Monday, November 18, 2013

Ruth Roessel - Navajo teacher and author

As a teacher and author, Ruth Roessel played an influential role in the lives of several generations of Navajo students. Drawing on her experiences in the limitations of the education system that removed native children from their culture and yet left them unprepared for careers after college, she worked hard to improve and revise the educational opportunities for her community, stressing the importance of including native stories and cultural values.
"Our past is our strength, and our future is uncertain unless we have our roots in our traditions. I believe that we need to follow the path given to us by the Holy People and try to raise our children in similar ways."
Ruth Roessel. Photo source: KUED

Ruth Roessel was born in Rough Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation, April 15, 1934. Her father, Ashi'ii, medicine man, and mother Hasbah made sure Ruth and her ten sisters and brothers grew up with traditional Navajo values, practices, and crafts. At the age of five she had already learned how to weave. When she was eleven, she was responsible for the care of two hundred sheep in her family's herd.&
As a child Roessel also learned to build a corral, chop wood, and construct a hogan, the traditional Navajo dwelling. Through this hard work, Roessel later recalled, she "was learning to become a Navajo woman." She was also taught how to be a good Navajo by elders through their retelling of the ancient tribal tales of Changing Woman, Monster Slayer, and other mythic beings. According to Roessel, "I felt that my education really started when I began to hear and learn these Navajo stories."
A to Z of Native American Women)
In 1942, she began attending the the Lukachukai Day School. Five years later, she was sent to the Fort Winegate Boarding School in New Mexico, the only high school open to native girls at the time.. The policy at the school was to force the students to turn their back on their cultural heritage and to assimilate to the expectations of white culture. Homesick and trying to adjust to the new surroundings, food, and expectations, she studied hard and earned a vocational education in home economics.
Roessel has explained that after arriving there she felt as thought she "had gone to a new country or at least to some place far, far away."
A to Z of Native American Women)
Ruth Roessel give the keynote address at Diné College's 2009 commencement. Photo source: Navajo Times

The school gave her an aptitude test that indicated that she would be ideally suited for a career as a waitress. Roessel wanted to do more with her life, and maybe find a way to give back to her community. She applied to college, but was rejected because her boarding school education wasn't considered adequate. Angry, she reached out to friends and people in positions of power who finally helped her to gain admittance to Arizona State College in Flagstaff. There she earned a bachelor's and master's degree in elementary education.
In addition to raising a family with her husband, Robert Roessel, Jr., Ruth Roessel has taught at many educational institutions on the Navajo reservation and served as the principal of the Round Rock Elementary School. She has also been an instructor at the Navajo Community College, which in 1968 became the first tribally controlled school to offer a two-year associate's degree. In the early 1970s, she was the director of the college's Navajo and American Indian Studies Program. Throughout her teaching career, Roessel has been an advocate for bilingual and bicultural education for Indian students. As she has explained, "I grew up with parents and family who were Navajo, who were proud of it and who taught me... That is what we must do [for children] at home and at school if we wish to remain strong Navajos."
A to Z of Native American Women)
Ruth Roessel standing in front of a Navajo Rug. Photo source:

In addition to her work in schools, she has also written several books showing Navajo history from a Navajo perspective. Her works cover a wide range of topics including collections of personal accounts of tragic events in Navajo history, as well as taking a closer look at historic events and Navajo culture.
Navajo Stories of the Long Walk Period (1973) focuses on the U.S. Army's forced relocation of more than eight thousand Navajos to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, in 1863. Navajo Livestock Reduction: A National Disgrace (1974) tells the story of the U.S.government's slaughter of Navajo sheep herds to prevent overgrazing during the 1930s. Roessel also has compiled Stories of Traditional Navajo Life and Culture (1976) and written Women in Navajo Society (1981), which combines historical essays and her own remembrances of growing up as a Navajo.
A to Z of Native American Women)
She did not simply focus her attention on the Navajo children, but also worked to improve the whole community. She started a medicine person training program. She and her husband ran summer workshops addressing issues in the Navajo community -- alcoholism, jealousy and native medicine. She was involved in a number of women's advocacy projects. She served as the Navajo Women's Association president, was a charter member and state president of the North American Indian Women's Association, and Arizona Women in Higher Education. In 1980 she was named Navajo Woman of the Year.

More reading:

A to Z of Native American Women, by Liz Sonneborn
Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, by Gretchen M. Bataille and Laurie Lisa
Native News Network: Ruth Roessel Obit
ipl2: Native American Authors: Ruth Roessel's Bibliography
The Denver Post: Ruth Roessel Obit
Navajo Times Ruth Roessel Obit


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