Roessel Helped Found Worldwide Movement

May 15th, 2006 | By | Category: 17-4: Reforming Our Schools, Native Style, Tribal College News

PIONEERS OF NAVAJO EDUCATION. Bob and Ruth Roessel worked side by side for 50 years to increase Indian control of education.

The “father” of Diné College, Dr. Robert A. Roessel, died Feb. 16, 2006 of complications of cancer. He was 79.

In 1966, Roessel founded the first school in modern times with a foundation of Native language, history and culture — the Rough Rock Demonstration School (now the Rough Rock Community School). He returned to the helm of the school in 1997 as executive director and was succeeded by his son, Monty. The school will celebrate its 40th anniversary this June.

In 1968, he and his wife, Ruth Roessel (Navajo), helped establish Navajo Community College (now Diné College), the first tribally-controlled college in the country. The tribal college movement since has grown to 35 tribally controlled colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.

Some consider Roessel to be the father of the tribal college movement. At the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Board of Directors meeting in Green Bay, WI, March 11, the board passed a resolution memorializing his contributions.

Lionel Bordeaux said at the board meeting that Roessel was his mentor. Bordeaux has served as president of Sinte Gleska University (Mission, SD) since 1973, when he was a founder of AIHEC. Twelve years before that in 1961, he heard Roessel give a speech entitled, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” These 10 words became his motto, and years later, they became the motto of Diné College.

“Bob Roessel and Navajo leaders like Dillon Platero created one of the most significant innovations in American educational history,” according to Tom Davis, president of Little Priest Tribal College (Winnebago, NE) and an Indian education historian.

“Rough Rock developed a truly Native way approach to education. Its controversial approach, championed so passionately by Bob Roessel, led to the Indian-controlled schools movement that flowered briefly during the Ford and Carter presidential eras and to the tribally-controlled college movement. Since its founding, core elements of that model have echoed around the world in places such as the Hawaiian islands, Alaska, New Zealand, and parts of South America,” Davis says.

Roessel was passionate about Navajo culture and education. He was among the first to call for the creation of a Navajo Department of Education, which came to be last year when the Navajo Nation Council amended its education code. He voiced his thoughts about the importance of tribes asserting their sovereignty over education in the fall 2004 issue of Tribal College Journal (Vol. 16, N.1).

At a community meeting at the Round Rock Chapter House in February, Roessel was remembered as a man with a booming voice, boundless energy, strong opinions, and a big heart. Numerous people said he, even as a non-Navajo, taught them what it meant to be a Navajo, to take pride in who they were, to cherish a strong work ethic, and to seek answers within the Navajo culture. The community of Round Rock addressed him as Tsinigine clan, saying he believed that the Navajo Holy People were with him every day.

Diné College President Ferlin Clark (Navajo) said, “The commanding voice of Dr. Roessel will resonate through the halls of our college in the years to come. During a recent visit to the college, Dr. Roessel told the faculty and staff, ‘When I’m on this campus I feel I’m as close to Heaven as I ever hope to be…I truly believe this college is something special. I believe it will never fail, I truly believe we are standing on sacred ground.’”

Roessel is survived by his wife and academic partner of 50 years, Ruth, president of the Round Rock Chapter, and their five children and their spouses. He is also survived by a sister, Mary Engle of Bismarck, ND, and 12 grandchildren.

Roessel’s family has established the “Robert A. Roessel, Jr. Memorial Scholarship” in his memory at Diné College. Contributions can be made by calling (928) 724-6687 or mailing Diné College, Office of the President, P. O. Box 126, Tsaile, AZ 86556.

For more information and to add a tribute to Roessel, go to

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