Monday, November 1, 2010

2011 Navajo Oral History Project planning begins

I'm hosting a series of meetings on the Winona State University campus this week (Nov. 3 & 4, 2010) to give students the information they need to decide if they want to participate in this important, valuable, fun and challenging program:

Who: WSU Mass Communication majors, minors, and other interested students

What: 2011 Navajo Oral History project

When: 2 weeks in June 2011

Where: Northern Arizona, on the Navajo Nation

How: Student teams create documentary journalism projects on Navajo elders

Why: Experience, portfolio piece, and 3 credits (transfers to WSU as MCOM 356)

Find out more -- attend one of the Information Meetings THIS WEEK:
Wednesday, Nov. 3, at 4 and 5 p.m.
Thursday, Nov. 4, at 4 and 5 p.m.

Meetings in Phelps 116 - MCOM Reading Room.

For more info:


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Navajo Oral History Premiere at Diné College

Since students from both Diné College and Winona State University worked on the 2010 Navajo Oral History project together, it is fitting to celebrate and premiere the films together, and on both campuses. On Friday, Oct. 8, the documentaries were premiered at WSU in Minnesota, and on Monday, Oct. 11, a reception and premiere event was held at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona.

Six WSU students, a faculty member and two parents of a student flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico, then rented a van and drove to the Navajo Nation. Along the way they stopped at Canyon de Chelly National Monument to see the amazing Spider Rock in the canyon from one of the overlooks.

(Tom Grier, Sawyer Derry, Brianna Klapperich, Jenn Westman, Kelly Sharratt, Robbie Christiano, Al Ruka, Michael Ruka, Annie Ruka; photo by an unnamed tourist, amazingly from Galesville, Wis., who was at Spider Rock at the same time, and offered to take a group photo.)

On Monday, the WSU group drove to the Diné College main campus in Tsaile, Arizona, and again stopped at a couple of the overlook areas above the Canyon Del Muerto branch of Canyon de Chelly.

(Sawyer Derry and Robbie Christiano look down into Canyon Del Muerto)

(Michael Ruka at the Mummy Cave overlook of Canyon Del Muerto)

On the DC campus, the WSU group was a guest in Dr. Miranda Haskie's class on Native Americans in Society and learned quite a bit. The group then had lunch in the Diné College cafeteria or snack shop and bought some souvenirs at the DC Bookstore.

(Sawyer Derry, Michael Ruka, Kelly Sharratt, Robbie Christiano, Brianna Klapperich and Jenn Westman posing with the poster announcing the Navajo Oral History premiere event.)

(Dr. Miranda Haskie leads her Diné College class on Native Americans in Society.)

(WSU guests in Dr. Haskie's class)

(Brianna Klapperich with her Diné College cafeteria lunch)

In the afternoon, the group enjoyed a demonstration by Vernon Haskie, a museum-quality Navajo silversmith (and husband of Diné College faculty member, Miranda Haskie). Vernon and Miranda then led the group up to Buffalo Pass in the Chuska Mountains above Lukachukai, Arizona, for an amazing view of the Navajo Nation on both sides of the mountain.

In the evening, Dr. Haskie and Diné College hosted a reception and premiere at which the 2010 Navajo Oral history films were shown, and the students and elders present shared comments about their role in the productions. It was an emotional evening as the students beamed with pride as people watched their work, and the elders smiled as they saw the films about themselves for the first time.

Each elder received several copies of the films for themselves and their family. Additional copies will be archived at the Navajo Nation Museum, Navajo Nation Library, and at the libraries of Diné College and Winona State University.

On Tuesday morning, Oct. 12, the WSU group headed to the Albuquerque airport, through Window Rock, Arizona, and back home to Minnesota.

Plans are already in the works for the 2011 Navajo Oral History project which will take place over a two-week period in June 2011, again pairing students from Diné College and Winona State University in teams to interview Navajo elders and produce documentaries about their lives. Those interested in participating in the 2011 project should contact either Dr. Miranda Haskie at Diné College or Dr. Tom Grier at Winona State University.

(All photos by Tom Grier, unless otherwise noted.)

2010 Navajo Oral History Films Premiered

Students of Diné College of the Navajo Nation worked collaboratively with students from Winona State University of Winona, Minnesota, during summer 2010 on a series of documentary films focused on the lives of Navajo elders.

