• July 20th, 2024
  • Saturday, 06:09:41 AM

Exceptional Endurance: ‘My Future is on the Line’

Photo: Curtis Ray Benally/Searchlight New Mexico High school student Evan Allen attends online classes in his grandmother’s truck, parked on a remote hill on the Navajo Nation.

Snuggled between tumbleweeds and utility poles, with a view of Ute Mountain through the windshield, high school sophomore Evan Allen placed his school-issued laptop on the center armrest of his grandmother’s truck and switched on his mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. Another school day was about to begin.


Every weekday, not long after the sun rested on the foothills of the Carrizo Mountains in northeastern Arizona, Evan would rise from his foldout bed in his grandmother’s home in T’iis Názbąs, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. At about 7:10 a.m., he’d grab his laptop, his school supplies and, if time allowed, some snacks, and make the 5.5-mile drive to the top of the hill above the local trading post, where a decent internet connection could be found.


Photo: Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico The extended Mariano family (Tammie on right) poses for a photo in their home in Shiprock, New México.

School started at 8, but he made a point to get to the hill early and prepare for his seven classes from the driver’s seat of his másáni’s Chevy. He’d stay in the truck for up to 10 hours, surrounded by dirt roads, parched juniper and desert terrain that stretched beyond the horizon.


Evan, now 16, attended virtual classes from the top of that same hill for more than a year, starting last March, when his school Northwest Middle and High School, in the Navajo (Diné) community of Shiprock, New México, went remote because of the pandemic. His grandmother’s house was in an internet and cellular dead zone, so the hotspot in the truck was his only option.


“It’s exhausting, physically and mentally,” he confessed this spring. “I have to constantly do all this stuff that’s back-to-back, and I don’t have time to rest.”


“I commend him for it because it takes hard work and he’s very committed to his education.”
Letitia Moone


Evan wasn’t alone. Thousands of schoolchildren on the Navajo Nation live without internet access, computers, cellular service or basics like electricity. When the pandemic hit, more than 23,398 Native American students in New México lacked the high-speed internet and devices they needed for remote learning, the state’s Public Education Department concluded. The true figure is significantly higher, since the agency’s calculation didn’t include the thousands of Indigenous students in Bureau of Indian Education schools, Albuquerque Public Schools and others.


Students had to drive or be driven miles from home in search of a Wi-Fi connection. They sat in vehicles, for hours on end, on land fought for by their ancestors, drawing on their resilience.


A day in the life


A typical morning for Evan began with music class, and he sometimes moved his laptop to the tailgate of the truck and played his percussion instruments: concert snare, marching snare, mallets, bass drum.


After band he did work for his “career exploration” course. Then it was on to Navajo language and, finally, biology, with a five-minute break between classes.


He got just 45 minutes for lunch, so he usually stayed on the hill and ate the food he packed or bought something at the Teec Nos Pos Trading Post, a small general store in the Four Corners area, near the intersection of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah.


“I usually wait up there because coming back down here and going back up, I don’t have much time.”


After lunch came English, and then the class Evan looked forward to least — Integrated Math 2, followed by history. The final class let out at 3:30 p.m. But because he didn’t have internet access at home, he sometimes remained parked on the hill until 6 or 6:30, doing homework.


In the winter, he sat in the truck wrapped in a heavy wool blanket, hoping the cold weather didn’t cause an internet outage. The Chevy got stuck in the snow and mud once, prompting him to find a backup spot for bad weather.


During the monsoon seasons, in July and August, internet access was even spottier. Evan often had such a poor connection that he couldn’t log on. Even when he described the situation, some teachers insisted on counting him absent, he said.


“They just say, ‘Yeah, the weather’s bad but it’s your responsibility to be here, and that’s up to you.’ It’s frustrating because they don’t understand that some students actually want to be there, but it’s what they have that’s not working — the hotspot’s not connecting, or the internet is slow,” he said. “They just blame you.”


Initially, Evan’s school offered him a hotspot for internet access. But the device didn’t work in the house, so his mother, Letitia Moone, asked the school for help. She received little or none.


“They were just like, ‘Keep trying, do what you’re doing.’ They’d tell Evan he’s doing a good job, and that was it.” The school did give Evan a different hotspot, saying the new one would work better. “It didn’t,” Moone said.


Evan’s school performance began to suffer. One teacher emailed Moone saying he was logging in late and struggling to get homework turned in. Moone, though she couldn’t afford it, started shopping for their own hotspot. She called every internet provider on and near the reservation: They all told her she lived in a dead zone. She eventually did buy a device, but it only worked on the top of the hill.


Problems with internet access on the Navajo Nation were not new — government agencies had documented them for more than 15 years — but the situation was vastly exacerbated when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and all schools switched to remote learning.


Disconnection times nine

Shiprock residents Tammie and Clifton Mariano have 10 children at home, nine of whom attend three different schools in the Four Corners area of the Navajo Nation.


“At first, we were going to McDonald’s and KFC,” to find a good connection, Tammie said. But the Navajo Nation soon launched one of the strictest lockdowns in the country, with curfews and rigid travel restrictions.


Getting online became nearly impossible. “We used our phone hotspot and we tried to turn in assignments, but they wouldn’t go through,” she said.


Atsá Biyáázh offered a hotspot, but it didn’t work. The couple eventually decided to invest in internet installation, which took weeks and cost about $500; even then, the service was poor.


Packets and empty pockets


School staff and teachers, for their part, described difficult work environments that made it impossible to help students. Some had to make their own homework packets and pay for copies out of their own pockets. (Searchlight New Mexico contacted nearly a dozen staffers and teachers, but none wanted to go on the record, fearing retaliation and loss of employment.)


Like students, many teachers had no broadband at home and had to drive for miles to get internet access. Some used personal laptops and bought cameras with their own money, just to be able to teach their classes from a parking lot in Shiprock.


Gary Montoya, school board president for the Central Consolidated School District, saw still other crises. He traveled the dirt and washboard roads in the Four Corners region, off and on the Navajo Nation, to deliver homework packets to students, accompanied by his wife, Karla Aspaas-Montoya, a teacher in the district.


“There were weeks and days where we were driving 60 miles round trip to deliver to these kids and check on them,” Montoya said.


The sprawling district — spanning nearly 3,000 square miles — serves more than 5,700 students. At the start of the pandemic, it couldn’t possibly provide laptops for all of them, due to a national shortage and lack of funding.


Montoya said at one point he realized that the best he and his wife could do to help was to deliver packets and try to stay in touch with families that needed it.


“It would be nice if in a perfect world every child had a MacBook, a Chromebook, had Wi-Fi and running water,” he said.


Driven to succeed


Still, in pickup trucks on hillsides, students have also shown enormous resiliency.


Evan’s mother said she saw it in her son every day. He and countless children like him chose to keep trying, keep driving up the hill, keep parking at trading posts, keep sitting outside their local chapter houses, keep logging on.


“I commend him for it because it takes hard work and he’s very committed to his education,” Moone said recently, fighting back tears. Evan had finished the spring term and officially become a high school junior. He is determined to forge a better life for himself, his mother said.


The fall semester starts in August. Evan doesn’t know yet whether he’ll be in a classroom or in a truck on the hill. But he’ll be there.


Because for Evan, the risk in giving up is far greater for a reservation student learning out of his grandmother’s truck in the middle of the desert.


“My future is on the line,” he said. “If I don’t do this, then there’s nothing for me at all.”



Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi is a contributing writer at Searchlight and a member of the Navajo Nation. This story was produced with support from the Doris O’Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship, awarded by the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pa. Searchlight New Mexico is a non-partisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.


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