Knowledge, Empathy and Listening

Guest blogger: Carol Bliss Quinn, Bagley Jr/Sr High School

Intolerance is a daily experience. People are intolerant of religious, cultural, linguistic, sexual orientation, and every other difference between peoples of various cultures living together in our country. In my opinion this can be especially difficult for Native American students.

Having taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school and now in a public school I have seen a substantial change in how we as educators approach the teaching of significant people and events from American Indian history. The issue remains however that most people in the mainstream culture are not changing as fast as we are. Students are still struggling with how do they personally feel connected to the events of the past and what relevance does that have to their daily lives.

Case in point, two students were working on a history day project for this year’s competition. Both are from mixed race backgrounds of Native American and white. I have worked closely with these girls for a couple years and I have seen them struggle with the events their ancestors on both sides suffered from and caused to occur. They embraced a topic of local history because even though they have lived here their entire lives, they were unfamiliar with the historical significance right in their backyard. They spoke with both non-Native and Native American experts on their topic and with the understanding that you can ask for information but sometimes events are still too painful to want to discuss, they went after the primary documents behind their event. Although they were content just to make it to the state competition, they were pleased with themselves for having dug deep enough and risked enough to learn the truth about an event that had sadness attached. Sadness, anger, frustration, hopelessness and every emotion in between was experienced as we drove to sites and visited where men had died and people had suffered. Their internal struggle is something I will never be able to completely understand. But I can offer empathy, a patience to listen and the skills to encourage them to find resilience in the aftermath of the event. Sometimes that is all we have as educators to offer.

Much of the research on historic trauma is hard to understand. Hard to place yourself in the historical role that we are usually unwilling to embrace. Thoughts of “my ancestors were immigrants, I’m not responsible for the boarding schools” etc.  We are taught to give kids a personal connection to the topic, the subject and the content. When it comes to tragic local Native American topics, let your heart lead you. Sometimes the truth is waiting to be uncovered. Sometimes the truth is buried for a reason and there are people unwilling or unable to discuss events personal and hurtful to themselves. Sometimes the past needs to stay buried… at least for now.

From a practical standpoint I would suggest the following:

Teach students the difference between massacre, battle, fight, skirmish and attack. Teach the difference between first peoples, Native peoples, Native Americans, American Indians, etc.

Teach the difference between a tribe, a clan, a reservation and a band.

Teach about sovereignty and dispel the rumors that every Native American gets a big check from the casinos.

Teach about the hunting and treaty rights struggles.

They hear these words in history yet do not understand the significance each has in describing the cultures. Insert significant people and events affecting Native peoples in each unit you teach. The events are there. Stress the perseverance, the strength and the choices they still had in each encounter. That choice may have been holding hands on the gallows, remaining silent after the attack at Wounded Knee or the shared language of the code talkers.  Reservations are vibrant wonderful places where the people are working hard to improve the lives of their elders, their children and their people. They are financially committed to trying to improve the natural resources, the preservation of history, the continuation of indigenous languages and the survival of the culture. Good educators who teach their children and those children who are not Native that this is a culture that is growing stronger with each generation strengthen them.

Finally, I would recommend gathering pictures from every place you can stop that hold Native American history. A few years ago I was lucky enough to tour the Little Big Horn National Battlefield as part of an educational opportunity. I took photos of the red/brown headstones that were there for the Native Americans who had died there. I also gathered photos of the landscape, the tour packet and photos of tombstones of the cavalry under Custer who died there. It went into my curriculum, and I would show the kids the changes the U.S. government was taking to make sure that both sides of this event had tombstones to honor their dead. One very quiet girl in my class asked me if I would allow her to bring a picture home to her Grandmother. I said sure and the next day she returned with the photo and the story of how that was the tombstone of her great-great Uncle. She connected not only with her own story, but her Grandmother’s story. Needless to say I gave her the photo. You will never know what lives you touch just by gathering information.

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