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Making connections.

A unique exchange program pairs up native students from opposite sides of the globe.

Gathered in the cool Siberian forest, a group of Navajo students watch as Yakov Tarlin, a Russian in his late twenties, takes aim at the trunk of a tall pine tree with a wallet twice his size. The heavy "trunk" produces a shower of fist-sized cones. Peeling one, Yakov holds out a handful of nuts and proclaims, "Shishka," to the circle of attentive faces. Although the Navajo are half a world away from their home in southeastern Utah, one of them cries out, "Pinyons! Those are pinyon nuts."

Who would have guessed that pine nuts--just like the pinyon pine nuts found in the Four Corners region of Utah--grew in Kazym, a small village in northwestern Siberia? Certainly not Lanetta John, a senior at Monument Valley High School and one of the eight Navajo students who recently returned from a six-week visit to Kazym. "They tasted just like our opinyons," Lanetta says. "When I saw them, I thought, `I'm going to go hungry.'"

As the first participants in a unique exchange program that pairs up students from the United States and Russia, these Navajo--along with their chaperon, Clayton Long, himself a Navajo and the director of bilingual education for the San Juan School District in southeastern Utah--set out to learn firsthand about indigenous people on the opposite side of the globe. This exchange program, sponsored in part by the American Council of Teachers of Russian, was conceived official Yuri Gromyko and the director of federal programs for the San Juan School District, Toni Turk, were looking for ways to improve bilingual education.

Following the Navajo's visit to Siberia, a dozen mostly native students from Kazym traveled to Utah. According to the principal of Kazym's school, Olga Kravchenko, the payoff for the program is a matter of self-esteem. "By comparing cultures these students can then answer the question, Who am I?"

At a glance, Kazym and Utah's share of the arid Navajo Nation might seem as different from one another as any two communities could be. Just two hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, Kazym is surrounded by taiga forests, lakes, and rivers. It is so soggy there that hip waders are standard decor in every foyer, and it is so cold in the winter that firewood is stacked hat high in every yard. But life in Kazym--as it is among the Navajo--is enriched by traditions and spoken words that have been passed down from generation to generation. This is because many of the village's fifteen hundred residents are Khanty (pronounced han-tee). An indigenous people who have lived in this remote corner of Asiatic Russia for thousands of years, the Khanty have survived by hunting, fishing, and herding reindeer.

Immediately upon their arrival in Kazym, the Navajo students felt right at home, both because of the graciousness of their hosts and the similarities they discovered between their lives. Certainly it was the Khanty people's relationship with their natural environment that most impressed the Navajo. Taken on several overnight excursions to a cabin in the forest, they learned firsthand about the bounty of the Siberian countryside, reveling especially in the multitude of berries available for the picking along forest trails. "Going to the cabin, you could eat anything along the way," says Allison Cly, also a senior at Monument Valley High School.

Darlena Mustache, a student at San Juan High School in Blanding, Utah, recalls another food source that was quite plentiful and important to Siberians. They had gone on a fishing expedition on the Kazym River, and the day's catch was filleted, salted, and served up raw with generous helpings of bread, cheese, cookies, and tea. Grimacing, Darlena confesses, "I ate the raw fish because it was offered to me. It wasn't too good--it was slimy and real salty. I liked the fish fried, though." Because Navajo live in a desert environment, most of the students had never tried fish before visiting Kazym.

In general, however, the Khanty people's knowledge of nature and reliance on it provided a sense of connection for the Navajo students. The same held true for other aspects of traditional culture. Clan relationships, for example, was the topic of much discussion, as was the symbolism and careful handiwork that both peoples invest in their artistry. And, as Olivia Holiday, a classmate of Lanetta's and Allison's, remembers, both cultures still look upon their elders with respect and reverence. According to Olivia, "The old ladies in Kazym still wear their traditional clothes and their colorful scarves, just like Navajo women."

Similarities between the Navajo and Khanty cultures were many, yet there were some differences as well. The most striking arose during a visit to a living museum. While describing a traditional Khanty home, the guide unveiled an altar upon which sat a bear pelt and head. Whereas the Khanty people respect this lord of the forest and solicit its powers, to Navajo these creatures are taboo, "I was scared of it," says Lanetta. "There are a lot of legends about bears that prohibit us from going near them. I didn't even want to go on that side of the room."

If anything, discovering that the Navajo and Khanty cultures have different ways of showing respect for bears only strengthened the students' conclusion that this exchange trip had achieved its intended goal. "I didn't think about my past until I went to Siberia," says Allison. "You compare them to us, and then you think about it more." Darlena agrees that the trip expanded her horizons as well. "I learned more about their culture than I knew about my own," she admits. "Now I ask my parents about ours." For Allison, Darlena, and the other Navajo students who traveled to Kazym, the answer to the question, Who am I? is today a lot clearer.
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Title Annotation:exchange program between Navajo and Siberian students
Author:Warren, Scott S.
Publication:World and I
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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