RSNB History

The History of Ramah Navajo School Board, Inc., and Pine Hill Schools

The history of Ramah Navajo School Board, Inc. and the Pine Hill Schools is one to be proud of and to learn from. It is a story of our families, ancestors and community leaders who were responsible for founding the school against great odds and opposition.

Prior to 1942, there were no local educational facilities for the Ramah Navajo people. The first school for the Ramah Navajo was a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) day school built in 1943 in Mountain View that had a capacity for only 30 students, one teacher for first through third grades. Definitely, this did not meet the educational needs of the community. After the third grade, students were sent to Albuquerque, New Mexico; Fort Wingate, New Mexico; Brigham City, Utah; Riverside, California; and other off-reservation boarding schools far from the Ramah Navajo community.

When the Mountain View Day School became overcrowded, plans were made to enlarge the school, but the non-Indian residents in Ramah village requested that a dormitory be built in Ramah for the Navajo students to attend Ramah Public School. While the Ramah Navajo Community (RNC) objected to this step, a BIA dormitory was built in 1954 near the Ramah village, closing the Mountain View Day School. For the next 13 years, Ramah Navajo students attended the Ramah Public School.

In 1968, the Ramah Public High School was condemned and closed. The Gallup McKinley County School District (GMCS) claimed that low enrollment did not justify the building of a new Ramah Public High School. However, enrollment of the Navajo students declined partly because the BIA did not expand the dormitory space and the public school did not expand the bus line. Only K-6th grade students were allowed to remain in the dormitory. The 7th through 12th grades were sent to BIA schools in Utah, California, Arizona, Oklahoma, and New Mexico specifically at Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Fort Wingate.

Faced with this educational challenge Ramah Navajo community leader, Chavez P. Coho worked with the Navajo Nation’s DNA legal services to address this lack of educational system within the Ramah Navajo community. In August 1968, the Navajo Legal System Program (DNA) filed a lawsuit against the GMCS to keep the Public High School open for the RNC. RNC claimed that the GMCS Board surely knows that it is exiling a significant number of Navajo children to off-reservation public and BIA schools. In 1969, the Ramah Navajo provide busing to Zuni Public Schools (ZPS). ZPS was the closest public school but from the heart of the RNC, was 45 miles one way. This time RNC won, but the GMCS refused to let its buses cross the county line into Cibola County (then Valencia County) where the majority of the Ramah Navajo students lived.

The situation that the Ramah Navajos faced in 1968-1970 is summarized as follow:

  • No local high school for their children
  • Even though the parents wanted their children to remain at home and attend a school that was nearby; there were no bus service to the local GMCS or the Valencia(now Cibola) County schools; and
  • Unbearable were the absences from home for months at a time of the Ramah Navajo children who were forced to attend BIA boarding schools in other States.

The Ramah Navajo Community people under the leadership of Mr. Coho organized a community wide meeting. At the February 6, 1970 Ramah Navajo Chapter meeting, community leaders and parents, after a lengthy and sincere discussion, formed a local school board on a motion by Rose Henio and second by Leo Narcisso Martine. That day, selected were the following as the founding school board members:

  • Bessie Begay (now Bessie Randolph), the only teacher for the head start children
  • Chavez P. Coho, Council Delegate to the Navajo Nation
  • Bertha Lorenzo, a longtime community leader especially for secretarial work
  • Juan Martine, a longtime community leader knowledgeable for land matters
  • Sam Martinez, a community leader knowledgeable for medicine man ways

None of the five had, in today’s terms, any advance education. However they determined, had a defined purpose, and were, committed to bringing solutions. On February 10, 1970, the Ramah Navajo School Board was incorporated as a non-profit organization under New Mexico law. The Navajo Nation did not have incorporation capability at the time.

On February 25, 1970, the new School Board members traveled to Washington, D.C. to seek funds for a new community school. They met with the United States Congressman Ed Foreman, United States Senator Joseph M. Montoya, United States Senator Walter F. Mondale, United States Senator George McGovern, aides to Senator Edward Moore Kennedy and others. They also met with the BIA officials, while in halting English, outlined their true grassroots plan for the school. At one point during the one of those meetings the elder Navajo Bertha Lorenzo stated: “We have been waiting since 1920. We want our children back home… I won’t let you leave nor are we leaving… we won’t leave this building until we get a definite commitment from the BIA”. Support from the BIA came that same day in the form of a letter from Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Louis Bruce. After three days in Washington, the School Board members went to New York City to make proposals to private foundations. Per Diem and travel money was scarce but they made do with what some friends back East gave them to eat.