This fall, the students celebrated together on both campuses, to honor the elders and premiere the completed films.

From October 7-9, several students from Diné College travelled to Winona with their faculty leader, Dr. Miranda Haskie. While in Minnesota, they spent a couple hours at the Mall of America, then drove the Great River Road along the Mississippi River to enjoy the beauty of the river and the gorgeous fall color.

(Ernestine Sanisya at the Maiden Rock turnout overlooking the Mississippi River.)

(Altyn Burnside reads the legend of The Maiden at the Maiden Rock turnout overlooking the Mississippi River.)

(Miranda Haskie, Altyn Burnside, Shaina Nez, Ernestine Sanisya, Revaline Nez, and Tom Grier; photo by Kaitlyn Haskie)

The Diné College guests sat in on a journalism class at Winona State where they were interviewed about the Oral History project. They also stopped at the WSU Bookstore for some shopping for souvenirs of their trip to Minnesota.

During the day, they enjoyed a quick lunch at the Nelson Cheese Shop in Nelson, Wis., and a snack at the famous Bloedow's bakery in Winona. They also enjoyed the stunning overview of Winona and the Mississippi River valley from Garvin Heights in Winona.

In the evening of Friday, Oct. 8, the students and their families, friends and community members came together to watch the finished video documentaries in a lecture hall at Winona State University. The students each spoke about their involvement in the project and what it has meant to them from an education standpoint, and from the view of preparing for a career after graduation.

(Shaina Nez, Altyn Burnside, Ben Chambers)

(Revaline Nez, Jennifer Westman, Michael Ruka)

(Ernestine Sanisya, Brianna Klapperich, Sawyer Derry)

(Kelly Sharratt, Robbie Christiano)

(The WSU-Diné College Navajo Oral History group; photo by Kaitlyn Haskie)

After the reception, the Diné College group headed back to the Twin Cities where they stayed near the airport to catch an early flight home to Arizona. Along the way, Altyn Burnside stopped at Lake Pepin in Lake City, Minn., to offer a prayer and fill a bottle with Mississippi River water to take home with him.

Plans are already in the works for the 2011 Navajo Oral History project which will take place over a two-week period in June 2011, again pairing students from Diné College and Winona State University in teams to interview Navajo elders and produce documentaries about their lives. Those interested in participating in the 2011 project should contact either Dr. Miranda Haskie at Diné College or Dr. Tom Grier at Winona State University.

(All photos by Tom Grier unless otherwise noted.)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

2010 Navajo Oral History receptions

The life stories of four Navajo elders are featured in student-made documentary films that will be premiered at Winona State University, Winona, Minnesota, on Friday, Oct. 8, and at Diné College, Tsaile, Arizona, on Monday, Oct. 11.

The Winona State reception begins at 5 p.m. in the atrium of the WSU Science Laboratory Center. The Diné College reception begins at 5 p.m. in the Fourth Floor Classroom of the Ned Hatathli Center at Diné College's Tsaile campus.

Six students from Diné College collaborated with seven students from Winona State University to research, interview, photograph and video record Navajo elders over a two-week period in May 2010. The students, participating in the 2010 Navajo Oral History project, wrote, edited and produced documentary films that will be archived at the Navajo Nation Museum and Library. This is the second year of the documentary journalism project.

This year's films feature Andrew Brady, an air force veteran, retired coal miner, and farmer from Shiprock, N. M.; John Kinsel, Sr., a World War II Navajo Code Talker from Lukachukai, Ariz.; Lettie Nave, an educator and community leader from Tsaile; and Marjorie "Grandma" Thomas, an educator, author and fundraiser for a Navajo youth center from Chinle, Ariz.

The documentaries were part of a collaborative project led by Dr. Miranda Haskie of Diné College and Dr. Tom Grier of Winona State University.

Student teams completed service projects for the Navajo elders and interviewed each elder several times. They also interviewed friends, colleagues and family members of the elders and did background research while on the Navajo Nation.

After the premiere event, short versions of the films will be available for viewing on the WSU Mass Communication department's news lab web site:

The premiere will include comments from the faculty and students involved. Several Diné College students will travel to WSU to be present at the Winona reception, and several WSU students will travel to Diné College for the reception there. At the Diné College reception, the featured elders present will also speak about the experience.

Light refreshments will be served before the presentation of the films. The reception and premiere events are free and open to the public.

