In Navajo Nation, the Beating Heart of Community
Patrick Scafidi in conversation with Gregory Lewis, Assistant Director, Heartbeat Music Project
Spanning over 27,000 square miles across parts of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, Navajo Nation is the largest Native American reservation in the United States. A land mass greater than ten states, it is home to over half of the Navajo Nation’s 400,000 enrolled people. This enormous population comprises countless diverse communities, each with deep artistic roots. And yet, despite this cultural richness, Navajo Nation had never been home to free, accessible youth music programs…until about six years ago.
That was when Navajo cultural anthropologist Dr. Wesley Thomas retired as Dean of Graduate Studies at the Navajo Technical University (NTU) in Crownpoint, New Mexico, and began exploring new ways to enrich his community and address its lack of music education programs for children. He reached out to Juilliard fourth-year violin student Ariel Horowitz, saying, “‘Can I bring you here just for one week, to work with some kids? We’ll see the community’s interest level and figure out how this might go.’” Dr. Thomas figured that if the community showed interest in the idea, he could make use of the university’s resources to take it further.
That seed of an idea became the basis of Heartbeat Music Project, a free music and cultural education program serving young people in the Navajo Nation. Following are highlights from my conversation about the program with Heartbeat’s Assistant Director, Gregory Lewis.
“I don’t think anybody knew then what it was going to turn into,” says Lewis, of those early days. “Sharing music and working with new students in a new community—in that first year, it was a very small group of eight or nine students. Ariel found some sponsors, picked up some violins from a shop in Albuquerque, and at the end of the week all the kids gave a small community concert.”
In the years since, that nine-person recital has grown into a flourishing arts organization, founded by Ariel Horowitz, that serves students within a several-hundred-mile radius in Navajo Nation. This year, Heartbeat received the Lewis Prize for Music’s $500,000 Accelerator Award, a development Horowitz has called “life-changing” for the program.
According to Gregory Lewis, Heartbeat has found its strengths in bold experimentation, community dialogue, and a healthy respect for its young learners. “Ariel knew from the beginning that she wanted the program to be Indigenous-led and Indigenous-centered; she was aware of her place as a visitor in the community, someone who had never lived on the reservation,” he says. “So Sharon Nelson, a professor at NTU’s Navajo Cultural Studies program, came on as Executive Director, and Wesley Thomas became Chair of our Board.” The Heartbeat team, now over fifty percent Indigenous, has slowly grown to better reflect the students and community members it serves. That percentage figures to increase as the organization strives to be fully Indigenous-led.
Lewis continues, “Sharon told us right off the bat, ‘I’m happy for you guys to come in and use your curriculums; you know how to produce good violin students quickly. But I want to make sure that our Indigenous songs, the Navajo songs they’ve been singing since they were young kids—their “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”—are incorporated.’”
Nelson and Horowitz began designing the curriculum when Heartbeat was still just a two-week Summer Academy—not the potentially year-round music organization it is today. (In addition to the Summer Academy and newer Winter Workshops, Heartbeat has expanded to include a pandemic-inspired virtual lessons program as well as an in-person, one-on-one community lessons program.)
Nelson runs a Navajo cultural language class that now makes up fifty percent of Heartbeat’s programming. The curriculum also includes music lessons, primarily in small groups, on a range of instruments: woodwinds, percussion, strings, piano, and guitar. The students choose their own instruments (some years, it feels like everyone picks guitar) and the repertoire is adapted accordingly.
A true cultural exchange program, Heartbeat serves all kinds of young people. Says Lewis, “Some of our kids live in multigenerational homes; they speak Navajo with their grandparents. Some go to Navajo schools that specifically use Navajo in the classroom. And others come from cities, where they might go to public school. Their parents don’t speak Navajo at home anymore. Sharon is eloquent about the importance of cultural heritage; she tells the students, ‘This is part of your identity and your history, so it’s something we’re going to nurture.’”
“We try to adjust to our students’ needs,” he adds. “As they approach us with ideas and opportunities, we do our best to listen and to make them happen. We are looking at our students, especially the ones who’ve been with us since the beginning, as the next leaders of Heartbeat.” He tells me about a fifth-year student who has accepted a position on their board as Youth Director. For others, that means the conservatory track. The main thing is that students feel supported as they discover their voices.
It’s a unique time in Heartbeat’s journey. After six years of incremental growth, the organization is now supported by an enormous grant, which will help achieve the enormous student body they aspire to. But even with an Accelerator Award in hand, Heartbeat’s story offers a useful lesson: the lifeblood of a community music program isn’t music—it’s trust. As Lewis says, “Heartbeat will be at its best when it doesn’t need Ariel and me running it, when it’s entirely based on the reservation and run by students who have come up through the program. When they take it over, then it will be fully and truly community-based.”
To learn more about Heartbeat Music Project, check out this “Look Inside” video published on their YouTube channel.