The following is a modified version of the Holbrook Indian School (HIS) blog, “HIS Nation.” Visit HolbrookIndianSchool.org for more on this incident or about Holbrook Indian School.
Every September issue of the Holbrook Indian School monthly newsletter is dedicated to featuring photos of the students registered for the school year. “We enjoy seeing their lovely smiles arrive on campus after the summer break,” reads the front page of last month’s issue. It is an extended invitation to supporters of HIS to become acquainted with the new and familiar faces. By the time the September 2022 issue, Faces of the New Year, hit mailboxes at the beginning of last month, supporters across the nation were simultaneously hit with the heavy reality that one of those smiling students had passed away.
On August 28, 17-year-old HIS student Kiarra Alma Gordon was killed and six others were injured during an accident involving a bus from the Holbrook Indian School. According to the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the bus had slowed down in traffic near a rollover crash when it was struck from behind by a semi-truck. The bus was transporting a group of staff and students on a field trip to Window Rock, New Mexico.
Kiarra was in the 11th grade and was loved and admired by her family and her classmates. The entire campus community regarded her with affection.
“I am finding it difficult to find the right words to express our grief on the loss of our dear student Kiarra,” said Pedro Ojeda, principal of Holbrook Indian School. “She brightened our world. I continue to pray for our students who were injured and for all the students and staff who were on the bus.”
Three other students were treated at Little Colorado Medical Center and were released after medical evaluation, and another three were admitted to Flagstaff Medical Center. Two of those students are still on the road to recovery.
The beginning of healing
In the days and weeks following the accident, trauma therapy counselors and chaplains assisted students and staff at HIS. On the day of the accident, the school held a prayer service involving all students, staff, and the board of directors who were present that evening. The following day, students, staff, and board members came together to anoint several places on campus, including the girls’ and boys’ dorms. This was suggested by Native representatives of the board, being mindful of Navajo beliefs regarding the deceased.
“Students, you can go home and tell your parents you have nothing to fear,” said former HIS student and pastor Charlie Whitehorse. “You can let them know your school has been anointed, and you have nothing to fear. Jesus will protect you.”
Other members from the board spoke words of encouragement and hope to the students, while members of the surrounding Holbrook community gave their own silent yet heartfelt condolences in the form of flowers and balloons left at the gate of the school.
A sad home leave
Although we are a boarding school, our students are able to go home any weekend they want to. Once a quarter, students have scheduled extended weekend breaks called home leaves. The timing of this terrible accident just happened to occur the weekend before our first home leave of the school year. Many of our students understandably went home early. The students who were impacted the most went home that same day or a few days after the accident; many of them were on the bus, and others were close friends of Kiarra.
For the students who remained on campus after the accident, the school administration thought it was best to maintain their schedule as closely as possible to help students with a sense of structure. It was during this time that on-site chaplains and licensed clinical counselors, in collaboration with external trauma therapy counselors, were able to help students and staff process the traumatic loss and injuries to their friends and loved ones.
It was also around this time that students were looking forward to their first Faculty Family get-together. This is a time, once every three to four weeks, when students get to experience quality time with teachers and staff outside of the classroom, visiting their homes to share a meal together. This time around, due to the few students remaining on campus, several faculty families pooled together to host students.
The director of horsemanship, Allison Newhart, created a space of healing with horses for students still on campus. On the Thursday following the accident, those remaining students left for home leave.
Thoughts on the school life of Kiarra
Kiarra was a bright young lady who was academically determined and physically talented. She always wanted to improve in the classroom and on the volleyball court. If you were to meet her for the first time, you might say she was quiet and reserved, but as you got to know her, you would find out she had a refreshing sense of humor and a budding love for the hobby of photography.
I asked Kiarra’s faculty family teacher, PE teacher, and volleyball coach, Arbee Tabo, to share some of his thoughts about Kiarra.
“The first time Kiarra was in our faculty family, she was pretty quiet, but when we started talking to her and joking around the kitchen table, you could tell she was amused. She would smile a lot.
