- The Earth Memory Compass: Diné Landscapes and Education in the Twentieth Century by Farina King
In The Earth Memory Compass, Farina King examines the experiences of the Diné (Navajo) with government schooling from 1930 to 1990. A series of microhistories, rather than a comprehensive overview, King’s work illustrates the diversity of Diné experiences with Euro-American education, while maintaining a coherent argument. What makes King’s work stand out from the sizeable body of literature on American Indian education is her efforts to not only foreground Indigenous voices but to structure her scholarship within an Indigenous framework: her concept of the earth memory compass.
King ties Diné identity to intimate understanding of the Diné homeland. This goes beyond an understanding of the physical geography (which is important, too) to encompass the knowledge embedded in the sacred geography of the region—the Four Sacred Mountains and Directions—garnered from connections forged between the Diné people and the land over generations. King argues that Diné parents taught their children to internalize this knowledge, “reinforcing Diné earth memories that would persist against non-Navajo educational influences and attempts to erase or manipulate their ties to Diné Bikéyah (Navajo land)” (p. 5). Children then took this “earth memory compass” to school with them.
In the light of governmental attempts to assimilate Diné children through education, it is the strength of this “compass” that allows each generation to return home again. This can be a literal homecoming, as with Diné youth like Hopi-Hopi who run away from school, using their knowledge of regional geography to guide them home again. But it is also symbolic. Diné youth use the compass to navigate the strange and coercive landscape of Euro-American education, allowing them to endure efforts to destroy Diné identity. This is not to say that experiences with government schooling did not shape the Diné people. King says that “historical developments such as the penetration of mainstream American influence and hegemony through schooling have changed Diné language and its ideologies” (p.8). However, King asserts that the [End Page 343] Diné have successfully engaged in cultural hybridization—both incorporating and resisting aspects of the dominant settler colonial American society in developing an ongoing sense of Diné identity. Indeed, this is the central thrust of King’s argument: the strength of the earth memory compass allowed twentieth-century Diné youth and their communities to engage in cultural hybridization, ensuring the survival of a collective Diné identity into the twenty-first century.
The earth memory compass also provides the book’s structure. The book’s four main chapters each take their name from one of the Four Directions. Traveling around the compass from east (chapter one) to north (chapter four), King chooses case studies from different physical portions of the Diné homeland in order to develop her argument. Here, the book makes another key contribution to the historiography. Like the Diné, most American Indian nations attended not only a significant number of different government schools but also a wide variety of school types. Yet, scholars have spent little time trying to understand the impact of this historical experience. King offers an important initial foray here. At the same time, each of the Four Directions is related to a different stage of life (among other things). Thus, King also moves around the compass chronologically, starting with a discussion of traditional Diné education and the earliest government schooling experiences (chapter one) and ending with an examination of Diné efforts at educational self-determination in the last decades of the twentieth century (chapter four).
The Earth Memory Compass is autoethnographic, which is part of King’s effort to present her research more like a Diné storyteller than a western academic. Though her family is not the central subject of the book, stories about various family members appear throughout. Usually, these stories help to frame key themes or shed further light on particular case studies. At the same time, King’s own journey...