St. Michael Indian School Leads With Catholic Faith, Navajo Culture in Educational Excellence
The school founded by St. Katharine Drexel provides a potential model as the US bishops ponder a comprehensive pastoral plan for Native American Catholics.
ST. MICHAELS, Ariz. — Could a Catholic school founded by a saint, Franciscan friars and Navajo elders provide a renewed vision for Catholic education among Native Americans?
As the U.S. bishops ponder a comprehensive pastoral plan, St. Michael Indian School in Arizona is showing how Catholic educational excellence can make a profound difference in Native American communities by fully embracing both Catholic and Native identity.
Founded in 1902, St. Michael Indian School is a Pre-K to 12th grade Catholic school whose campus borders the Navajo Nation. And it is exploring the groundwork with Xavier University of Louisiana, also founded by St. Katharine Drexel, for the first Native American Catholic university on its sprawling 463-acre campus.
“There are a lot of leaders and professionals that come out of the school,” Derrick Terry, a St. Michael’s alumnus, told the Register. Terry and his wife, Reynalda, graduated with St. Michael’s Class of ’93, went onto higher education and work at the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, where Derrick is a renewable energy specialist and Reynalda is a chemist.
Derrick said his experience at St. Michael’s helped give him much-needed direction in life, when he was taught by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
“They realized you had more potential than you know,” he said.
Reynalda said St. Michael’s introduced her to the Catholic faith and showed how it was beautifully compatible with traditional Navajo spirituality.
The Navajo Catholic husband and wife send all five of their children to St. Michael’s, where they benefit from the school’s Catholic educational excellence, secure environment and commitment to Navajo (Diné) language, culture and identity. They said the school is also accountable and transparent with parents in its decisions.
And 98% of graduates are college-bound. The Terrys are looking forward to their second oldest daughter graduating this year. Their oldest daughter graduated in 2018 and is attending university in state to graduate this year.
“Students have an opportunity to attend a Catholic school that really embraces their culture, as well as the Catholic faith,” St. Michael’s president, Dot Teso, told the Register. “Here, it’s blended together very nicely.”
Teso said St. Michael’s has renewed and increased its commitment to carry on the founding vision of St. Katharine that Catholic education should both teach the Catholic faith and embrace Native American cultures.
The school teaches Navajo language and culture, starting at the pre-K level and going into high school. The school Masses include Navajo language and also a Four Directions prayer approved for Catholic worship.
The school’s commitment increased as COVID-19 had a devastating effect on Navajo elders, who still spoke Navajo, the language that transmits much of their culture, stories and knowledge.
“People are extremely concerned about kids understanding the language and carrying it on,” Teso said.
Teso said they replaced their Spanish I and Spanish II requirements with Navajo I and Navajo II, to support their students practicing the language and speaking it at home and with their elders.
“The school has expanded efforts of language revitalization. Now we’ve seen Navajo language normalized with daily use among students and for families to expect that from our school,” Renee Tsinnie, Director of Advancement, told the Register.
The school’s increasing efforts on Navajo language learning is actually a vital tool to saving lives and healing families wounded by intergenerational trauma from the U.S. government’s efforts to assimilate Native families, which had the negative result of depriving them of their Native identity. According to a 2007 preliminary study by the University of British Columbia (UBC) of 150 Indigenous communities in British Columbia, Canada, youth suicides dropped to near zero in communities where more than half the people could converse in their Indigenous language; but Indigenous communities in which less than half the members spoke their own language saw six times the suicide rate.
St. Michael’s has many alumni working as staff and teachers who return to the school because they believe in its Catholic mission and Navajo expression.
“Navajo identity has been here for a long time,” said Navajo government and language teacher Jan-Mikael Patterson. And he said the school is finding different ways to explore their Navajo identity fully. Besides teaching Navajo government, culture and language, Patterson introduces his students to different Native American customs and traditions, like the Shalako dance of the Zuni Pueblo or the stories of the Lakota.
A Navajo and Catholic Vision
Teso said every decision she has undertaken with her staff begins with an intense period of prayer. Teso said she believes St. Michael’s has succeeded because it has renewed its mission as St. Katharine Drexel intended, by fully teaching the Catholic faith and deepening their Navajo identity.
