Navajo Educator, Visionary Dies

April 16, 2012

Photo provided by George Hardeen
Robert and Ruth Roessel started the first American Indian-run school on the Navajo Nation in 1968.
The woman who founded the first American Indian-controlled school died last week. Ruth Roessel and her late husband Robert also started the first college on the Navajo Nation in 1968.

In the 1960s many Navajo children went to federal government-run boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their native tongue. Many dropped out and few went onto college.

Ruth and Robert Roessel believed celebrating their culture should be the focus of Navajo Community College. Maggie George is the president of what is today called Dine College.

"The whole movement to bring the value and importance of educating students with the Navajo world view being at the center that’s what the tribal college movement is about today still," George said. "Both Ruth and Robert Roessel were instrumental in that movement. We are so grateful for her contribution and we will miss her."

Dine College became a model for other tribes. Today there are more than 30 American Indian colleges.

Roessel taught former Navajo Nation Chairman and President Peterson Zah. He says Roessel is the reason he became a teacher and eventually a leader.

"I always look at her as the keeper of our faith, the keeper of our tradition, language and culture," Zah said. "Navajo Nation lost a great educator, somebody who promoted Navajo education and self sufficiency. We will really feel the loss of Ruth Roessel."

She published five books about Navajo culture, history and education. Roessel was 77. She is survived by five children, 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.