(Mennonite Church USA/Mennonite Education Agency) — Plans are underway to reopen the Hopi Mission School (HMS) in Kykotsmovi, Arizona in fall 2018.
Iris de León-Hartshorn, director of Transformative Peacemaking for MC USA, and Carlos Romero, executive director of Mennonite Education Agency (MEA), visited the HMS site on Jan. 12-14, 2018 to meet with local Hopi church leaders and community members and discern the best decision for the school going forward.
HMS has been closed this school year due to several legal cases that span more than two years. Previous HMS administrator Thane Epefanio and several staff members received federal indictments on many counts, including fraud and theft of federal funds. Following their indictments, Epefanio and his wife, Michelle, were served an expulsion order by Hopi tribal leaders on Nov. 17, 2016.
On September 14, 2015, MC USA filed a separate complaint to evict the HMS board from the school property, which was settled by a court ruling on July 3, 2017 that ruled in favor of MC USA to “take sole possession of the land” and ordered the HMS board to vacate the premises. MC USA and the HMS board established a final agreement in January 2018 that closes the case without further opportunity to appeal. MC USA lawyers remained in regular communication with Hopi tribal leaders through their legal office during the length of the case to keep communication channels open.
Having ended legal proceedings, Romero and de León-Hartshorn visited HMS and met with several Hopi leaders of Christian congregations and community members on the reservation, some of whom had graduated from HMS. They were informed that the group of official tribal leaders were unlikely to meet with them because the school is not located on Hopi tribal land under their jurisdiction.
Through this visit, Romero and de León-Hartshorn began developing plans to restart the school in intentional partnership with the Hopi churches and community. One of the outcomes of their meetings was a decision to fundamentally shift the school’s operations from a missional approach to operating the school as an educational institution affiliated with MEA. MEA plans to work with Hopi church leaders to implement a new structure that creates a new board and bylaws.
“The reality is that these recent problems at the school happened because of inadequate oversight,” said Romero. “We plan to work on creating a new oversight structure so this will not happen again.”
HMS stems from a long history of Christian and Mennonite missionaries working among the Hopi people that raises several ongoing ethical questions about what role MC USA should have in the school.
“Our history with the Hopi reservation is riddled with imperfection,” said de León-Hartshorn. “The question we have to wrestle with is that there is a need for quality education and an appreciation for the education the Mennonite school provided. If we leave, it will leave a gap. There are many ethical issues at hand, and at this point we have to try to find the best way forward with the Hopi people there.”
HMS sits on forty acres of land that are not under Hopi tribal law. The land was deeded to the General Conference Mennonite Church for the purpose of Anabaptist education and mission by President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s. If MC USA were to return the land, ownership would revert back to the federal government and the federal government would decide the use of the land.
“The Hopi church leaders are telling us the need is still there, and they want to work together. We are taking that seriously and moving forward humbly, in partnership – with historic wrongs informing how we rebuild,” said de León-Hartshorn.
Mennonite Education Agency is seeking a person or couple interested in volunteering at the school for a few months to clean and prepare it for a new school year. People interested in volunteering should contact MEA at firstname.lastname@example.org.