Reservation Dogs

My nearest neighbors on the Rez.
My nearest neighbors on the Rez.

A Very Steep Learning Curve

>>>I live in a double-wide trailer on a tribal reservation in western New Mexico. My “curtains” include a tent, a beige comforter and a large green Goodwill rug that was supposed to be used for wiping feet. I have no television, no washer or dryer, a scrap or two of furniture. I am a public school teacher. I’d taught for seventeen years before coming here. Since college, I thought I wanted nothing more than teaching high school students. Not anymore. Well, I’m really not teaching anyone anything anymore. Scratch that, I’m actually learning a lot from myself. But I think the local school district had something else in mind when it brought me here.

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<<< I was hemorrhaging. The blood was gushing, spurting. I was terrified; profusely bleeding, a torrent of raging red that I futilely tried to stem with my hands, panicking. I wondered how much more blood a human body could possibly contain. My former student, Joe Canter, had prophetically told me I was going to die out here in this desert. A boy from the local Zuni tribe, maybe 14 years old, appeared from nowhere and pushed his hands down hard on my heart like a trained physician, poised and purposeful. Then he fixed my gaze. My eyes diluted, terrified; his focused, furious. He yelled questions at me in machine gun staccato fashion. Usually the Zuni spoke slowly, deliberately, with humor. Not this time.

“You’re only half here, aren’t you? You can’t wait to forget us, can you? You don’t really see us, do you?” He was seething. Guilty as charged on all counts. Then I woke up.

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>>>Being here is no vision quest. I came reluctantly because the Zuni Public School District offered me a job teaching government and economics to eleventh and twelfth graders and it was 2009 and I’d been out of work since April and ten million others remain jobless. So I took the offer, packed my SUV to the gills and departed Indianapolis. Twenty-two hours of driving- above-the-speed-limit later, I was now 1,500 miles from my children, home, friends and life. I was on the Rez.

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<<<Obama got rid of Camp X-ray at Guantanamo Bay. If I had access to him, I’d try to convince him to get rid of the reservation system next. This is the twenty-first century. A system devised to accommodate westward migration by white settlers during the last third of the nineteenth century hardly seems viable or worth perpetuating now. Blacks don’t live huddled in former slave quarters across the South. Hispanics don’t remain cloistered in rural sections of the Sunbelt picking fruit as in decades of yore. Consequently, these groups are visible to mainstream America and have made strides via their voting strength, increasing economic clout, and by generally assimilating into society. Meanwhile, Native Americans basically remain invisible to mainstream America, safely tucked away-often by their own choice-in the economic and aesthetic cesspool that is the Rez.

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>>>A grotesquely pregnant dog saunters by, its bloated stomach waddling with each stride, and glances at me and then looks away as I drive home from work. Judging by its all-too-apparent mammary equipment, this dog is about spawn a brood of a dozen or more. Every “now and again,” I’m told, animal control comes through and rounds up hundreds of stray dogs for euthanizing.

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>>>My students are afraid yet they hide it well though through various guises. Staying on this impoverished reservation permits a certain amount of smugness. No chances need be taken and thus the illusion is perpetuated among the youth here that no possibility of failure need be faced. And if leaving Zuni, New Mexico isn’t in the cards, then education doesn’t matter either. Instead of striving to learn, leave and advance, most kill time in high school. Attendance is deplorable and the level of “work” is a joke, even compared to inner city schools where I’d previously taught. If education and options aren’t valued, safety in numbers and having company in misery are. And the Rez provides security: no challenges, few improvements, little change, and a life largely underwritten by federal government funds in the form of the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and myriad other smaller agencies. The lure to go with what you know is strong.

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<<<The juxtaposition is stark. The natural beauty of the landscape is considerable and awe inspiring. In the distance are mountains, valleys, buttes, elk, cloudless skies, endless horizons, steep cliffs and more. A combination of colors and sights unimagined in the greener, flatter Midwest. These breath-taking views are marred more than slightly by the abysmal sights closer to home. One sign of squalor that continues to perplex is the fact that it’s not easy to tell whether a dwelling is abandoned or being occupied. Burnt-out, windowless trailers abound, sitting like charred remains from a civil war. The occupied homes are in slightly better shape, but can best described as ramshackle. Mock gang graffiti adorns failed businesses. Behind my dwelling lies the infamous “Field of Broken Dreams,” containing the remnants of multiple car carcasses of varying make and model, long since abandoned. The ugliness of the town is all the more obscene when contrasted with the beauty just beyond in the distance.

