Guest blogger: Brad Sidle, Folwell Performing Arts Magnet School
The book was Mni Sota Makoce, published by the Minnesota Historical Society. After three weeks of reading a passage here, a chapter there, or a selected pericope fitting into a lesson on American history for seventh grade, I collected some reflections.
“I have a hard time reading this book.”
“I can’t pronounce the words, and I don’t know any of these names.”
“It hurts me to read so much of this.”
“I feel guilty even though I know it happened a long time ago.”
Comments from my students? No, those were many of my feelings and reflections.
Observation #1. I wanted to distance myself from so many of the cruel and hurtful acts that were perpetrated against a demonized people. I wanted to protest that I didn’t live then, and I didn’t do this, and it wasn’t for me. I wanted to say I didn’t benefit from any of the shameful and selfish actions I read about in the history. I wanted to be one of the good guys, one of the protagonists, one of the Indians. I for a moment was the 11-year-old reading the book about Squanto that was in my school library, and dreaming of hunting wild game and living in the wilderness to show my preparation for becoming a warrior, a man. Of showing bravery and integrity and maturity beyond my years. For being honorable and known as brave and true. But I knew I was the outsider, the onlooker, and the “wannabe.” I felt such a distaste for what I realized were my own ancestors, my own community, my own family. I shook my head, I cried in silence, and I felt a visceral response to my own complexity in and benefit from the relentless barrage on the people who lived in the land I now call my home, and the small piece which I possess.
Observation #2. The students in my seventh grade classroom come to historical studies from a wide range of perspectives. As they read the passages chosen to supplement other readings under the umbrella of Manifest Destiny, they shared some of my feelings. The names were unfamiliar, the vocabulary was difficult to pronounce or comprehend, the content brought up feelings of pain. But most of those responses were not primarily from the perspective of the guilty conscience of the victor, but from that of people historically traumatized and victimized. Much of the history I bring for students to consider is from a culture not theirs, naming names not historically theirs, in places so close in physical proximity but so far in psycho-emotional connection. Some of them recognize their capacity for introspection and resources for change, and develop the resilience that will serve them in facing all of life’s cruelties and injustices. Some are struggling to overcome a victim narrative and feel trapped in helplessness and pain. And some have not yet developed the empathy to feel the pain of others, while some face such continual trauma that they can’t deal with the trauma of anyone else.
Observation #3. It strikes me that some of the most resistant readers are the native Indian students in my classroom. Every observation about the students at large in my classroom are observed in microcosm with these students. Many know little about this history, and many don’t want to know details about this history. Many don’t trust what their white male teacher chooses for them to read, no matter what the source, and some resent the white male teacher for trying to teach them about their culture, their background, their history. I have been challenged at times that I don’t know the story, and I have to agree. I offer the opportunity to them to tell me what I am misunderstanding, but their words often fail them. Or perhaps it is untellable. It is often attributed to Louis Armstrong about jazz: if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.
But in the end, it is my job as a history teacher to offer a breadth of material, from cultures I understand and do not understand, from perspectives I represent and do not represent, about events as they are recorded by the dominant culture and the non-dominant cultures. I can only hope to plant the seeds of inquisitiveness and thoughtfulness, and this book has certainly fed my own impulses in this direction, and offers to feed my students.