562 BLOG

Our Students Deserve A Better Narrative

A few weeks ago I was invited into my longtime friend Miss. Ervanna Little-Eagle’s classroom to present Project 562's message with the delightful Native students of The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Their beautiful smiling faces and extraordinary enthusiasm for Project 562 shook my soul and stretched my heart strings to new lengths. They actually made me feel like a photography rockstar… they had consumed all of Project 562's blog posts, photos, and films and they literally jumped up and down with glee when I walked into their classroom. It was adorable.

They also reminded me why this work is sooooooo important, inspiring refreshed insights and realizations...

I've come to the conclusion that "the narrative" shapes our consciousness. Our consciousness determines how we will treat each other.  The current narrative concerning Native America reinforces colonial perspectives that erase indigenous realities. That means that racism is born from the narrative which begins in early childhood development.

Take for instance the current "everyday" experience happening in the hands of our children:


This hollywood delusion is completely opposite to the living reality inside the native classroom at Warm Springs:



Looking around Miss Little Eagle's class I was so inspired - books by Silko, Alexie, King and Erdrich lined the shelves; posters depicted indigenous imagery and encouraged traditional Native values; class discussion moved from the effects of historical trauma to visualizing the forced boarding school experience for our ancestors.  I wondered what it would be like if I had had the privilege of being taught by somebody such as Miss Little-Eagle, since what she is doing is the exception in “Indian education”.  


My school experience was more typical: even where the majority of students were Native, the teachers were all non-Native. The enforcement of non-inclusive perspectives and standardized curricula (of this notorious educational arrangement) seem related to Native students’ dismal academic performance.  The National Center for Educational Statistics reports the Native American high school graduation rate at 51%, compared to 81% nationally (2012-2013 data).  Of those Native graduates, a mere 5% go on to four-year colleges, while only 10% of those college students graduate in four years.  Relative to the general U.S. school-age population and to other minorities, Native children are at greatest risk of receiving poor education and underperforming at the elementary and secondary levels.


Warm Springs Academy is offering a dynamic, quality Native-oriented education that many believe will improve esteem and learning outcomes for its students.  Despite these efforts, in September and October of 2015, 26 Native students were expelled for minor infractions, while scarcely any non-native students were expelled for similar behavior. Disparate treatment of Native students is part of a larger national challenge of social – and intellectual - bias and exclusion affecting the behavior and commitment of so many Native learners.  


For example, at Warm Springs Academy I was exposed to history units of the mandated curriculum, the narrative for elementary school consumption, and was aghast.  In "America’s Ancestors", a required fourth grade textbook that covers early “settlement” days in North America, 40 pages glorify early Europeans in the optimistic colonial heyday while Native Americans are mentioned briefly only twice.  This is how a character called “The Whiz” explains to the student “Jaden” the story of Thanksgiving, one of the dominant narratives of the American perspective of European–Native relations in that era:


Jaden: What’s a harvest feast?

The Whiz: Just what it says—a feast in celebration of a successful harvest. The entire community will meet on the village green—that’s a park. They’ll share a meal there. The colonists and Native Americans have a tradition of giving thanks for a successful harvest. In the fall of 1621, the colonists and the Native Americans shared a harvest feast. The Native Americans taught the colonists how to grow corn and how to make use of the fertile soil. Today we call this tradition “thanksgiving”.


The several “first contact” (with Europeans) tribes The Whiz refers to vaguely in this region are actually Wampanoag, Wabanaki, Penobscot, and Narragansett, and these peoples very much remain there today (See our blog post Beyond Vacation Land).  And the way these Native Americans tell the Thanksgiving story?  Paula Peters, a friend from Mashpee Wampanoag, offers this rarely if ever taught indigenous version:

The story of grateful Pilgrims and happy Indians breaking bread and celebrating the first successful colonial harvest has been the fairy tale Americans have long preferred over the truth.


The original harvest feast that inspired the Thanksgiving holiday was in fact an impromptu gathering that one might say was more an act of diplomacy and show of force by Wampanoag Massasoit, Oosameequan (that was his name, meaning “Yellow Feather”).  The single paragraph and only primary source reference to the event penned by Edward Winslow remarks that Oosameequan arrived uninvited with 90 men who remained for three days and contributed deer and fowl, which may or may not have included a turkey. While the brief description has conjured up Norman Rockwell images depicting a long table piled high with food and grog and flanked by friendly Pilgrims and Indians, more scholarly interpretations perceive it as evidence of an early tenuous alliance still being tested.  Furthermore, the giving of thanks that has endured from that event is in fact a tradition not exclusive to one day a year for the Wampanoag and indigenous people across this nation.  It is our custom to acknowledge all the gifts our Creator bestows from the hunted, to the fished, to the harvested as they are received.  But our spirituality, including ceremony conducted outside of the confines of a church, and worship of our natural environment, including the winged and four-legged creatures, was lost on the colonizers who determined our customs to be savagery.  Ironically, those pious pilgrims who came here for religious freedom wasted no time forcing their beliefs upon us, their hypocrisy sanctioned by a papal directive called the Doctrine of Discovery.  It didn’t take long - less than 50 years - for the thankful to become thankless and the pious to become oppressors. This is the story fourth grade textbook publishers find unpalatable despite that most ten year-olds are both intrigued and have the intellect to determine the value of its truth. Here in the Northeast we have purged most of this kind of absurd curriculum from classrooms where educators are more engaged with the multi-cultural elements of this region and have a sincere appreciation for the more accurate interpretation of history.


The erasure of Indians in the American narrative is conspicuous in this curriculum through the past tense reference for  the Wampanoag - “they lived in this region before the English Colonists arrived,” even though the Wampanoag remain in Cape Cod; such subtle dismissive, deceptive statements offered as fact reinforce the idea in young Americans that Native people are a people of the past. 


Teachers at Warm Springs shared in exasperation that with this kind of misinformation, they find themselves interupting lessons to offer a corrected truth. But books carry their own authority with impressionable young minds.  I know that this one textbook exists in a sea of materials offered to fourth graders, but its design is a microcosm of the much larger confusing and depressive narrative for our students.


We can say it - Native children matter.  They deserve to learn about themselves in a way that is honest.  They deserve to be able to see themselves as the complex, gifted, and worthy individuals that they are. They deserve indigenous knowledge systems as part of their curriculum. And they deserve the same freedoms and opportunities in our interconnected society as all children. The approach must respect and activate their history and identity, ensuring the direct correlation between the way Native students learn about themselves and their successful education and achievement.