Dr. WIlson Aronilth Jr. Navajo Teacher

 Navajo Oral History Project – Photos and Video 2009


Dr. WIlson Aronilth Jr. Navajo Teacher

Photo by Tom Grier/Navajo Oral History Project.

“Forever will I teach”

By Jessica Larsen

WHEATFIELD, Ariz. — He took his first step into the room. There was no turning back.

With one more step he was met with eyes – 24 pairs of them.

This was it, his first classroom.

No curriculum, no books, no idea what to teach.

The futures these students rested on the shoulders of a man who never once considered teaching.

His name is Wilson Aronilth Jr. He was born on the Navajo Reservation in 1933 in the back of a Model-T truck. Aronilth never thought he would become one of the most respected teachers at Dine College and one of the key designers of the school curriculum.

To get there, Aronilth had to become a student himself.

Dr. WIlson Aronilth Jr. Navajo Teacher 2

Photo by Tom Grier/Navajo Oral History Project.

Aronilth was born for his maternal grandmother the Red House Clan, and for his paternal grandmother, Zuni Red Streak Running into the Water Clan, for his maternal grandfather, Near the Water clan, and for his paternal grandfather, the Under the Sleeve clan.

Education had always been important to Aronilth; he learned that through his mother. When he was born, his mother decided the best way to provide for her son was by getting a higher education for herself. She gave her son to his grandmother when he was five days old. His grandmother taught him all he needed to know about manhood, being Navajo and marriage.
He and his wife have been married for 54 years through an arranged marriage. Together they had four children – Veronica, Lawrence, Cynthia, Pat and adopted son Louie – 14 grand-children and seven great-grandchildren.

“We made a lot of adjustments, that’s why I say my life wasn’t jolly and sweet and lovable all the way,” Aronilth said. “I feel like if you were to evaluate my marriage from my perspective, about 98 percent of my married life was enjoyable and good. We practically raised one another because we got married at a young age. I was 22 years old, she was only about 18.”

Being Navajo meant Aronilth and his family had to make sacrifices – and he knew it. Living on the reservation meant forfeiting the chance for a better education because of the little availability. Students were giving up knowledge by choosing to stay where their heritage was versus going off the reservation for school. Aronilth wanted to change that, all he needed was the opportunity.

Aronilth clearly remembers the day he was asked to teach at Dine College, it was 1969 – a day that changed his life forever.

Ned Hatathi, a college official, asked Aronilth to teach Navajo culture to the students at the college.

“I don’t know anything about teaching as far as classroom involvement,” Aronilth said.

“No, I’m not asking if you went to school to be an educator,” Hatathi said. “I think you are an educator in your own way. So teach Navajo culture, knowledge and history the way you were taught.”

And Aronilth did.
Feature layout by Winona State University students Jessica Larsen and Kim Streblow
His grandmother told him self-clan introduction is very important. You never know who you are related to, she would say.
So Aronilth started with that.

“Probably the most important thing that I learned in his class was how to properly introduce myself in Navajo with my clans,” said Miranda Haskie, former student of Aronilth and current colleague at Dine College. “And from that moment…every time that I met anyone, I introduced myself to them.”

On Haskie’s first day class, she learned Aronilth was her grandfather by clan.
Now that Aronilth had taught his students the most important lesson, clan introduction, he needed to go deeper into Navajo teachings. He needed books – something the school did not have.

So Aronilth took matters into his own hands. He wrote six books, three of which are still used in classes today. His first, “Foundations of a Navajo Culture,” was to teach the students where they came from and who they are. Also, “Navajo Philosophy” and “Navajo Holistic Healing,” to go deeper into teachings that have been taught for years.

All of his books were written based on teachings that were passed down from his ancestors. That is the Navajo way.
He received a very small profit from his books, but he never cared about the money. It was his passion for Navajo culture that he wanted to spread and this was the only way he knew how.

Aronilth believes in the younger generations. He knows they are the future and he wants that future to be a promising one.
That is why he took the job. For some of these students, few believed they could make it to college. And Aronilth couldn’t let them quit.

“You’re my generation, you’re my children, you’re my future leaders, and you are my flesh and blood,” he would say to them. “I’m here to try and do what I can to support you and to give a little advice or guidance in your life in the way of education. I think you’re unique, special and intelligent.”

Dr. WIlson Aronilth Jr. Navajo Teacher 3

Photo by Tom Grier/Navajo Oral History Project.

Aronilth is credited with building a majority of the Dine College curriculum. At 76, Aronilth is still teaching and writing books. Although he is retired, Aronilth plans to stay at the college until he can no longer teach. His mission is to share the knowledge he has, while he knows it is only one perspective in a world of many.

“My knowledge is smaller than a mustard seed,” he said. “I don’t know everything.”

Aronilth’s humble, Navajo up-bringing is what his family and friends know him most for.

“He’s the real McCoy,” Louie Barton said, Aronilth’s adopted son. “He’s the genuine…a Dine, a Navajo. He has come a long ways, up to the point where you can say he’s a man, he’s a warrior.”



This documentary film was researched, photographed, edited and produced by students of Winona State University (Winona, Minnesota) and Diné College (Tsaile, Arizona, Navajo Nation) during summer 2009.

It contains stories Harry Walters of Cove, Arizona, told the students during several hours of interviews about his life.

This documentary film is archived at the Navajo Nation MuseumNavajo Nation LibraryWinona State University Library, and Diné College Library, and will be archived at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.

The film is part of the Navajo Oral History project, a multi-year collaboration between the Winona State UniversityMass Communication Department and Diné College– The official Tribal College of the Navajo Nation


Navajo People Website Links:

Navajo Culture – Navajo History – Navajo Art – Navajo Clothing Navajo Pictures – Navajo Rugs – Navajo Language– Navajo Jewelry – Navajo Code Talker – Navajo Pottery – Navajo Legends – Hogan’s – Sand Painting – Navajo Food – Navajo News – Navajo Nation