First Person, First Peoples

Aug 15th, 1997 | By | Category: 9-2: Re-envisioning Indian Education, Media Reviews

FIRST PERSON COVEREdited by Andrew Garrod and Colien Larimore, Cornell University Press, 1997.

Review by Lydia Whirlwind Soldier

First Person, First Peoples is a collection of 13 Native American students’ experiences entering and graduating from Dartmouth, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire. In reality, First Person, First Peoples reflects the experiences of many Native American students entering institutions of higher learning across this country.

The essayists recount how they heard of Dartmouth, how and why they applied, their arrival, and their first impressions. Some were encouraged by their loved ones to apply while others randomly selected Dartmouth. I could almost feel their loneliness for home as they related their feelings.

Some did not see the value of their culture until after entering Dartmouth. Then they realized their cultural identity and began learning about their history. They faced many problems, not only academic but also racism and cultural conflict.

For example, each wrote of Dartmouth’s Indian symbol, which Bill Bray describes as “a degrading, stupid-looking caricature of an Indian that was usually found drunk near a rum barrel.” In his essay, “Refuse to Kneel,” Bray writes that the unofficial college mascot made him feel as if he were “walking past a stinging nettle.”

Our educational experiences give us a glimpse of how society will treat us as a minority group because schools in America reflect the society they serve. As Bray writes, “Dartmouth College since its founding has alternately used, courted, tossed aside, enticed, mocked, ignored, and occasionally, educated Native Americans. In some ways, it is almost a mini-America.”

However, this collection of essays is not only about racism. It is about strength, fortitude, and bravery. I was astounded by how well each student was grounded. All of them took responsibility for their own failures and successes. They were able to challenge the culture of Dartmouth and those who devalued them and their heritage. Their experiences were wide-ranging and informative. I felt proud that each student was able to meet the challenge head on, successfully graduate, and go on to promising careers, many returning home to help their people. Despite the difficulties, each author came away from Dartmouth with a strong sense of self.

The book makes a strong argument that colleges and universities should be more sensitive to culturally different students, take students seriously, and value them for who they are. As Marianne Chamberlain relates, “Dartmouth is not an easy place if you are different.” I would like to quote Bill Bray again, “Indians after a time remember the place fondly. Indians have a gift for this; there is so much pain in our histories.”

The book should be read by anyone concerned about encouraging students to stay in school, anyone who wants to know how Native students feel about education and what keeps them from dropping out, and anyone who wants to understand how home life affects students. It is also valuable to students who plan to attend an institution of higher learning.

Lydia Whirlwind Soldier is Sincagu Lakota. The Indian Studies Curriculum Specialist for Todd County School District, S.D., she has a master’s degree in education administration. She is a frequent contributor to Tribal College Journal.

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