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>>>One of my students writes me a note. I feel several things at once, including disgust, sympathy, pride and a recognition that I can change little if any of this. He tells me the other students hate and shun him because he is different. The rare quiet serious male, I wonder if he’s labeled a nerd, a sellout, or some such similar label. Nope. Turns out he’s half Navajo and the Zuni thus hate him. My education continues. He says he’s proud of his dad (who is Navajo), and who left this reservation to make a better life for himself in Albuquerque. My student says he wants to learn a mechanical trade and bolt for the greener pastures of Albuquerque too. I root for him but have to temper my enthusiasm. If the hated teacher reaches out too obviously to the hated student, things will only get worse for him, so I sneak my encouragement under the radar.

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<<<Death on a single-lane New Mexico highway. My first thought is DUI since that’s a major problem here, but I don’t truthfully know. Electric blue skies the color of UCLA’s athletic uniforms stretch across the horizon, scrubland on each side of the road. Mountains all around. Dirt. Traffic is backed up for miles as the police and emergency crews dislodge the mangled cars from one another. The dead and injured have been carted off, but nothing even remotely spiritual is coming out of this. No “Jim Morrison moment” in this desert, no shaman appearing from the mist to impart some wisdom or meaning to any of this. Just stuck on a steep hill in the sticks with four hundred other frustrated motorists hours before Thanksgiving. Here we sit, hungry, impatient and selfish as the sun shines on.

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>>>At Zuni High School, students are allowed to swear freely. They get to use notes on tests. About one in five students are absent on any given day. The school building was constructed in 2002, but it looks more like 1982 because of the wear, tear and graffiti all about. Hallway signs from the guidance department coach us on how to deal with “students under the influence and out of control.” Two students fought over a vial of paint on my first day, spilling it on the floor in my classroom. I’m told it might be cleaned up over spring break, but not before. I don’t dare bring in any of my personal items like soccer jerseys, country flags, or foreign currency that might spice the décor up. The items would be stolen or ruined within the week.

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<<<Some of my female students ponder leaving this town. To them, cosmetology school in Albuquerque, some two hours away, is as exotic and remote a life-style outcome as they can possibly conceive. They’re torn though. There’s considerable pressure to stay. Traditional family beliefs and less ambitious or talented friends weigh them down to remain here like a guilt-ridden anchor. They’re torn between perceived loyalty and unrealized ambition.

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>>>I try to jog northward toward the three mountain peaks out of town. I never make it. Before I can traverse the last paved road toward my destiny I’m accosted by at least thirty agitated stray mutts, some big, some little, creating a cacophony of annoyed and annoying barking. Orange dogs, black dogs, gray dogs. They’re all ugly. Some nip at me, several preclude any running by parking in front of my feet. I recall seeing bite scars on the faces of some students in the hallway. I remember being told, “There are no rabies on the Reservation,” which is decidedly different than being told that the dogs don’t bite. Some of these mutts are menacing. No run toward the peaks today, just a feeling of trapped frustration. My mind turns to my female students who want to leave.

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>>>About one in ten of my students are parents, having either fathered a child or having given birth to one. Yet, their maturity remains appallingly low in many cases, more at a middle school than a high school level. Yet, here too generalizations are perilous. I have some students who are composed, studious, circumspect and self-disciplined beyond their years. Everyday, as they get to know me better and trust me a little more, I get to see glimpses of who they are. And I can’t help liking them.

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>>>A gang fight erupted yesterday after school ended as rival thugs met out front to resolve some petty beef or another. Ten boys fought, two ended up in the hospital. Expulsion hearings are pending.

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>>>Today was the best day yet at school. More learning, more focus, more work than I’ve yet seen. We tackled cartels, OPEC and oligopolies. It’s still barely a step above a remediated level of work, but improvement is improvement. I’ve learned to compare these students only to where they were yesterday, not against what I’ve experienced in the past with other students in other schools.

