January 27, 2003

Multicultural elders share wisdom with school children


A crowd of students gathered at the feet of Navajo elder Franklin Kahn, who is a participant in a special program designed by the STAR School to bring adult volunteers from the community into the classroom.

At the charter school on Leupp Road east of Flagstaff, volunteers share stories of their lives, their culture, the geography and history of the area. School staff hopes that through this program, multicultural students will learn to better understand and be more tolerant of each other’s differences, and to appreciate the similarities.

Kahn’s life is a testimony to this goal.

Kneeling in the center of the circle of children, Kahn explained why he had asked the students to form a circle.

Vera Lee - Navajo Medicine Chart

Navajo Medicine Chart

Vera Lee

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“We do this is for a reason,” Kahn said. “Mentally, physically and spiritually, we are all connected together in a circle. It doesn’t matter what race we are. We all have a purpose, and we must learn to work together.”

He gestured at the young girl and boy, one a clan grandson, he had placed at the head of the circle, both of mixed heritages.

“I have these two, a boy and a girl,” Kahn said. “You are my grandson, and you are my granddaughter. I will talk to you as my relation, and you must talk to each other as relation. Your relatives are those who really understand you.

Christian Riese Lassen - Circle of Life (w Foil)

Circle of Life (w Foil)

Christian Riese Lassen

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I ask people to sit this way because we recreate the [circle that is the] world – Mother Earth and Father Sky. This formation is very important to Native Americans, ladies sitting on one side, men on the other. When you are in the circle you can dream and think. You can ask questions, seek answers.”

Kahn said he learned at an early age to appreciate and understand nature. This training continues to guide him in his growing age. He admitted to spending several days in contemplation of what he would share with the students on Jan. 9.

“Yesterday I was concentrating on what I was going to tell you, and I saw an eagle sitting by my house,” Kahn said. “I told the eagle a number of things in my mind, and in watching it’s beautiful flight, the eagle enlightened me. The eagle helps me to understand the quality of life.”

At Kahn’s request, the students closed their eyes to think about their own paths, their own purposes. His voice rose in a beautiful chant in Navajo describing the Four Directions and human purpose.

Ella Myers - Navajo Dye Chart

Navajo Dye Chart

Ella Myers

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Outside the window, small blue winter birds gathered.

Kahn, who serves on the American Indian Science and Engineering Society Elders Council, has traveled extensively throughout his life, presenting Native American culture and wisdom.

Kahn described the adventure presented by traveling by team and wagon. Quite an undertaking, families had to pack everything they needed to feed and bed their entire family. This included food, plates, pots and pans, blankets, sheepskins, blankets and water.

“We would get into a wagon to take a trip, and at the end of the day we had to undo everything again,” he said. “We had to undo the horses and graze them. We would tie their feet together so they couldn’t roam away. We had to set up our camp, cook, and make our bedding.”

Keith Mallett - Generations II Circle of Strength L-E

Generations II Circle of Strength L-E

Keith Mallett

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One of the most important qualities a young person should cultivate is patience, according to Kahn.

“Sometimes we’re impatient,” he said. “If we’re impatient, we get no rewards. Let other people do their own thing. Wait, take your turn when it comes. The Creator will always put something into your future, something very special.”

Joy and enthusiasm are the rewards for patience and good behavior, Kahn continued.

“Being a good person is beautiful,” he said. “We shouldn’t want to give anyone, especially our parents, a bad time. It is important to obey your teachers, to help them in a dignified way.

John Pezzenti Jr - Soaring Eagle

Soaring Eagle

John Pezzenti Jr

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It is important to be obedient to yourself, obedient to society, your relations and in your classrooms. This is the value of life – to live right.”

Singing and the ability to laugh are also important ingredients to a happy life, Kahn explained.

Kahn said he was taught to rise before the sun and to run.

“It’s the hardest thing to get up early in the morning, to run and sing,” he said. “But I was taught that to feel good, we should run, and I was encouraged to listen to the nature around me.

There’s a special, tiny little bug. My grandfather told me to try to sing like them. They hum, they chirp, they have rhythm. And when you run, you begin to feel the air.”

Breathing in the air helps us develop, helps us stay alive, Kahn explained.

“As young people, we are all encouraged to have a goal in life,” he said. “What do you want to be when you grow up? Begin to develop that now. The longer you wait, the harder it is to have a goal.”

He described his education.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

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“When I was your age, I went to an Indian School,” Kahn said. “I enjoyed learning from different communities. We were forced to learn everything in five years.

‘In those days, there were no schools like you have here. A lot of young people didn’t have a chance like I had to attend school.”

A Korea War era veteran, Kahn was drafted at the age of 17. He laughed as he remembered his surprise to learn that there weren’t Indians living throughout the world.

After his term of service, Kahn entered a fine arts school for four years. There, he honed skills that have served him throughout his life. A sign painter, Kahn founded his business, Kahn Signs. He painted many of the billboards seen on the reservation along Highway 89 in the Cameron and Tuba City area.

Kahn and his wife have three children of their own but have raised others. They also adopted a young Japanese man named Masaki, who visits the family twice a year.

Karen Noles - Quiet Reflection (AP)

Quiet Reflection (AP)

Karen Noles

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“My grandfather always said to relate to all people,” he said. “I just love this young man. When I met Masaki, he could barely speak English. Now he can speak English really good, and I’ve learned to speak a little of his language.”

Admitting his gratitude for the lessons he’s learned from other cultures, Kahn told students that each possess special valuable gifts including their own languages and arts.

More, Kahn said he believes that learning about different cultures is important for today’s youth, pointing out that such efforts teach students to be more sensitive to others.

Kahn summed up his presentation simply.
“It’s important to me that you understand the way my life was and is,” he said. “You have to uplift humanity. Creator put us here to help each other.”


S.J. Wilson writes for the The Navajo-Hopi Observer. Navajo Hopi Observer Online is a service of Northern Arizona Newspapers, Inc. Questions or comments should be addressed to

© 2003 Northern Arizona Newspapers, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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