same way.

Back then, few could write. Unless an official recorded one's birth, it only mattered that you were born. Our parents grew up when most Navajos still hid their children from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The hidden children never received a Western education or even learned to speak English. So, it's ironic that almost all nine of my parents’ children have degrees, including undergraduate, graduate and law degrees. My mother knew that getting a college degree meant a way out of our poverty.

Growing up in a small reservation border town in northeastern Arizona, I was a C-minus student. Mom used to tell people that I barely graduated from Winslow High School in Arizona, and that the family had to hold a ceremony to ensure that I would graduate at all. But I read a lot and somehow made it to the University of Arizona. There, I struggled, but I also founded Red Ink, the first national Native American publication for college students.

After my mother passed on three years ago, I decided to get a master’s degree in English. She would have wanted that. But four weeks into the fall 2006 semester, I also had to take on the job of publishing a monthly, 15,000-circulation publication with no startup money. I couldn’t let it flounder: The Associated Press had just published a story that ran in thousands of national newspapers about the debut of Rez Biz magazine. After my partner quit, it was either fold the magazine or continue alone.

So, while most of my fellow students stressed over assignments, I also had a magazine to run and bills to pay. It's hurtful when you feel that other people hope that you will fail, and people you've trusted turn on you. It helped to recall what my mother used to say to me in Navajo, after I'd been beat up as a kid: ''Tough it out. Harden yourself. They're just making you stronger.''

If running a business under trying circumstances was tough, my classes were another trial. One day, while I was sitting in my graduate research class after staying up and studying all night, I almost got up and walked out the door. ''What am I doing here?'' I thought. A class discussion whizzed over my head. My classmates were citing writers and books I'd never heard of in my life. That wasn’t surprising: My childhood was spent herding sheep during the weekends; summers watching ceremonies being performed under the stars, hauling water for drinking and reading under a kerosene lantern. In their suburban homes, my white counterparts might have been discovering writers like Kurt Vonnegut. Could I ever catch up?

At Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff -- even though the school is jokingly called Native American University because of the sheer number of Native students -- few minority students went into the graduate program in English. I'm the only Native American in many years. Despite the barriers, I was happy to finish with a 3.48 grade-point average, and I was named Outstanding Native American Graduate Student. More important, however, I avoided drowning myself in self-pity.

Maybe it was the support and teachings of my parents, family, spiritual leaders and my adviser that gave me strength and hope. Maybe I gave my all for my mother. Maybe I had already been through the absolute worst when she passed away as I held her in my arms. Maybe it's for all these reasons.

The only thing I know for sure is this: If I hadn't gone through this experience, I never would have known what I was capable of accomplishing, and I would not be a stronger person today. I learned this lesson: You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it. My parents may not have been there on May 11, 2007, but they were there in spirit.

George Joe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is the editor and publisher of Rez biz magazine and lives in Winslow, Arizona.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Jul 12, 2007 11:29 AM

George, congratulations and way to go, guy!

You sound like you could also put some of your writings in a book or at least publish some of them.

dorreen yellow bird, Grand Forks Herald


Jul 12, 2007 11:31 AM

So what did happen between you and Michael Clani, your business partner?

Jul 12, 2007 12:31 PM

Excellent story and writing.  Great story of perseverence and courage.  Mr. Joe's magazine, The Rez-Biz, is truly indicative of his passion to educate and communicate to the Native American people.  He honors his parents in a big way. 

Jul 12, 2007 01:53 PM

Very inspiring!

It's good to see that even with all your struggles you turned it into a win-win situation! We need to hear more stories like this, because our younger generation needs to know about perseverance and hardship. Your family is truly blessed to have you among them and we are blessed to call you one of our own.


Jul 12, 2007 03:50 PM

This is very inspiring. I read Rez Biz online also. And I think it's a great, motivating publication and to think that he does it basically all by himself, right under the nose of better financed Indian publications, and being a full time student to boot! Indian country needs more people like George, not the crabs in the bucket that plauge tribes.

Jul 13, 2007 11:11 AM

Thank you for sharing your story. Your publication does a great job sharing similiar stories of struggles and success in the face of among other things: jealousy. I loved the story on Crabs in the Bucket. Now that was a classic.



Jul 13, 2007 11:19 AM

Such a beautifully written story.........you are an inspiration, George. I am honored to call you my friend. Many blessings to you and your family EE

Jul 13, 2007 11:20 AM


 You are an inspiration to many.  Congratulations on your success. I have read Rez Biz and it is good stuff.  I really enjoy it. 

There is a large gathering regarding the Dook'oo'osliid in Leupp just north of Star School on July 21 & 22, 2007.  I invite you to come to this event.

Thanks for sharing your story.

Jul 13, 2007 11:23 AM

Very inspiring story.  Great job!  You're on your way!!

 Your friend Monica..........

Jul 13, 2007 03:47 PM

Thank you so much for sharing your story and congratulations on earning your Masters!  I was very moved by your story. I am of a different culture but our lives have had a similarity in that I, too, was supported and encouraged by my parents to accomplish anything I put my mind to. My parents were the children of poor Jewish immigrants, born during the Depression.  Neither of them had a college degree but they valued education a lot and wanted to send my sister and me to college.  They saved all their money and we did go to college in the late 1970's. My parents are both gone now but six years ago I decided to go for my PhD. My parents would have loved knowing that I earned it at the University of Arizona just last year. They were not physically present for my graduation day but I know they were there. Best of luck to you, George.

Jul 16, 2007 10:54 AM

Amazing story, congratulations George.  Amazing all your siblings have also received their degrees.  Your mother was a very rare person. 


RHarper Ani yun wiya Nation.

Jul 16, 2007 10:59 AM


I am so inspired with your academic and personal achievements that I showed my grandson this story.  He is part Navajo, Southern Ute and Omaha.  He told me that what you did was "cool and he felt very glad that you didn't give up your goals to please anyone except your Mom!" 

Jul 16, 2007 11:02 AM

Truly refreshing and inspirational, and you embody the can do, will do, spirit of our ancestors.  You knew what had to be done and you did it.  All people can learn from your example.  In fact, even the senior group should read your story, just so that they have motivation to do what they want to without the age factor getting in the way.  Anonymous

Jul 17, 2007 11:10 AM

 It must be the norm for so called friends turning their backs on you in time of need? I personally went through a similar situation when I became disabled and couldn't do my normal job. I did have a small savings to fall back on and started a Native American jewelry biz online. It's been five years since my accident and have had only two friends buy an item from me. Before the accident I had plenty of "friends" that always needed a loan or help with bills. The saying is true, Friends are a dime a dozen, True friends are very rare and sacred!

Jul 18, 2007 11:23 AM


You are the man. Don;t worry about your jealous peers. None of them are as educated as you are, nor do they even speak Dine' like you. Nor can they even write like you. Yeeego! 

Jul 23, 2007 12:11 PM

Way to go, George! Many Winslow High Schools native American students have made it through college with various degrees with struggles and turmoils. I'm proud of you and best of luck with your magazine.

Jul 24, 2007 11:44 AM

I wonder if your white suburban classmates could ever catch up with you! Herding sheep, gathering herbal medicines, hauling drinking water, and watching ceremonies under the stars are all good, and I feel that a lot of the urban malaise that is so common in the US culture has a lot to do with being disconnected from the natural world. In this world of shrinking resources, only someone who has hauled water knows how precious every drop is. I have lived a hard rural life, so I know it's not as romantic as it might seem, but it builds character, just like your mother and my mother said. My parents too, were gone by the time I earned my degree. Our parents gave us something special, the determination to keep going. You have already made a difference. May life keep sharing its blessings with you.