One major change was that the school discontinued the practice of hiring teachers from programs where the teacher would teach a year in order to get their master’s degree. Teso said Navajo youth needed permanent teachers at the school, as role models and mentors, just like every other Catholic student.
Patterson agreed, saying it was painful for him and other students to see temporary teachers, particularly those they bonded with, come and go every year. He is grateful for the opportunity to be a stable presence in the lives of St. Michael’s youth.
Under Teso’s leadership, today all but four of St. Michael’s staff are Navajo. And Navajo parents like the Terrys say the decision to hire Navajo means their children have “the role models of the community” right there to inspire them to excel in school.
“It gives a new perspective to those kids,” Derrick said.
Teso said the school’s commitment to the fullness of Catholic faith and fullness of Navajo identity has allowed the school to thrive, while other Catholic schools that did not prioritize teaching the Catholic faith and Native culture in harmony have closed their doors. Teso said the St. Michael’s approach has had an evangelizing effect on their students and staff. Over the past 10 years, the school’s Catholic population rose from a third of the school population to more than 60% of their 360 students and families. On average 13 to15 students and staff join the Catholic faith annually, Teso said, a statistic she said rivals most parishes.
A Catholic Legacy of Trust and Respect
St. Michael’s students bus into the school back and forth from all over the Navajo Nation, a considerable distance, given the territory is on par with West Virginia. Modern transportation allows the school to serve their families in line with St. Katharine’s intent that Catholic education should be at the service of parents and not deliberately separate them from their children. The COVID-19 pandemic became an opportunity for the school to invest in new technology, and some students continue to do remote learning.
“St. Katharine thought it was an injustice not to educate children in their homeland, in the very neighborhoods, with their families, where they should be,” Teso said.
St. Katharine’s vision for Catholic education is consistent with the original vision of Catholic evangelization in North America and makes her remembered differently among the Navajo. Armed with her vast inheritance, and with the consent of Navajo head men, St. Katharine placed St. Michael Indian School right next to the Navajo reservation. She spoke personally with Navajo parents about Catholic education and invited them to send their children there to be taught by her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. While the school was originally set up as a boarding school, given the extensive size of the reservation, St. Katharine also welcomed Navajo parents to set up temporary residence on the school property to stay close to their children.
Teso said St. Katharine also made a point of having children continue traditional Navajo cultural practices, like weaving blankets. And she found partners in Franciscan friars who immersed themselves in the Navajo language and culture in order to minister effectively and provide the sacraments.
However, St. Katharine’s respect for Native parents made her enemies among Catholic bishops and religious who thought the Church should cooperate with the U.S. government’s push (from the late 19th to late 20th centuries) to coercively take children from their families and place them far-away in residential schools to deprive them of their language, culture and identity.
“They fought her tooth and nail,” Teso said. History has vindicated St. Katharine Drexel; and the Catholic Church today is coming to grips with the trauma and scandal of the residential-school period.
Patterson said Navajo historical trauma from this period is real, but he believes St. Katharine is one of those who “treated us like human beings.”
“She didn’t want to separate the families. She just wanted the people here to get a quality education,” he said.
Toward a New Catholic University
Teso said Xavier University of Louisiana, today the nation’s only historically Black Catholic university, is working with St. Michael Indian School to investigate building “the first Catholic, American Indian university in the country, probably in the world, on St. Michael's campus.”
Teso said when the saint purchased the land for St. Michael’s, St. Katharine likely intended the Navajo Catholic school to grow on the same trajectory as Xavier University, which began as a high school and then turned into a university 10 years later.
St. Michael’s grew into a high school in 1946, but St. Katharine died in 1955 before a university was realized. With her death, the saint’s fortune that funded her evangelization instead reverted to other charitable enterprises, as directed by her father’s will. “Nobody would have imagined that she would buy that much land if she had not intended the same outcome for St. Michael Indian School,” Teso said.
As the educational mission of St. Michael Indian School expands, Teso said, the school continues to see success by adhering to St. Katharine Drexel’s vision.
“We need to meet them where they are, minister to them, and educate them where they are,” she said. “That’s what God is calling us to.”
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