Navajo Technical College
When Dwight was spending time as a young boy with his grandmother, he was set on a path that would lead him right to his future. He just didn’t know it at the time.
Dwight grew up on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, in a place he says was so small that it is not down on any map. Sage and uninterrupted stretches of red rock mark this part of the desert southwest known for its remoteness and beauty.
Dwight spent many days walking this landscape, with his grandmother, who taught him in the Navajo language the wisdom of their ancestors: the names of the plants they encountered, their uses and meaning in traditional medicines, and how to protect and keep them sacred. He loved the long walks and time outdoors with his grandmother, who he counts as his earliest teacher.
“Today, when I look back, I realize I was taking classes from her at a young age,” Dwight says. Those early days inculcated in him a love of nature which has led him to seeking an education at Navajo Technical College (NTC), where he is majoring in environmental science with an emphasis on natural resources.
His degree choice was the obvious fit, Dwight says, as he was always interested in taking care of the earth. And going to college was something he always wanted. He says his parents both completed a bit of college but dropped out. He watched his parents struggle to support him and his three brothers, with his mother juggling two jobs, and his uncles and cousins also trying to eke out a living on the reservation, where the average income is $8,240 a year and there is 48.5% unemployment and few jobs around Gallup, the closest city. Dwight says his parents insisted that education was their children’s first priority so they could go further than their parents.
Dwight worked hard in high school and graduated in the top 10 of his class of 150 to qualify to go to NTC. “I knew I wanted this,” he says.
His academic work at NTC is so satisfying, Dwight says, because he had the rare opportunity to participate as an undergraduate in research projects with professor Steve Chischilly, the Environmental Chair there and a former American Indian College Fund Mellon fellow. Dwight worked on a dendrochronology project to research tree rings to determine if radiation from uranium mining on the reservation affected tree growth there. He also researched polymers chain reactions in plants to determine if the radiation impacted plant DNA and plant growth. Dwight’s dedication to his research and academic performance earned him the honor of Student of the Year for NTC, which includes a scholarship from the American Indian College Fund.
Dwight’s life is not all studying, however. With his love of the outdoors, it is no wonder that he enjoys running on NTC’s cross country team. There he was named to the All American Academic cross country team for the United States Intercollegiate Athletics Association. In high school Dwight also competed on the cross country and track teams and finished as a three-time district and two-time state champion. He also likes running marathons, half-marathons, ultra-light running, and credits his mother, a former runner, for getting him interested in the sport. He believes physical activity is so important that he volunteered with the Wings running camp and Just Move It fitness run and walk to get the youth and elders in his community exercising.
Dwight also competes as a bull rider, one of the toughest of rodeo sports, requiring that he attempt to stay astride a kicking bull for as long as possible before getting thrown.
That kind of stamina is important to Dwight as he embarks upon his second summer internship with the U.S. Forest Service. Dwight is battling forest fires and pine bark beetle infestation in Montana. As part of his training, he was just certified as a Hot Shot, or forest firefighter. Hot shots carry 35-45 pound packs and wear heavy protective equipment while hiking, running, chopping, and shoveling their way up and down mountains to build lines to battle and contain the blazes that have grown more deadly in the American West.
This summer has already seen record numbers of fires due to drought, high temperatures, and pine bark beetles, which thrive in the warmer winters and on trees weakened by drought. When pine bark beetles settle into forests, they move quickly, feeding on them until the trees are dead. Huge swaths of Colorado and Montana forests have been decimated, leaving plenty of fuel for forest fires. At Colorado’s High Park Fire, the second largest in the state’s history, the number of dead trees is estimated to be at 70% due to beetle infestation.
As part of his duties, Dwight will also be battling forest fires with his brain. He is working with biologists to examine ways to thwart the pine bark beetles or mitigate the damage they do. This research will help prevent future fires and their side effects, such as mudslides due to erosion from loss of tree root systems, and loss of wildlife habitat.
Dwight concedes it’s a daunting task. For a kid who grew up in the desert, he says it is amazing to see how vast the forests are, and in many places in Montana, impenetrable. He says, “Just last week I went into the forest and saw the patches of trees that were dying. It is so sad to see that. I am trying to save the trees, not just here in Montana, but all across the west.”
After the summer, Dwight returns to NTC for one last semester before graduating and transferring to Haskell Indian Nations University. At Haskell he will run for the cross country team while he completes his bachelor’s degree in environmental science. After that, Dwight plans to get back in the field working for the U.S. Forest Service, where he would like to dedicate his career as a guardian of our nation’s natural resources, just as his grandmother taught him.
Dwight says, “My grandmother is still alive, and every chance I get I share with her what I am doing. My grandmother doesn’t speak English and some words don’t translate, but she says what she taught me is very important information and it is very beautiful that I used this information she passed to me from the generations to create this career path.”
Dwight says the support of the American Indian College Fund and its donors made college possible for him. “I would like to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. For taking time out to help me with my financial needs, so that I may continue my education and not have to worry about how my schooling is going to be paid for. The cost of school and the books, even the meal plans are going up, and with your help it’s getting me what I need to get by.”