While leaving the reservation for college may be difficult, a good education is the key to success.

Two years ago, a Navajo medicine man’s convocation prayers confirmed a new leader at a Seattle university. Those at the ceremony received a cedar blessing, while traditional chants punctuated the processional and recessional.

By afternoon’s end, Antioch University’s newest president had introduced the college to her way of leading.  Dr. Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet blends mainstream methods with those of her people, the Diné, a tribe of more than 250,000 people who comprise the Navajo Nation.

“I talk to the institution as a community, as a family, as a village,” said Dr. Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet, Diné.

On that fall day in 2007, Manuelity-Kerkvilet Antioch’s new leader became the first Native American female president of a university outside the tribal college system. Administrators chose Manuelito-Kerkvliether from a pool of more than 40 candidates to lead Antioch University Seattle, a liberal arts college with an enrollment of about 800 students.

“I hate to be identified as ‘the first,’” said Manuelito-Kerkvliet, who has spent her entire career in higher education. “I don’t like the phrase myself because it does say we haven’t come far enough.”

Like many Native American students, Manuelito-Kerkvliet spent her college days far from family with students who neither looked like her nor understood her struggles. But Manuelito-Kerkvliet chose persistence, not pity, she said, and eventually earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wyoming. She then went on to counsel students at Oregon, New Mexico and Wyoming universities and served as the president of Diné College, the Navajo tribal college system, from 2000 to 2003. Two years later, she earned her doctorate’s degree from the University of Oregon. Today, Manuelito-Kerkvliet advocates that young Natives develop a future force of leaders to lead the nation. And she knows how: through education.

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Another Diné leader first advocated the path more than 100 years ago. That man was Chief Manuelito, the university president’s great-great grandfather. Born in 1818, Manuelito became a respected war chief during the decades-long struggle against Mexican and later U.S. forces.

Much of the fighting ended with the Long Walk in 1864, when the Navajo were forced to walk more than 300 miles to the Bosque Redondo, a dry, desolate area of southeast New Mexico. Two hundred people died on the journey. They remained in the camp for four years. Conditions were dire: Estimates show 2,500 Navajos died between 1864 and 1868.

To end the suffering, Manuelito and other tribal leaders traveled to Washington and signed the Treaty of Bosque Redondo in 1868. Among other things, the treaty established the boundaries of the Navajo Reservation within parts of present-day northern Arizona and New Mexico and southern Colorado.  The Diné returned to their homeland, Dinétah, though its size had been greatly reduced by the treaty. The Navajo Nation today encompasses 26,000 square miles, making it the nation’s largest reservation.

In addition, the 1868 agreement guaranteed education for Navajo children, and Manuelito grew convinced this would be the ladder to his people’s future. Today, the Navajo Nation sponsors a college scholarship in his name.

“I just really believe, like he did, that education is going to be our modern-day weapon,” Manuelito-Kerkvliet said.

Students must use that “weapon” today, she said. Individual commitment will create a future generation of Natives prepared to accept the nation’s top posts, said Manuelito-Kerkvliet, reflecting her great-great-grandfather’s belief.

“The Indian community – we’re going to come out on top,” she said, “if we recognize the importance of education.”


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