Without Racism, Indian Students Could be Both Indian and Students

Feb 15th, 1997 | By | Category: 8-4: Racism, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Photo courtesy Native Voices from "Without Reservations: Notes on Racism in Montana"

One day in 1975 a teenage bully yanked Rebecca Taylor’s braid and said, “Get to the back of the line, you wagon-burning @#*#* squaw!” Within the week, the Ojibwe students all walked out of the predominantly white public school in Hayward, Wisconsin, and never went back. They had had enough of beatings on the bus and racist slurs scrawled on high school walls. With the help of parents, elders, and volunteer teachers, the tribe converted the old tribal gym into a school, which was accredited just in time for Rebecca to graduate.

Today the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Tribe boasts not only a K-12 school but also a tribal college where Taylor–who was failing at the white school–became an honor student in Native American Studies. Although not born until several years later, Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College was conceived in the halls of the Hayward public high school in 1975. “I was glad that guy did that to me. I like to take the negative and make it positive,” Taylor said.

Instead of becoming a drop out statistic, Taylor had a safe place to learn that reaffirmed her worth as a person and as an Ojibwe woman. Yet when I tried to tell her story in an article about tribal colleges several years ago, a popular Native magazine would not include it. Her experience was too negative.

Racism is not a comfortable subject. However, it should not be ignored, especially by an education publication such as the Tribal College Journal. Racism confronts people of color daily wherever they go, including the classroom. In this issue, we explore not only the racism. We also look at what is being done about it by both American Indians and non-Indians, especially the tribal colleges’ role as brokers between cultures. We also look at how racism against Indian people differs from racism against other ethnic and racial groups.

Dr. Michael Marker of Northwest Indian College raised the question of the “Missing Research” at a research symposium last summer sponsored by the Tribal College Journal, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, and Lannan Foundation. Is it the role of scholars to study cross cultural relations when they are researching Indian students’ drop out rates? In his article in this issue, Marker suggests that the university and the researcher have an obligation to look beyond easy answers. Buying alarm clocks for Indian students does not keep them in school if they are alienated and assaulted there.

Reservation border towns are notorious for racism. Stone Child College President Steve Galbavy, a non-Indian, says that when he coached an Indian team, the students became accustomed to being served last in restaurants and being followed like criminals in stores. The familiarity of the experience never removed its demoralizing sting, however. As described in the article in this issue about Alee Stewart, the Ku Klux Klan still thrives in Montana and threatened to ignite violence during a racial dispute in the local high school near the Crow Reservation two years ago.

Colonization of the mind

Too often the racism is internalized, sometimes resulting in lateral violence. I first became aware of internalized racism when I met a Shoshone high school student several years ago. She told me she was half Shoshone and half white. She said her father screamed, “Indians are drunks! Indians are stupid!” as he tried to beat the Indian out of her. I assumed that her father was the white parent, but no, her father was the Shoshone. He apparently had assimilated the values of some of the non-Indians around him.

In Canada, Native educators refer to internalized racism as “colonization of the mind.” Joyce Goodstricker and Deborah Pace write in this issue upon the attitudes of Native and non-Native teachers. Their research report raises an alarming question. Do Native teachers who are trained in a mainstream university internalize the racism they experience there? Do such teachers expect their Native students to fail? The report also suggests, however, that tribal colleges can decolonize their students’ minds.

All races and ethnic minorities experience such problems, but Indian education involves several distinctions. For everyone, education has been a ladder out of poverty. For Indian people, it also has been a weapon used against them for several generations. The parents and grandparents of modern students were forced–sometimes at gunpoint–to attend boarding schools that were utilized to eliminate Native culture. Every family has its own story of punishments for speaking the Native language, some within the last 20 years: teachers washing students’ mouths out with soap, taping student’ mouths shut for the entire school day, or beating them with yardsticks for daring to speak in their own tongue. By separating generations, boarding schools eroded not only cultural but family values. In several documented cases, teachers started a cycle of physical and sexual abuse that continues in Indian families today.

This history of Indian education has resulted in students’ ambivalence or even hostility toward education and toward teachers. Lydia Whirlwind Soldier says the passive resistance surfaces as high drop out rates and poor achievement. Whirlwind Soldier (Sicangu Lakota) is a regent for Sinte Gleska University and the Indian Studies Curriculum Specialist for Todd County School District, South Dakota. Although she now has a masters degree in education administration, she nearly dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Her grandfather made her go back. In fact, as she says in her article in this issue, despite the history, Indian elders recognize the importance of getting an education and emphasize it to the children.

Nevertheless, students feel the unspoken conflict. Even today, schools typically try to educate students away from their people and into the melting pot. “You can’t believe in a system that is trying to override your family ties,” says Leech Lake Tribal College President Larry Aitken. Indian students at most educational institutions feel that to be successful, they must choose between tribal cultures and mainstream American culture. They cannot be both Indians and good students.

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