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In search of roots? - to Mongolia and back

By John Christian Hopkins
Tuba City, Arizona (NFIC) 5-09

Some anthropologists believe that Native Americans came to be here by way of Mongolia, across the Bering Strait. But for the past three years, it has been the other way around for some Navajo students and teachers.

Greyhills Academy High School English teachers Mary Frances Begaye and Reginald Begay have led two students a year half way across the world to visit Mongolia in a student exchange project called “Partnership of American-Mongolian Schools.”

“I feel like it was an adventure to do,” said junior Brandi Greyeyes.

For senior Joel Tunney, who joined Greyeyes and teacher Marcel Cerney in last year’s exchange, it was the culmination of something that started long ago.

“When I was in 6th or 7th grade I did a science project on how Mongolian culture was similar to Navajo,” Tunney said.

For example, the main food staple in Mongolia seems to be mutton, said senior Charise Charley, who visited Mongolia this year along with sophomore Kevin Tso.

Similar, perhaps, but there were differences.

“I milked a camel,” Charley laughed.  She also found that camels are pretty easy to ride, she added.

“With most roads little more than tracks in the sand, camels and horses are the main mode of transportation over there, Begaye said. The roads around the capital city of Ulaanbaatar are paved for about a ten-mile radius, but that’s about it, she added.

The students exchange schools for two-weeks, spending half of the time in an urban setting and half in a rural home, Begaye said. This year they stayed in Dungovi, a remote village on the edge of the Gobi Desert.”

‘The lack of diversity in food was a little annoying, Tunney said. “It was the same thing every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

“Milk and meat,” Tso added. There was also camel stew and kurd.

Their hosts did offer a bread similar to Navajo frybread.

“I liked the bread,” Greyeyes said.

But man cannot live by bread alone; and Mongolia seemed like a place to feed the spirit, as well.

Tunney found it inspiring to visit a monastery where the Buddha once lived. And then there was the legacy of the great Khans.


The Navajo students presented a sash to the director of the Ocean Knowledge School in Mandalgovi, who found it a good start for building friendship between the two peoples. The director explained that the Mongol leader Genghis Khan used to present sashes to his friends.

“The city is modern,” Charley said. “It’s easy to ride around in.”

“Though Mongolia has some modern conveniences, they are in limited supply, Tunney said. Internet access, for example, is limited,” he said.

“The exchange is meant to be a cultural and educational experience aimed at helping the students evolve into adults with a wider view of the world, Begaye said.

“It promotes education and literacy,” she said.

This year Reginald Begay and the two students visited the Lotus Children’s Center; they had raised money for the Mongolian orphanage that serves abandoned children and street children in Uulanbaatar.

Each year, two Mongolian students and one teacher also come and live among the Navajo.

The students are learning that they are not so different, Begaye said. Both Navajo and Mongolia are still evolving, struggling with harsh land that covers rich mineral deposits, she explained.

There was one thing that the Navajo kids found humorous: their Mongolian counterparts were under the impression that all Americans are rich.

“We might have further pushed that stereotype because we brought a lot of money with us,” Tunney said.

In Mongolia the average teacher’s salary was about $100 a month, Begaye said. However there are still remnants from Mongolia’s communist past; the people have access to the basic amenities, such as health care, she explained.

“It made me appreciate more what I have,” Greyeyes said.

The people of Mongolia were kind and generous, Begaye said.

“They babied us right from the start,” Charley said. It seemed as if the whole village took part in the program.

“When they came here they arrived like one o’clock in the morning, we said hello, gave them blankets and said ‘This is where you sleep, we’ll see you in the morning’,” Tunney said. “When we arrived there at one in the morning everyone turned out to greet us, they had food prepared; it was like a party.”

“They gave us gifts,” Charley said.

“We have a lot more material things (in America), but sometimes we forget to be good human beings,” Begaye said. “They taught us what it was like to open your heart.”