The students who researched, wrote, edited and produced the documentaries are: from Diné College: Altyn Burnside, Marcus A. Lake, Revaline Nez, Shaina Nez, and Ernestine Sanisya; and from Winona State University: Ben Chambers, Robbie Christiano, Sawyer Derry, Brianna Klapperich, Michael Ruka, Kelly Sharratt, and Jennifer Westman.

For more information, contact Dr. Miranda Haskie (email: or Dr. Tom Grier (email:

Sunday, June 27, 2010

2010 Navajo Oral History projects are nearly finished

We had another class meeting on Friday, June 25, and viewed all the projects. A few of them are done, and a few more need just a little work on the audio track or some tweaking to the edits and transitions.

These students are working hard to create projects focused on the lives and accomplishments of their feature Navajo elders. I know they take their work seriously and being picky and obsessive about getting the stories right. They want the elders to be proud of the work.
I'm proud of all the students.

I've asked them to make their final edits and get the finished versions to me in the next week so I can start the process of mastering the burn discs, then ordering the professionally duplicated versions. Each student will get copies of the DVDs so they can share their hard work with their families and friends. And we'll be placing copies at both the Diné College and Winona State University Libraries. In addition, the pieces will be archived at the Navajo Nation Museum and the Navajo Nation Library.

As soon as we are sure the pieces are complete and in ready-to-publish form, we'll be posting the media-friendly versions on I plan to post links to the finished pieces right here on this blog.

We'll also be planning receptions to premiere the works both in Winona and in Tsaile, Arizona, home of the Diné College main campus. Those receptions will probably happen in September, or perhaps early October.

Thanks for reading and staying interested in this important project.

-- Tom Grier

Friday, June 11, 2010

2nd Drafts - Class Peer Evaluation

Today (Friday, June 11, 2010), was the second class meeting for members of the 2010 Navajo Oral History program. Following our two weeks of work in the field in May, the students have been working on editing their photos and videos and putting them together into documentary projects.

The student teams are creating a Living History feature about a Navajo elder that they interviewed several times. The Living History piece will sum up the highlights of the lives of the elders in about 10-15 minutes.

Each group will also create a shorter-- 3-5 minute-- media piece about their elder. The media pieces are designed to focus on one main highlight or story about the elder, and to be very tightly edited to maintain viewer interest while watching in an on-line video streaming environment.

For today's class meeting, three of the four groups had projects to show in a second draft format. In a process known as peer evaluation, everyone in the class watches each draft project and makes notes. Then everyone shares their thoughts, ideas, and suggestions.

In general, each project goes through 2-3-4 drafts before it is finalized. This requires a lot of time and commitment from the students, but in the end results in a much better piece that can stand the test of time.

For class, we once again connected two classrooms-- one at Winona State University in Minnesota and one at Diné College in Arizona-- via Interactive Television, so we could simultaneously watch the projects and then comment to each other.

The drafts of the projects are really looking good. I'm so impressed with the quality of the video and photography, and the narration and thematic transitions that help tell the story to viewers.

This is the part where the adrenaline starts pumping as the students go through hours and hours of gathered video, text and photos and finds a way to weave it all together into a narrative storyline that accurately and respectfully reveals the life of a Navajo elder. It's a communication art, that takes skill with the equipment and software and a sense of passion and compassion for the story.

This is also where the students learn so much about the process of documentary journalism. These finished pieces will really stand out in their portfolios and should be a big help when they apply for jobs or for admission to graduate school.

I know many people reading this blog would love to see some of the work now, but I'll ask you to be patient. We want to be sure the pieces are complete and professional before we release them. When they are complete, each student will receive copies of all the projects, and we'll post the shorter media pieces on the WSU Mass Communication department's web site:

If you'd like, you can go to right now and search for last year's Navajo Oral History projects and watch those, to get an idea of the quality of the student-created documentaries.

We have another class schedule for next Friday (June 18) to take a look at more of the drafts.

Thanks again for reading and following our class progress.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

First Drafts Look Good

The 2010 Navajo Oral History Project class members met on Friday, June 4, to look at first drafts of the projects and participate in peer evaluation.

On Friday morning, students gathered in a classroom at Winona State University in Winona, Minn., and in another classroom at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona. The two classrooms were connected via Interactive Television (ITV) so the students could see and talk to each other, and view drafts of their documentary projects.

