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.