“I have three boys of my own, and my oldest likes to pick on the faculty family girls because they are much older than him. They are in junior high and high school, and he’s in elementary. I remember him just going to her and playing tag, saying, ‘You’re it,’ and she would smile and try to reach after him.”
In reference to Kiarra’s athletic abilities, Mr. Tabo also highlighted her skill and drive to improve.
“She was an excellent player. Her IQ in volleyball was pretty up there. She knew how to move on the court, and she was able to read the defense well. One of the things that really struck me was her willingness and her wanting to learn. Whenever I would give instructions pointing out things to the girls on how they could improve their game, she had her eyes focused, her attention was given to me. She wanted to know; she wanted to learn.”
One of the things Kiarra wanted to improve on last year was how to do an overhand serve.
“She would pull me aside and say, ‘Hey, Mr. Tabo, where do I hit the ball when I am doing this overhand serve?’ Then this year, she pulled me aside again and said, ‘How do I spike really hard?’ She always wanted to improve her game; she always wanted to get better.”
Another one of Kiarra’s interests was photography. As the school's storyteller and photographer, it was refreshing for me to watch and help her explore that. My first memorable interaction with Kiarra involved her approaching me last school year to ask what kind of camera I used. She was interested in getting a camera for herself. I remember telling her that the camera I was using (at the time) was really old, so I offered some more recent budget-friendly options to her.
Later that year, I was hosting a photography field trip for one of our MAPS Sunday activities. Ten students signed up for it, and I was delighted to see Kiarra’s name on the roster. It was fun watching her and the other students unlock their creative eye, given the techniques and challenges I had shared with them.
The last and most memorable interaction I had with Kiarra happened on the Navajo Language class field trip with Mr. Hubbard. I was there to take photos of the trip, and it was my first time visiting the Navajo Museum, the capital, and Window Rock. In the park near the capital, Mr. Hubbard led our students in making a common Navajo delicacy—fry bread. After taking photos, I thought of joining in and learning how to make it with the students. That is when I discovered that Kiarra’s sense of humor flew under the radar.
As Mr. Tabo mentioned, Kiarra could seem quiet and reserved, at least that's what I’d thought whenever I’d spoken with her before this moment. As I was attempting to (very poorly) shape my fry bread, Kiarra wasted no time cracking jokes about the appearance of my fry bread. I was conflicted. On the one hand, it felt good being able to see that side of her and seeing her open up like that, but it was also at the cost of my dignity.
It felt like I leveled up in getting to know her, even at my own expense. I'll take it.
As we were packing up to leave, and the sun was getting low beyond the famous Window Rock formation, I was helping Mr. Hubbard gather all the students when Kiarra asked to use my camera to take a picture. I obliged, but I was too busy gathering the other students to focus on what she was taking a photo of or what her creative process was like. It wasn't until after we had all settled on the bus and I had my camera back in hand that I could look at the photos she’d taken. That was a proud moment for me. The image of the golden sunset-lit Window Rock formation that she had captured was aesthetically calming yet graceful, very much like her.
The hope that carries us
There are many other memories from countless experiences and numerous people she spent time with that will forever be in our hearts. As I write, it is still unreal that Kiarra is no longer with us. We, at Holbrook Indian School, cannot feel as deep a chasm as that of Kiarra’s family in the loss of their Shiyazi (little one), yet we mourn with them. For our other students who were injured physically and emotionally, we feel their pain. Were it not for the hope of life beyond the grave, of life beyond pain and sorrow and tragedy, this reality would crush us. We carry this hope—a hope of eternity. Or it might be better said that this hope carries us.
The Pacific Union Conference made a gift to the family of Kiarra Gordon to cover funeral expenses. The funeral was held on September 3, 2022, and was conducted by Holbrook Indian School at the request of the Gordon family. Holbrook Indian School established an Accident Assistance Fund to assist all HIS students affected by this tragic event. Gifts for this fund can be made at: HolbrookIndianSchool.org/donate.
By Chevon Petgrave