“I always wanted to be a culture teacher from second grade,” Kevin Belin recalled. He fulfilled his childhood dream last year, having earned his B.A. in Secondary Education at Fort Lewis College. Now, as the Navajo Culture and Language teacher at T’iis Ts’ózí Bi’Ólta’ in Crownpoint, NM, Belin is in his element. “Think of your students as yourself,” he said, summarizing his teaching philosophy. How would you learn? We assume the student knows everything. That’s not the case! We need to work our way up.”
Belin has become known for teaching the Shoe Game, or “Késhjee’” as part of his curriculum. With origins steeped in oral tradition, “Keshjee’” is derived from another ceremony, “Dziłk’iji,” and is played only in winter. Two teams of players bet money and sing as they hide a yucca ball inside a row of moccasins. Dirt is poured inside the shoes to hide the ball. An opposing player then attempts to locate the yucca ball.
Belin’s family strongly fostered his own cultural interests starting with Shoe Games. “At Shoe Games, kids weren’t welcome at the seating area. There was little support for children because there was money on the line,” he recollected. “My dad would invite me to sit by him when he played. He said, ‘Listen.’ That’s all he said. I didn’t interrupt. ‘Yéégo ííníłta’.’ That’s what my grandfather would tell me. ‘Learn as much as you can.’”
Belin would later begin networking with medicine men and attending ceremonies. Some of his learning efforts prompted criticism from community members who condemned Navajo teachings as “useless.” After years of research, Belin experienced a turning point in 2004. Navajo Preparatory School was in sore need of a singer to direct their Shoe Game, so Belin offered to lead. That day, he poured two decades of dedicated study into his first row of Shoe Game moccasins.
Belin has since honed his teaching methods for imparting Shoe Game knowledge. “I try to create a positive atmosphere,” he said. “I tell them not to be afraid. I make everyone feel welcome. The teachings benefit them and make their day brighter.” Belin teaches objectively and is sensitive to students’ diverse beliefs. He also allows nominal betting, regarding it as one’s investment in learning tradition.
Belin has since honed his teaching methods for imparting Shoe Game knowledge. “I try to create a positive atmosphere,” he said. “I tell them not to be afraid. I make everyone feel welcome. The teachings benefit them and make their day brighter.”
Belin explained that being invited to play in a Shoe Game is a “healing experience” that addresses historical trauma experienced by tribal members. “You feel protected. You feel kinship. You make friends. It strengthens k’é,” he said, referencing the tribe’s centuries-old kinship system.
Though Shoe Game footage is being shared through social media, drawing ire from traditionalists, Belin praised its benefits. “They’re a double-edged sword, but technology is bringing our prayers to every corner of the globe. We need to treat it as a learning tool.” Belin acknowledged that the public should avoid treating ceremonies as fodder for profit, as entrepreneurs want to do, no entity should treat the Shoe Game as a market product for sale . “Selling the ceremony to self-perpetuate the ego and wallet is not the way,” he said. “Our knowledge will reward us and sustain our livelihood when we respect its power.”
Belin recalled a game he directed at San Juan College in Farmington, NM. “Only 30 people were invited, but somehow, 150 people showed up,” Belin laughed. “You need a presentation of the lyrics and rules. The main thing that captured students’ interests were the songs. If you don’t know what the song means, it loses its power.” He emphasized that to fully appreciate Shoe Game songs, one must improve her or his fluency in Navajo since the songs feature nuances not immediately discernible to beginning speakers.
Belin feels his choice to invest in his community’s cultural education is starting to pay off. “To every student who wants to learn their culture, it will take time; it will take tears; you will suffer. You might have self-doubt. You can’t take short-cuts. Continue to be humble, but if you have the knowledge, share it.”
Christy Hanson is an experienced writer and instructor with a demonstrated history of working in freelance and education.