How a dream DC trip came true for Native American teens

As Merlin Adynn Pecos listened to her teacher describe a school trip she was planning for him and his classmates to the nation’s capital, he didn’t believe her.

“I thought she was lying,” the 13-year-old said one recent afternoon. “That sounded wrong.”

The Native American teenager attends a school on a reservation about 50 miles from Albuquerque. Many of his classmates never left the state or boarded a plane. The trips he took were always by car and were not one to include organized tours.

DC, he thought as he listened to his teacher speak, seemed too far and too expensive.

“Even the name sounds expensive – the nation’s capital,” he said.

Science teacher Patricia Ferguson knew affording an out-of-state trip would be a challenge for many students at San Diego Riverside Charter School on the Pueblo of Jemez reservation. She also knew how much they needed it. The pandemic had taken a lot from them. They had lost loved ones, over a year of in-person learning, and the opportunity to participate in traditional ceremonies. For a time they were even cut off from the rest of the world. Concrete barriers have been placed along the roads leading to the reserve to prevent strangers who may be carriers of covid-19 from entering unchecked.

Ferguson called different school travel companies to ask about summer trips to DC and decided the best deal was one that offered a four-day trip in June for $2,200 per student. The day she announced the price to the students, she saw their enthusiasm for the trip turn to doubt. Pecos wasn’t alone in considering the trip out of reach.

“We can never harvest so much in a million years,” said one student.

He described his mother as earning $100 a day selling burritos. Other students told Ferguson their families didn’t have credit cards to pay even the $95 application fee.

Countless school trips have taken place in the district over the years. This is the story of someone who almost didn’t happen. The trip would never have become a possibility if it weren’t for a caring teacher, a community that rallied, and outsiders who helped.

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Joseph Brophy Toledo is a spiritual leader of the federally recognized Pueblo Jemez Tribe. He can tell you in detail about the historic connections between DC and the reservation, including the legend of a member whose spirit settled in a place near the Washington Monument and continues to guide leaders. But he speaks just as passionately about the future benefits of having children travel. He described it as having the potential to change their outlook.

“We don’t want them to be lost in our world,” he said. “We want them to know Congress. We want them to know our state senators, our representatives who are there and why they are there. We want them to know the importance of your personal self, that you have the right to say what you want and to be heard.

Ferguson, whose mother attended the school where she now teaches, said leaving the reservation can be daunting. She grew up hearing what happened when her grandparents once went to a nearby town to sell wool. A woman in a store bought the yarn but refused to let her grandmother use the toilet.

“I remember hearing that story and being really hurt,” Ferguson said. She described it as sending the message: “We’ll take what you have, but we’re not going to help you.”

Last month, a hotel in South Dakota sparked a social media storm and triggered a federal class action lawsuit after the owner reportedly posted on Facebook that the hotel would no longer allow “no Native Americans on the property.” This post came after a young Native American was shot dead at the hotel.

“Some of our people were shocked and upset after seeing this,” Harold Frazier, president of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, told The Washington Post. “Some of our people were like, ‘We’re still going through this,’ but to really see it in writing, it caused a lot of anger.”

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Ferguson said her students, who are considered English language learners because they speak Towa at home, are aware of the stereotypes some people have about Native Americans. One day at school, as they were talking about the trip, the conversation turned from what they might see to how they might be seen.

“When we go there, people might look at us. What if they called us names? Ferguson said a boy asked.

She assured him that it probably wouldn’t happen and if it did, they would take care of it. She also told the class that in Washington there are people from many walks of life who look and dress all different ways.

“My long-term hope,” for students, she said, “is that they will be encouraged to go out and do other things, that they won’t be intimidated by the outside world, and that they will realize that they can fit in.”

In September, she got the idea for the trip. By December, about four students had registered. There are about 20 middle schoolers and she was hoping at least a dozen would go.

His sister Barbara Creel, who is a law professor, got involved earlier this year. As Creel tells it, she wanted to show students that they wouldn’t have to wait “a million years” to travel.

“I wanted them to experience things other kids are going through,” she said. “Travel is transformative and makes you appreciate the value of home.”

“Help Native American Indian Kids Go to DC” reads the headline of the GoFundMe she created.

“I ask for your support in helping children on the reservation who dream of going on a school trip to Washington, DC!” it reads. He describes how the reservation was blocked due to the pandemic. “There are many challenges, but the children have been hit hard, with isolation, disease, death, unemployment, impacts on family, lack of village capacity to gather in traditional ceremonies AND learning gaps”.

The trip, he says, is the only thing that got them excited.

“The light in their eyes was inspiring as they attended the briefing with the tour group, EF Tours – They were beaming!” it reads. “The light went out when they learned the price per student!”

What’s happened since Creel created this page has students checking it daily and talking about what they’re packing, what they’re hoping to see, and who gets a window seat.

As of Friday, over $31,000 of the $42,000 goal was raised.

Creel said she hopes students see this money, which comes from people who live on and off the reservation, not as charity to them, but as an investment in them.

“What I want kids to take away is that they are worth supporting, that their spirit is worth supporting, that there are people who care about them,” she said.

A total of 15 students and five adults are registered to participate in the trip. The money will cover their plane tickets, hotel costs and tours. If funds are raised beyond the goal, Creel said the money will go towards buying suitcases for students who don’t have one and fixing a broken window at the school.

Ferguson said that in recent weeks, students have spoken enthusiastically about the trip and the hotel stay, which will be a first for some of them. Their itinerary is still being formed but will include war memorials as many families on the reservation have loved ones who served. Native Americans have traditionally served in the military at a disproportionate rate.

Pecos is one of the students who requested a window seat. He said he was “a little scared” and “a little excited” to fly.

He said he is looking forward to seeing the national monuments up close and hopes when people see him and his classmates it will break stereotypes. “We’re not lazy Native Americans like people think,” he said. “We want to learn.”

When I asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he didn’t give a single answer.

“A lot of things,” he said. “I want to be a cook. I want to be a bartender. I want to be a welder. I want to travel the world.”

He hasn’t flown in an airplane yet, and he’s already planning future flights.

About Elizabeth Smith

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