Pride of Navajo Nation: Diné College works to rebuild rodeo program amid the pandemic

Far from the red rocks of Sedona and the bright lights of Phoenix sits a small college in the heart of the Navajo Nation. In Tsaile, Diné College has served as a higher education institution for the Navajo people for over 50 years.

A part of its identity is a rodeo program rooted in success and tradition. Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it has taken a major hit, but a top-ranked bull rider and a world champion coach are trying to return the school to its status as one of the premier programs on the college rodeo landscape.

A Navajo tradition

Livestock and rodeo events have long been a part of Navajo culture. As people grew up on ranches, they searched for ways to pass time. They created activities and events with the livestock they were around every day.

“Rodeo on the Navajo Nation is sort of embedded into our upbringing,” Diné athletic director Shawn Frank said.

Rodeo coach Ed Hoylan calls it the “livelihood” of the Navajo people.

Much like the rest of the world, Diné College came to a halt when the pandemic struck. Academics and sports were shut down entirely. A rodeo team that once featured over 30 athletes dwindled to just four.

And with it came heartbreak. Last January, longtime rodeo coach Karlets Dennison passed away due to COVID-19 complications. The coronavirus hit the community hard and at one point in 2020, the Navajo Nation had the country’s highest infection rate. Lockdowns and mask mandates helped the area recover but memories are vivid: As of Friday, the Navajo Department of Health reported 42,622 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,593 deaths.

An era of success at Diné College is now a part of the school’s history, and the pandemic ushered in an assortment of questions and uncertainties.

A rich history

As Diné College developed into a staple of the Navajo Nation community, the rodeo team grew with it. Talent from the area represented Diné at local and collegiate competitions.

Freshman Cody Jesus, a product of nearby Sawmill, is already well known in the bull-riding circuit.

Ranked No. 19 in the world by the Professional Bull Riders, Jesus feels the support of the Navajo community, even at national events.

“You see kids out here swinging ropes … wearing their bull-riding chaps and their bull-riding vests and I think it really means a lot to them,” Jesus said. “They come and they support. When there’s a rodeo near it fills up quick.”

Diné College Athletic Director Shawn Frank describes rodeo as being as important to Diné as basketball and football are to schools like Arizona State.

“Having the rodeo program embedded in our personal daily lives has been going on for as long as we started walking,” Frank said.

More than 70 colleges around the country have rodeo programs. Although it is not an officially sanctioned NCAA, NAIA or NJCAA sport, frequent competitions are held nationally.

A unique experience

Established as Navajo Community College in 1968, Diné was the first tribally controlled and accredited collegiate institution in the United States. A common misconception suggests that Diné means “the people,” but it actually has multiple meanings, including man/men or “the five fingered ones.”

As a smaller school away from the big city, Diné is able to offer a unique higher education experience. It has about 1,500 students across six campuses in Arizona and New Mexico.

The student-to-faculty ratio is much smaller than many bigger universities at just 1:15. Tuition is one of the lowest in the country.

A full-time student can attend classes for just $660 per semester, A parking pass is just $5, and a dorm is less than $640 for the school year.

The affordability and tight-knit relationship between student and professor give Diné a unique feel.

Even with the already affordable tuition, the school also offers students other ways to limit expenses.

While it does not offer athletic scholarships, the college offer further discounts on tuition based on students’ GPAs, especially in light of the pandemic.For students currently enrolled, if they pass 12 credit hours with a 2.0 GPA, it will be free for them to attend in the spring semester.

In addition, tuition only covers up to 12 credit hours. If a student decides to take more than 12 hours in a semester, those courses would basically be free.

COVID-19

The effects of COVID-19 at the school were far-reaching.

“It was a true culture shock in every way. Not only for the students, but for the faculty, the staff, and everybody here at Diné College,” said Professor Patrick Blackwater, who teaches upper-level business courses at Diné.

The school adjusted the way it taught its students and helped them transition into an online learning environment.

“Before COVID here on the Navajo reservation, we weren’t ready,” Frank said. “This pandemic threw us into the mix of going live and ensuring that our students are still getting the proper education that they need.”

Before the pandemic, quality cell service was lacking, and many people could not afford Wi-Fi. Now, local cell towers are partnering with larger companies, and students now need Wi-Fi to be able to connect to their online classes.

“And now we’re finding out that there is a whole different world out there that involves technology,” Frank said.

Teachers and students had to adjust everything about their education process.

The school is still trying to get back to in-person classes, with a majority of classes still only being offered online.

“We are able to connect with people across the Navajo Nation in other states and other countries,” Frank said. “That is something new for us and we are excited to continue using that.

The athletic program at Diné offers three sports for athletes: archery, cross country and rodeo.

Rebuilding mode

To help rebuild the program after Dennison’s passing, Diné brought on his cousin, Hoylan, a nine-time INFR world champion who is excited to take on the challenge.

“Build a team that can make it back to the college finals,” Hoylan said about his goals. “If I do not try, I fail. So I have to try.”

As for the athletes, there are only four currently on the rodeo team: freshmen Jesus, Erynne Sells and Robbie Taylor and sophomore Keanna Dedman,

Hoylan was unable to recruit for the fall, as he joined the college the day after registration closed. However, he believes a solid foundation exists for the program, with PBR ranked bull-rider Jesus, and Chinle’s Taylor, another talented rider.

While rodeo is obviously on their minds at Diné, athletes are also pushed to focus on school, something that Frank and Hoylan encourage.

“I am pushing the academic side,” Frank said, “making sure that students come here to the college to receive a quality education. And on the side, they perform in their respective sport.”

Hoylan is now also able to recruit athletes, which should help boost numbers and add talent to the roster.

There is still a long way to go before the rodeo program is back to where it once was. Questions remain, including ones about scholarships and funding in the long-term, and how that will impact the recruiting process.

But as they continue to adjust to life with COVID, Hoylan is hopeful that they are beginning a climb back up the ranks in college rodeo.

“Our work is cut out for us,” he said. “And we’re up to the challenge.”

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