No one stood up for the Ramah Navajos during this entire period when the Ramah Navajo people were trying to get their school so their children would not have to leave home. This remarkable grassroots success was achieved by the community people by asserting themselves and directing their energy for a noble cause for greater Ramah Navajo community. The School Board effort made a national impact. It helped set the stage for the enacting of the National Indian Self-Determination Act in 1975. The people’s effort led to a major Federal Indian policy passed by the United State Congress known as the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 or Public Law 93-638.

On April 4, 1970, a letter was received from BIA-Washington Office to commit funding of approximately $368,000.00 for support of 167 students for one year with three additional years of funding to follow. On April 21, 1970, the School Board resulted in receiving from the Navajo Nation’s Office of Navajo Economic Opportunity, the amount of $68,000.00. With these funds, the School Board was able to start a “Ramah Navajo High School” at the old public school in Ramah, which had been closed for several years.

The School Board used its funds to lease the old Ramah High School from the village of Ramah, renovated the buildings and operated the “Ramah Navajo High School” for five years. During the first summer, some classes were held in tents while the buildings were being renovated by local Navajo carpenters and laborers. Ramah Navajo High School, the first Indian-controlled school built from scratch in the United States was dedicated on September 12, 1970. A telegram from President Richard M. Nixon stated: “The establishment of this school as the first Junior-Senior High School in the country represents an important new direction in Indian Education which my Administration will encourage”. The School Board started immediately to outline plans for a new school to be constructed. In 1973, after heavy lobbying efforts, Congress appropriated funds for new school construction in Pine Hill, 22 miles South of Ramah and in the heart of RNC.

In 1972, KTDB, the First Indian-owned and Indian-controlled radio station in the United States, began broadcasting in Navajo language from a trailer at Mountain View. The call letters, KTDB, stands for Ti’Ochini Dine’ bi radio (translated to ”Ramah Navajo People’s Radio”). In 1973, Tsa Aszi (Yucca) Magazine of the Navajo culture and traditions was started as the First Indian High School magazine in the country and received national acclaimed. The Health Center began in small buildings in Mountain View in 1974.

Finally, in 1975, the school students moved from Ramah to Pine Hill to begin learning in the High School and Elementary buildings built to accommodate 248 students. The move to the campus took place even before water, electricity and phones were hooked up because the lease had run out on the old buildings in Ramah. Present at the dedication on September 26, 1975, were the School Board President Chavez P. Coho, Ramah Navajo Chapter President Dempsey J. Pino, Navajo Nation Chairman Peter McDonald Sr.; and U.S. Senator Joseph M. Montoya. During the new school’s first year, high school students voted to name their new school. “Pine Hill School” was chosen as an appropriate name for a school on a hill top surrounded by pine trees.

The Kindergarten and Gymnasium buildings were completed in 1976. A new Health Center was built in Pine Hill and operated under contract by the School Board with the Federal government. The Library and Media Center opened in 1981. The North Central Association (NCA) officially accredited the Pine Hill School in 1981. This was seen as a major accomplishment by the community since it gave validation that its school was now the equal or better of other schools. The Middle School and Multi-Purpose buildings were completed in 1989. The Child Care Center opened in 1993 and the 66-unit staff housing project was completed in 1995.

The School Board continues to review the RNSB Master Plan and to search for funding to build and renovate the facilities for the Pine Hill School. The new Pine Hill School Dormitory was completed and opened during the 2007-2008 school year. The Child Care Center has added a new modular unit to expand its services and construction has begun on a Community Resource Center (also known as a Parent Resource Center). The Resource Center will be constructed near the School to serve as a site for parent meetings and activities, as well as a general meeting site for other programs in the community.

Also planned for the immediate future are renovations for the swimming pool so it can be reopened. Funds are also being sought for an enclosure for the pool for year-round use. Repairs to the Fitness Trail just east of the school are planned as soon as the utility lines for new dorm completed. Funds are already committed for the repair of the three greenhouses at the School Farm so these can be back to productive use.

Today, Pine Hill School has a cumulative total of more than 750 students graduating from high school. The school is fully accredited by the State of New Mexico and the NCA. The Ramah Navajo community through the efforts of the Ramah Navajo Chapter and the RNSB, Inc. is nationally recognized as a model for the Indian Self-Determination. The School Board’s success has inspired other tribes around the world that the indigenous people of the Earth can do wonders with their minds and not only their hands.