Belagana-Belazana: An Outsider’s Quest in the Navajo Nation follows the recently divorced Sean Noland as he takes up a new teaching position at a rather isolated government school in the Navajo Nation. He is unfamiliar with the language and cultural aspects of the Navajo community, but is willing to offer his services as an English teacher. Upon arrival however, Sean grows suspicious and disheartened by his sudden reassignment. He is expected to be the physical education teacher, dorm counselor, and basketball coach as well as the acting principal when needed despite not having any experience with ANY of these positions.
Sean appears to have one foot out of the door immediately, as to be expected with this kind of news. Instead of taking off however, he focuses his attention on befriending his assistant Leonard Santos, a man who is half Navajo and versed in the language, but often considered just as much of an outsider as a white man. The school is in rough shape and Sean is made aware of a potential water crisis that could be harmful for the children and anyone who drinks from the taps. If that couldn’t persuade him to decline the offer, surely the abundance of staff politics, constant struggles with resources, troubling family dynamics, and the harsh terrain of the reservation itself would dissuade him.
Of course not! Sean is intrigued and begins investigating the water issue with Leonard behind the administration’s back. Making matters EVEN WORSE, two boys go missing from the dorms over the Thanksgiving break. Sean learns that it is unfortunately somewhat common for students to run away, but the brutal snowstorm and unforgiving landscape becomes a serious threat for the boys. Leonard leads Sean on a search for their students but, unable to continue by truck, the two find themselves trudging against the elements on a trail that is growing colder by the minute.
Belagana-Belazana explores an alternative view of a resourceful and traditional culture while also revealing the lack of mainstream understanding and care when it comes to secluded communities. Sean heads to Northern Arizona with the intention of teaching members of the Navajo Nation, yet somehow spends most of his journey learning far more than he ever could have expected. He is introduced to the messy side of political injustice with environmental safety, chastised for his ignorance of Navajo beliefs, and forced to travel on skis through a reservation blizzard in order to survive a deadly situation.
This emotionally raw man throws himself literally into the wild to be tested culturally, socially, and physically during this gritty and sometimes exhaustive book.
As a fellow outsider reading this, the writing has some sort of hypnotic authority when diving into the continued prejudice in our education system. Positive experiences and role models for these children are rarely offered. Sean is a character who takes his unwanted position and, instead of settling for prior curriculums, challenges his physical education classes. He opens up the basketball team for anyone who might want to participate. He becomes involved while other catty teachers are more interested in personal agendas and petty rivalries. He follows through. It’s heartbreaking that not every educator is trying as hard as this fictional character to make a difference.
Despite at first being opposed to an overly-slow pace, I began to adapt to the casual dialogue and sweeping descriptions as the actual writing became a physical piece of the Navajo Nation landscape. For anyone intrigued by novels of clashing cultures or even survival stories, this would definitely be one to invest in.
Belagana-Belagaza: An Outsider’s Quest in the Navajo Nation
T. Lloyd Winestsky