The four student teams are creating documentary features focused on four Navajo elders. Each team was nearly done with the short (3-5 minute) Media Feature project. They each will then complete a slightly longer (9-15 minute) Living History Feature.

The Living History Features will tell a bit more about each elder's life and family and a few things that are most important to each elder. The Media Features are designed to be more focused on one topic or issue.

The students have found it's quite a challenge to work on projects when team members are dispersed across the country. They have found ways to make it work, meeting and working together in person when it was possible, and using electronic ways of meeting when needed.

The first drafts of the projects look great. The personality of each elder is evident and the students are taking great care to present information about their elders accurately while maintaining interest of the viewers.
The class will meet each Friday for the next several weeks to continue to get peer input on their projects.

Once the documentaries are complete, premiere receptions will be planned at both Diné College and Winona State University-- probably in September-- to debut the projects and celebrate the work of the student teams.

The faculty members of this class, Dr. Miranda Haskie of Diné College, and me-- Dr. Tom Grier of Winona State University-- are very pleased with the student's dedication and hard work.

Thanks for reading and following the progress of this year's Navajo Oral History Project.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Return Day 3 - June 1, 2010

I made it back home to Winona today (Tuesday, June 1, 2010).

I woke up this morning in Wahoo, Neb., and checked the Weather outlook. It wasn't good. There were storms moving into Nebraska and Iowa from the west. They were moving fast, and had the potential to become serious.

I jumped into the van and got going quickly to try to stay ahead of the storms.

Throughout the day, I kept listening to local radio to get updates. At one point, there was a tornado warning in western Iowa, about 12 miles north of where I was -- exactly where I was headed. I could see the really dark clouds, and the wind was really pushing the big rental van I was driving. But I did not see a wall cloud, or any rotation like they were saying on the radio.

I stopped in a small town for a little while, worried that if I kept going I might catch up with the worst part of the storm. Then I heard there was another strong storm cell moving in from Nebraska, only 40-50 miles to my southwest. This one also had been spawning tornadoes.

I kind of felt like a storm chaser in reverse -- I was trying to avoid the storms, or outrun them.

I guess I somehow zipped right between the two storms, because I only had a little rain and wind for a few miles here and there during my 11 hours of driving.

In Blair, Nebraska, I drove past a combination KFC and Taco Bell.

I took a photo to share here for the students from both this year's trip, and last year's.

Seeing this building caused me to start singing in my head the song that the 2009 students introduced me to, when they saw a combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell in Window Rock, Arizona. This song then got stuck in all of our heads during our two weeks on the Navajo Nation this summer. Since KFC and Pizza Hut have the same number of syllables, it works.

So, now, here it is stuck in our heads again ... with a slight variation.

Now that I'm home, I have piles of equipment and luggage to wade through and I need to prepare for our wrap-up class this Friday morning. After that, it won't be long until we can see the finished documentaries of the 2010 Navajo Oral History project.

-- Tom Grier

Monday, May 31, 2010

Return Drive Day 2

I spent nearly the whole day in the van (Monday, May 31, 2010). I left Lamar, Colorado, at about 8 a.m., and ended up stopping in a small town between Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska, at 10 p.m.

This leaves me about 7 or 8 hours of driving for tomorrow and I'll be home in Winona Tuesday evening. I'll unload all the gear and return the rental van. Then, I'll get organized so I can meet with the students for our Friday morning, June 4, class.

No photos to publish today, though I did take a few neat pictures of some historic old courthouses in small towns across Kansas and Nebraska.

I thought I would share a few of the comments I've received from Winona State University students who participated in the 2010 Navajo Oral History program at Diné College. I asked the students to spend a few minutes after they got home to think about what they learned, what they experience, and what the journey meant to them. I asked them to write a couple sentences of reflection and email them to me.

I haven't heard from them all yet. Below, I'm posting the ones I have received.

I'm really looking forward to seeing/hearing what the students teams have put together.
Thanks for reading,

-- Tom Grier

2010 Navajo Oral History Project Student Reflections:

Over the past two weeks I have had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people and experience a region/culture that I have never had the opportunity to experience. Not only did I see tons of cool sights, but I was also to take more than 1,000 photos of all these new experiences. Out of all this, meeting John Kinsel, Sr. was the most interesting. That man can talk for hours and has an incredible life story. It was a joy to hear ~5 hours of this life tale, and I am looking forward to compiling the many photos, video clips and sound bites into a finished project in this coming week. Hopefully John will enjoy what our group is able to put together.

