In the Ute language, Towaoc, pronounced TOW-ay-ock, translates into English as “thank you.”
That’s according to Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart, who thanked each of the 33 new Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 teachers with a handshake last week. Heart was one of several tribal officials to address the teachers in the Towaoc community center during a cultural awareness tour on Thursday, Aug. 13.
“Thank you for your interest in education,” Heart said. “Thank you for coming to a rural area. Thank you for your thoughts and vision on how to help with education.”
About half the teachers indicated by a show of hands that they haven’t worked with Native American students. Heart said they shared a goal – educating students to make America stronger.
“We want to work with you,” Heart said.
Education is a top priority for the tribe, Heart said, encouraging the teachers to be open to a partnership.
“Try to work with us,” he said. “All we want is for our children to succeed.”
Ute Mountain Ute education director Tanya Amrine, who coordinated the tour, reminded teachers that students must navigate a different culture and support system when off the reservation.
“The kids walk in two worlds,” said Amrine.
The tribe’s education division offers student support, including child development, counseling and truancy. Amrine strongly encouraged the teachers to stay in touch with her office.
“Call us, please,” Amrine pleaded, reiterating that her staff can offer support when notified. “We want your phone calls.”
Ute Mountain Ute councilmember Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk gave teachers her personal cell phone number, instructing them to call her for assistance.
“Innovation, creativity and tradition,” Lopez-Whiteskunk told the teachers. “The first two should be fairly easy to figure out. The third is probably more of a challenge.”
Lopez-Whiteskunk challenged teachers to let Native students explore their cultures, citing an example from her own life.
After her grandfather died, she said, her Montezuma-Cortez fourth-grade teacher let her share tribal stories, songs and dances with classmates as she grieved.
“My fourth-grade teacher allowed us to be who we were,” she said.
“You have the capacity to help us create successful students,” she said. “Part of that is allowing them to be who they are and allowing them to share their feelings.”
Tribal councilmember Gary Hayes, who is retired from the Navy, echoed the remarks, mentioning the military’s strength of diversity. That strength could be harnessed in the schoolhouse if children of all races were allowed to contribute, he said.
“You are leaders in grooming our future community,” said Hayes.
He encouraged teachers to create a welcoming environment in their classrooms, adding that school shouldn’t tolerate racial prejudice.
“As teachers, you need to be able to understand and respect everyone in the classroom,” said Hayes.
Hayes closed by thanking Re-1 officials for helping to bridge a gap between Towaoc and Cortez.
“I truly believe, the key component is in this room now,” Hayes told the teachers. “You are pivotal. We need your support.”