Navajo grandmother Millie Salt takes her experience with Indian Boarding Schools to pursue life as an educator
While Millie Salt was bouncing in and out of Indian boarding schools in Arizona and California, losing touch with her Navajo homeland, her culture and her immediate family, she learned to loathe education. Today, the 62-year-old full-time teaching aide and part-time Yavapai College student can’t get enough of it.
Taking one class per semester, Millie is making steady progress toward her goal of earning an associate’s degree in early childhood education from Yavapai College-Prescott. From there, she will pursue a bachelor’s degree, because the woman who once had so much disdain for education now dreams of becoming a teacher.
“I concentrate on one class and put all my effort into it. I know I can do it,” Millie said.
Acknowledging that college classes have been challenging, she credited unwavering support from her family, instructors and the tutors and staff of the college’s Learning Center for keeping her focused on her later-in-life goal.
English was Millie’s one spring-semester class. Her professor, Sandi Van Lieu, said Millie “poured her entire being into the class” and reminded her how grateful she is to be an educator. “Teaching is one of the most difficult yet rewarding jobs and it is students like Millie who bring those rewards. I know I was her teacher, but really, she was my teacher and an inspiration to me. She taught me you’re never too old to do something, you can always overcome obstacles, and with grit, faith, and support you can reach your goals and dreams.”
Even after a protracted recovery from COVID-19 that forced her to take the summer off from work and school, Millie is not giving up on her dream. “I want to keep learning. And I want to keep teaching kids to read. Kids are so loving. That’s what makes it worth it to keep moving forward.”
Millie helped teach children to read as a Title 1 teaching aide with the Humboldt Unified School District in Prescott Valley. This fall, she will be working with special education students in the Prescott Unified School District. The schools Millie works in and children learn in today are nothing like the boarding schools she attended starting at age 5. “There was a lot of isolation, loneliness,” she recalled. “They cut our hair and stripped us of our traditional clothes. We couldn’t speak Navajo. Everything was run like the military.”
The cries of her classmates calling for their parents all those years ago are etched in Millie’s memory. So is the fact that, due to the family trauma that preceded her disrupted childhood, Millie was able to withstand the mental and physical abuse she endured in boarding school. “I didn’t cry much,” she said. When government-required Indian education evaporated, Millie reunited with her by-then estranged mother in Englewood, California. There, she struggled to adjust to the relative freedom of public school.
A severely troubled student by junior high, Millie requested to return to boarding school. “It was easier to be at the (Sherman) Indian School (in Southern California) than to be around my mom,” she said.
Millie found a family of classmates representing a variety of Native American tribes at the Sherman School and managed to graduate, but had no desire to continue her education. Instead, she worked in retail for a number of years, married briefly and was employed by her Indian School alma mater before meeting and marrying her second husband, David, with whom she has been married 39 years.
“He’s my rock,” Millie said of David.
The pair relocated to Phoenix where they welcomed their son, Kenneth, and daughter, Christine. Millie stayed home to care for her children until they reached junior high. By then, they were living near Salem, Oregon, where Millie sought and won a job at Chemawa Indian School. It was there that she saw the life-changing effects of education on teenagers who were struggling to overcome their own generational trauma and hardships.
The experience inspired Millie to launch a higher education journey at Linn-Benton Community College. “I wanted to know how my mind works, how to help people and how to heal them.”
Certain that education was the key to all three, Millie dove into her required English courses and was ready to tackle math when her mother fell ill. The family relocated to Prescott Valley so that Millie could be her mother’s caregiver.
During the following four years, Millie learned previously unknown details about her mother’s life. Whereas Millie always believed her father had abandoned the family, the truth was her mother had been raped. “I realized why she didn’t treat me so well,” she said.
After her mother’s death, Millie enrolled at Yavapai College. Because she was eager to start working in education, she initially sought and earned an early childhood education certificate. “I learned the first two years of a child’s life are very important for things like a sense of belonging. I never felt like I belonged anywhere,” Millie said – that is, until she had a family and a career goal of her own.
Family, education, and strong faith helped ground Millie and give her a sense of purpose. She takes great pride in the fact that both her children are college graduates, parents and hard-working professionals.
Millie is determined to follow her children into the professional ranks. “Sometimes I wish I would have learned at an earlier age and gotten everything done,” Millie said. “But everything happens for a reason. And through life experiences and through God, I’ve learned that we’re all precious, honored and loved and whatever I set my mind to I can do.”