Indigenous coach celebrated as a lifetime educator

By: - February 9, 2024 3:05 am

Fern Spencer (Hopi & Navajo) giving an acceptance speech after being recognized by Sen. Shannon Pinto as a basketball coach for Tohatchi High School and retiring after 49 years. She was recognized during Indigenous Women’s Day at the Rotunda. (Photo by Jeanette DeDios / KUNM)

During Indigenous Women’s Day at the New Mexico Legislature, Sen. Shannon Pinto (D-Tohatchi) recognized retired Hopi and Navajo basketball coach Fern Spencer on her lasting legacy as an educator. KUNM spoke with Spencer about how her coaching career started and what’s changed.

FERN SPENCER: I never dreamt that this would happen. I played college ball way back and then I started teaching. The principal came to me, ‘Oh, I see that you’re a PE major. ‘Would you mind coaching the girls basketball?’ And I thought, well, yeah. Okay, so I did that. And I was president of the New Mexico High School Coaches Association at one time. And I was the only woman in that board of directors. And it was like, ‘Oh, my God, what did I get myself into?’ but I learned from them as well.

Being a woman and being Native American, that’s a plus. And I look at other kids, and I look at you know I look at them, you could do the same thing that I’ve done. There is like three or four other women that are now in the coaching position on the board of directors, which I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really great.’

And it just got me thinking for a woman, especially an Indigenous woman, it has come far because it was hard back in the 70s when I first started. We were criticized, every time something happened, they would blame us, that type of thing. But it has changed.

KUNM: For someone that grew up in Tohatchi, have you seen changes within the education system?

SPENCER: There in Tohatchi. I was there at third grade, that’s when the first school started there in 1958. So you can tell how old I am. But anyways, we didn’t have a high school there in Tohatchi. We were bused into Gallup, and that’s where I went to school, and graduated from there. So now we have a high school and we’re planning to have a new high school, hopefully in 2025. But it’s a whole lot different. There’s more women. Way back when elementary teachers were women. And then you had the men that were in the high school area, but it has changed tremendously.

KUNM: For rural communities like Tohatchi, there’s been a need for infrastructure improvements for decades. How would the Tribal Education Trust Fund bill help with that?

SPENCER: That’s been the need for I don’t know how long and the busing of our students you know in the mud, in the dirt, and some of these are roads that were still the same when I was growing up. But there’s so much monies that we need and not just for scholarships for the students to go off, because at one time, I was scholarship coordinator for the tribe. And education for our kids is a need, we need that.

These kids want to learn, they want to do what they need to get done, especially in their own areas and like roads and education materials that we need up to date on technology is what we need. We do have it, but it’s not that great and people think that oh, yeah, they have water, they have electricity. Some of our kids don’t, you know, they depend on being at school.

As a Native American, there’s a lot of things that we can do, but we can’t sit back and watch the world go by. If you have an opinion, say it. And it’s just like with my students, or my teams. If you think something’s wrong, you better say something, because I don’t maybe see it, but you see it on the court. So let me know.

KUNM: Are there ways parents can help improve their students’ education?

SPENCER: I believe parents need to get more involved in the education of their child. That’s one thing. And at this day and age you have to because there’s so many things going on you know, like they were talking about people that get kidnapped and so on, suicide and that type of thing. And you can’t just say no, it’s not gonna happen here. It does and you may not know it, but it does happen.

KUNM: Is there anything special that you’ve taken away from teaching?

SPENCER: I don’t have kids of my own, but I had students and some of them call me Mom. And then some of them, I’m teaching the kids of those kids. So they’re like, grandkids, and you treat them like that, you treat them like the way you should be treated. And if you have that love, they may not say I love you, but yet, they can see it and that’s what I missed since I retired.

KUNM: What advice do you have for the next generation of Indigenous students?

SPENCER: Just study what you want to do. Figure out how you want to do it and then do it. It may be wrong, but you’ll learn from that mistake.

Support for this coverage comes from the Thornburg Foundation.

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Jeanette DeDios
Jeanette DeDios

Jeanette DeDios is from the Jicarilla Apache and Diné Nations and grew up in Albuquerque, NM. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2022 where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Journalism, English and Film. Jeanette can be contacted at [email protected] or via Twitter @JeanetteDeDios.