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<<<DUIs are a serious problem here. Checkpoints abound during weekends, day and night. Beer is commonly sold here in 30 packs. Twenty-four just won’t cut it, I guess. The mixed messages are clear: gas stations, convenience stores and grocery stores that sell beer cold and advertise it heavily versus the public service war being waged against driving drunk. AA meetings are announced on the radio here, time and place included. Discarded 40 ounce bottles litter the streets here in town. I have been advised frequently to pass by hitchhikers as they are typically considered to be drunk and are often belligerent.

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>>>Friends on the faculty call it “The Greatest Show on Earth”: graduation night in late May. They describe the fireworks set off in the night sky, neighborhood parties, the euphoria of families and students alike. All for getting a diploma from this place? From this very lax, very remedial school? Yes, because for 85 percent of the student body, this is the last academic endeavor they will experience. In an unfortunate way, a high school diploma still really matters here and is incredibly valued.

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<<<A fifth grader hung himself on the Monday before Thanksgiving. Seems he wasn’t at all satisfied with life here. A criticism many of us teachers make against our students is that they’re too satisfied with the existence here, comfortable and afraid to leave, afraid to get tested “in the real world.” Whatever the cause, an 11-year-old boy decided that enough was too much. I think of my own son, the same age. I’m stunned, profoundly sad for this little boy and the depths of despair he must have felt. The tragic event barely made a ripple at school this week. The students are by nature, by culture, not emotionally demonstrative about what they consider to be private matters. It’s hard to know what they really think about this or how hurt they may be. Things get masked here. When I ask a colleague about this, he tells me what I’ll hear multiple times from a variety of sources: the local suicide rate is five times the national average. I’m less critical of everything today.

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I’m very lucky. I still know hundreds of my former students from over the years and get to be a small part of their adult lives. Many have asked me about teaching in rural New Mexico on a tribal reservation. And although I’ve only just begun, I think I know the answer: It’s complicated.

Comments 34 comments

Vicki Ray 7 years ago

Hi, Keith. I really enjoyed your writings. The insights into the lives of your students is interesting and thought-provoking. How many of us in suburban Franklin Twp. have ever given a thought to our Native American citizens? I've only read some statistics (re: alcohol abuse; lack of education, gambling, etc), but your writings have put a real face on the problems existing on the reservation. It all sounds so dismal. But if anyone can inspire a student, it would be you. Don't get discouraged (although I'd be in the throes of despair); you just never know whose life you'll impact! Your writing style is great!


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keithmitchell5 7 years ago from Indianapolis Author

Thanks, Vicki. I really appreciate that. I love writing, but sometimes wish my material lent itself less to a "stark" writing style. Your words carry great weight. This experience is expanding so I'll run with it.


AshleyHM 7 years ago

Wow. Keep it coming. You really have something here. Maybe you should write a book about your experiences in this school. I think it's important for the "rest of us" to hear this.


Bobby Beef 7 years ago

Whew.... My head is still spinning from this article, I had no idea things would be like that in 2009. Hang in there my friend if anyone can get through to some of these kids it is you. I don't know many teachers that have even half as many ties with their former students as do you. Keep the stories coming Bro and best of luck to you and your students as well.


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keithmitchell5 7 years ago from Indianapolis Author

Ashley and Bobby: thanks for the vote of confidence. I'd love to write a book, Ashley...trying to get an agent now. Please send this link to anyone you know that I don't who might be interested. Thanks for reading. And Bobby all this happened in my first 21 days! Today was a good day-I only got called "Bitch" twice!


katia 7 years ago

This essay was quite awakening (both literally -- since I read it around 5 AM -- and figuratively). you were correct, my Texarkana experience pales in comparison. I love the dogs metaphor. As tantalizing as it might be to run away, towards the mountains, the pain and struggle of doing so might just be too much....

We never know what impact we might have on others, but I have a feeling that it is places like your school and, to a lesser degree, Texarkana that allow us to make the biggest difference (hopefully for the better!).