-- Michael A. Ruka

Looking back on this trip, I wouldn’t change much at all. With the small group of people we were able to become very close over the two week period. Every person was dedicated to the project which made a great work environment. Learning about another culture inside our own was an eye opener for me. I’ve always been interested in traveling but now I realize that I don’t have to go outside of the country to learn new ways of life. This travel study put together most everything I could have asked for: hiking, camping, taking photographs, and meeting new people.

Thanks for a great experience Tom Grier!

-- Brianna Klapperich

The trip to the Navajo Reservation couldn't have gone any smoother. The hiking and camping at Lettie Nave's was probably my favorite part. The people I met were so welcoming and the landscape there was so beautiful. Interviewing a Navajo code talker was a once in a lifetime experience, hearing his stories first-hand rather than in a history class gave me a new perspective. I think that because we had such a small group I got to know each person really well, I fee like I've known them for more than the two weeks, they are my new "res" friends. All in all, it was a great experience. I did many things out of my comfort zone and enjoyed every minute of it.

-- Jennifer Westman

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Day #15 – Airport - Return Drive Day 1

It was both an exciting and sad day today (Sunday, May 30, 2010) as the 2010 Navajo Oral History project group packed up their gear and luggage and made the 4.5 hour drive from Tsaile, Arizona to the Albuquerque Airport to return home.

The photo below of the Ned Hatathli Center at Diné College is by Brianna Klapperich.

We were up before the sun to get everything packed and to get to the airport a couple hours ahead of the flights.

Ernestine Sanisya, one of our Diné College student partners, got up early also to come to our residence hall and send us off with hugs and good wishes. Plus, today was Ernestine's birthday.

After the students were dropped at the airport, they had some time to kill in the terminal and took some pictures there, and on the plane.

(above four photos by Michael Ruka)

(above three photos by Brianna Klapperich)

(above photo is by Michael Ruka)

(above four photos by Brianna Klapperich)

Once I was sure the student's flights were on as scheduled, I headed down the highway in the van filled with our stuff, heading east and north toward Minnesota. The drive will be about 30 hours over three days.

As I drove, I thought a lot about the past two weeks. The students really got to know each other well, and built positive working relationships and friends with each other, and with me. We laughed a lot during this trip, and helped each other through times of stress that naturally come from doing important work that spans two diverse cultures.

I also thought quite a bit about the 2009 Navajo Oral History project students who served as the trail-blazers during the pilot year. The 2009 students helped shaped the program and gave so much of themselves and their skills to their Navajo elders. Even after their journey was done, they continued to help me by promoting the value of the program to future students through visits to class and meetings.

I thought it would be appropriate to list the 2009 student participants here, as a way of thanking them for their role in making this program a success.

2009 Navajo Oral History Project students:

Maya Acevedo, Diné College

Cassondra Begaye, Diné College

Katie Boone, Winona State University

Sarah Botzek, Winona State University

David Busse, Winona State University

Stephan Chase, Diné College

Eli Francis, Diné College

Brandi Hagen, Winona State University

Derrick Harvey, Diné College

Cory Hinz, Winona State University

Larissa Jimmy, Diné College

Danny John, Diné College

Jessica Larsen, Winona State University

Andrew Neumann, Winona State University

Steph Precourt, Winona State University

Krystle Sorrell, Diné College

Kim Streblow, Winona State University

Peter Swanson, Winona State University

Matt Wandzel, Winona State University

After the 2009 journey was complete, a few of those students wrote a reflection quote about their experience:

"I never thought I could learn so much about myself in a place I have never been to. I took chances, climbed canyons and saw first-hand the affects of the past. I wouldn't trade it for any other trip." -- Jessica Larsen, senior MCOM-journalism major

"There is something about the land and the people here that urge you to document this great place and an amazing people." -- Peter Swanson, senior MCOM-advertising major

"It was an incredible journey. It literally changed how I saw the world." -- Katie Boone, senior MCOM-broadcasting major

I've asked the 2010 Navajo Oral History project participants to write a short reflection of their journey. When I receive those, I'll share them here on this blog.

-- Tom Grier