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keithmitchell5 7 years ago from Indianapolis Author

I think you're right, Babushka. See comment above...it's still very trying and it will continue to be, but try I will. And @ 5 am, I hope I'm asleep. Good luck in Green Bay.


Jackie 7 years ago

This is pretty incredible, and very solid and potent writing - I like how your writing style is down-to-earth and gritty, and it reflects your surroundings, I'd imagine. I've passed this on to a few of my teacher friends and my brother, who also teaches HS (but in a NYC magnet school, so I can't imagine a situation more diametrically opposed to yours). A few things you said reminded me of what goes on in Kanasatake, the Mohawk reservation just outside of Montreal - famous for smuggling alcohol and cigarettes and selling them for profit. Fascinating stuff though, and you should definitely keep this blog going.


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keithmitchell5 7 years ago from Indianapolis Author

Thanks Jax. I appreciate the plug and the comments. I won't stop writing, I promise. Enjoy Montreal. wish I was there (except for the cold) - I know I could find stuff to write about. Stay warm/ talk soon.


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E. Nicolson 7 years ago

I lived in the north, even more north than I am presently, and whether it's north or south the realities of the Rez don't differ much. Everything is bleak, yet strange pockets of beauty exist. You have captured the truth and I wish you good fortune in finding an outlet for your special voice.


Patrick Michaud 6 years ago

Wow Mr. Mitchell those are some really intense experiences that most in America do not get to see. i hope that you keep the post coming because I would really like to hear more. If anyone can turn those students around and make them want to learn its you. You are one of the reasons that I am considering going into teaching, whether it is at the collegiate or high school level I don't know. What I do know is that you were definitely an inspiration to me and brought the best out of my work. So thanks and keep pushing at them.


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keithmitchell5 6 years ago from Indianapolis Author

PM: Thank you very much. You'll excel in the field and I hope you pursue it. Enjoyed teaching you and wish I had been able to spend more time doing so.


Ashlie (AP) 6 years ago

This was eye-opening, to say the least. Of course we all hear the stereotypes regarding reservation life, but this was definitely a much closer look at the reality of it all. It's very unnerving. But I think you hit the nail on the head - you can only compare these students to where they were yesterday. It's a shame that most of them will never realize how lucky they are to have you as a teacher. But if even only a few of them do, then you will have truly made your footprint.


Dark Star 6 years ago

K Mitch... I must confess that I wasn't sure what I was going to read when you posted this on FB, and I certainly wasn't ready for it. It sounds like what you're doing out there is a real endeavor and definitely a life changing experience. I can't begin to imagine what that type of environment is like for a teacher. My best wishes go out to you Keith.

I've found myself wondering about you and what you're doing and now I know. I hope this job keeps you happy, intrigued, and challenges you everyday man. Can't wait to have a sit down and chat about it.


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keithmitchell5 6 years ago from Indianapolis Author

AP & DS: Thanks to you both for reading and reacting. Chat? Definitely.


Kayla 6 years ago

Wow. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into your life there. I was a camp counselor at a church here in Indy last summer. There were a couple of missionaries that came to talk to the kids about their lives on a reservation somewhere probably not too far from you. They created a music program that has let students grow to slowly trust them (over many years) through making music and expressing themselves. Their religious agenda had to be put aside for quite a while because, as you know, there was no way anyone there was going to listen to their attempts to bring them to God or salvation or a better life when they were strangers... outsiders. They have made progress with some of the teens and their families there, but it will never be an "easy" situation. Their stories and experiences were so moving, as are yours.

Even though it may not feel like it now, I am sure you are going to make a difference in the lives of some of those students there. There is a reason you have ended up there. Keep your head up! Keep learning! And keep sharing your stories with all of us so that we can keep learning, too.


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keithmitchell5 6 years ago from Indianapolis Author

Thanks, Kayla. It feels like it a lot more now - more positive, but still a very tough existence here for my students. I want to push them and there are many obstacles to overcome. But we're trying, them and me.


Angie Moloy 6 years ago

Mr. Mitchell everything sounds so interesting out there; I can't imagine what it must be like. It's obviously a completely different life, but a great experience nonetheless. It sounds like those kids could use someone like you in their lives, so good luck! I would definitely read your book if you wrote one!


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keithmitchell5 6 years ago from Indianapolis Author

Angie: Thank you for reading and for the support. I will write a book (or five), so I know I'll have one reader. Strange as it may seem from this piece, I like it here. I've met some incredible people (just like you) who I'll never shake from my memory. The opportunities you and your classmates have don't transcend to everywhere, as you know. I was so lucky to meet you and teach at SMHS for awhile.


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Jon Nelson Bailey 6 years ago from Texas, USA

I don't know what to say except - thank you.


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keithmitchell5 6 years ago from Indianapolis Author

Thank you for reading, Mr. bailey. Pls check out the story "Sion & Straley."


MDLR 6 years ago

Wow, Mr. Mitchell. I had no idea there still existed a place that was like this. I thought it only happened in movies, guess not. Your writing is amazing...every detail makes me feel as if I am seeing all that is happening with my own eyes. It's very eye opening, to say the least. You are doing a great thing by teaching these children. They need you to be the guiding light to their dreams and ambitions. They need someone who will be there for them and let them know that it's okay to want to better themselves, it's okay to want to leave. You are truly a special person, Mr. Mitchell! Happy to have had you as a teacher!


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keithmitchell5 6 years ago from Indianapolis Author

Thanks for your comments. (And having students like you, with supportive parents, makes it easy to teach.) It is complicated here, and it's not like "Stand and deliver," where a teacher can ride in and just magically change things. But in small ways, I can perhaps change a perception or two. I preach to them that options are good, and options only come with work and education. They agree that options are good, but changing the work ethic is tougher.


ndnchick 6 years ago

complicated is the best word you could come up with huh? trust me its not even close. i don't trust teachers from experience if you had a choice im sure you pick the money over students in a heart beat. private school, great benefits above the wall of a reservation, simple clean pavement. easy choice over the tumbleweeds and johns that litter the desert. people see you but ignore you. why trust an outsider? easy. keep friends close enemies closer.


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keithmitchell5 6 years ago from Indianapolis Author

ndnchick: I considered your comments carefully and without attempting to be arrogant or flip, I think you make valid points. I'm trying to see things from your perspective. This story was written upon initial impressions. Change is a constant. I don't have the solutions any more than you do. I do realize that I don't even come close to understanding all the questions.


Laura McKinney profile image

Laura McKinney 5 years ago

I miss you.


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keithmitchell5 5 years ago from Indianapolis Author

Oh, man! Thanks - I feel the same way re. you.


claudebragg 5 years ago

Remarkable tales Sir! Your writing in my eyes favors Hunter S. Thompson... Pure Gonzo! I could def see something like this on the big screen...


laurel 5 years ago

i lived in las vegas like it there grew up overseas


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keithmitchell5 5 years ago from Indianapolis Author

Thanks a ton, CB5. Huge compliment. Hope you're reading my newer stuff. Laurel: Passed by LV, NM but never spent time there. Seemed decent. I liked the Abq, Sante Fe, Taos corridor but there were so many places in that state I never saw. Wonder where you grew up overseas?


Alex Wilson 4 years ago

Always enlightening to learn about different cultures.

Thanks and keep it coming.


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keithmitchell5 4 years ago from Indianapolis Author

Big Al: much obliged. I agree about different cultures, obviously...many reactions though. We see them through our own lens and don't always find what we expected/ wanted. On many levels - individually - I liked the Zuni & Navajo. On larger, "macro" levels, not so much. My societal expectations and experiences simply ran counter.


Parent 4 years ago

What you express and portray of reservation life is no different to the ghettos, slums and run down intercity communities. The photo you show is an abandoned trailer with no one living in it. I appreciate your perception and experience of Rez life, but educators like you with no serious interest in teaching add to problems within our learning institutions on the rez as well as any other off Rez school. So, your description of Rez life is only a perception of one and can best describe anytown USA.


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keithmitchell5 4 years ago from Indianapolis Author

Parent: You have no idea what my interest or intent was and are presumptuous and arrogant to think you might. Of course it was a perception of one: that's true of anything ever written by any one person.

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