AK note: when I get frustrated in my courses at school, or I have a lot to get off my chest, I write narratives like the one below. They’re an outlet for me, I write them like I’m writing to post them here, but then I usually keep them to myself, in a folder on my computer. I know it’s outside of my normal content for the blog, a bit more personal and reflective rather than snarky and sarcastic, but I thought I’d start sharing some of them, interspersed with more normal content. If you find this totally boring and annoying, let me know (comments are anonymous!). But, more importantly, if you have an experience or narrative you’d like to share, send it over. firstname.lastname@example.org
I sat in class a few weeks ago, presenting to my small research seminar. I tried to speak in a strong, unwavering voice, relying on my earlier life as a college admissions officer, where talking to crowds was my day in and day out, to mask my state of utter panic and nerves. I was passionately describing the reasons why we, as researchers, needed to be aware and reflective when working with “actors” (this course’s term for “subjects”) who were from marginalized communities, who were at risk for further exploitation and otherization by our research. I drew on examples from early anthropology, I spoke about the painful legacy that research has left behind in Native communities.
I watched my classmates’ faces as I spoke, intrigued at the mixture of expressions around the seminar table. I saw encouraging smiles and nods of agreement, but also wrinkled foreheads of confusion, and a look I can only describe as awe and wonder. I realized that these issues that are at the forefront of my mind every time I even think about my future doctoral research, ethical and moral quandaries that imbue every aspect of my notes and plans, had never even crossed their minds. These simple questions I was raising in my presentation were strange and exotic to them–and I, the quiet girl prone to being cold called for lack of participation, had suddenly become slightly strange and exotic as well.
Later in the class period, my presentation group members and I put a photograph up on a powerpoint slide. It is a photograph I love, one I’ve featured on the blog before. It shows a father and daughter at Montana State’s powwow, dressed in their regalia, waiting in the threshold outside of the stadium itself. The father is on his cell phone, a look of concentration, and perhaps concern, crossing his brow, while his daughter, in her neon-colored jingle dress, looks up at him. I like the photo for the simple clashing of “traditional” and “modern,” calling into question those pesky preconceived notions we all hold when viewing a photo of a “Native American”. We put the photo up as a simple exercise in contextual framing. We asked our classmates to “set the scene”–describe the photo, position themselves as researcher, to write down details, questions, and initial reactions when viewing the photo.
Admittedly, we picked the photo specifically because it would feel “foreign” to most of our classmates, and I was attempting to drive home my earlier points. The other part of me was intensely curious about what their reactions would be, what details they would pick up, what questions they would have.
When we asked the class to debrief after a few minutes of writing, I was taken aback by the responses. “My initial reaction was absolute fear” one young woman stated. “I realized I know absolutely nothing about Native American culture, I didn’t even know where to start.” “I found myself confused and hung up on the details–what is that thing in her hand?[it's her dance fan] why are they there? what goes on at a powwow?” a male classmate asked. Others agreed, chiming in with their own similar reactions. The comments were not rude, they were not even unexpected, but what struck me was how acceptable this level of ignorance was. No one was embarrassed or ashamed by their lack of knowledge, no one found it out of the ordinary. They shared without any hesitation, without apology.
I wondered if I had put a picture of a Black father and child up on the powerpoint, or Latino, or Asian, if the group would have found it acceptable to say something like “I just don’t know anything about Black culture! I can’t even begin to write!” or even if I had chosen a photo from an AIDS-ravaged African country, or an “exotic” National Geographic photo–would hay have jumped right in in their descriptions? I also realize my presence in the room shaped the reactions, obviously my classmates do not want to offend the only Native student in their class. But I still found it odd.
The theme was repeated this week in a sociology course. One of our assigned readings for the week was an excerpt from Teacher by Silvia Ashton-Warner. Ashton-Warner writes about her experiences teaching in a Maori school in New Zealand, and the text is rife with colonial language and imperialist nostalgia, yet it is all framed out of Ashton-Warner’s “love” for her “brown” children, and peppered with her observations about her Maori students and co-workers as intelligent, thinking human beings–ideas that fall far outside the accepted norms of the time.
I read the piece eagerly and carefully, marking my book, taking notes in the margins, writing out reactions and questions. I looked forward to discussion section, ready to bring my expertise on Indigenous education and to engage in a debate about legacies of colonialism in our own education system. I was excited, because after a year and six weeks at my school, this was the first time I had encountered anything remotely close to Native Education in a course. The very first time.
Imagine my disappointment when I arrived to class to find our student “discussion leaders” for the week had chosen to completely ignore the Ashton-Warner reading, focusing instead on our two other readings for the week. Their reasoning was that it was “too much” to cover in an hour and a half, but that we should “feel free” to bring in the reading if we felt like it. Nothing more was mentioned about the piece.
I overheard a classmate discussing the piece with our TA after the announcement. “I was really confused by it!” she said, “It took me almost the whole reading to figure out where she even was. Is this like part of a bigger book or something?” another student nodded “It was hard to figure out.”
This is complete and total conjecture at this point, but I couldn’t help but feel like the students had kept the Ashton-Warner reading out because it felt “too foreign”. It was easier to focus on our one strictly sociological theory reading and the other reading that focused on the Black middle class. I also almost felt that my fellow students were relieved that they wouldn’t be asked to interpret the text. Again, I was amazed at how accepted their ignorance was.
It is experiences like these that jolt me back into reality. I try to surround myself with friends and colleagues who have some sort of awareness about Native issues, or at least a willingness to listen and engage when I share my thoughts. I sometimes forget that outside of the little bubble I’ve created for myself, people go through every moment of their lives, or even an entire schooling experience at my elite graduate school, without thinking about Native peoples or American colonialism for one second. And, frustratingly, our society and education system has deemed that perfectly fine.
Clearly I don’t accept that paradigm, and am constantly inserting myself into conversations, bringing Native issues to the forefront, making every paper for every class somehow relate to Indian Country. But this is much bigger than me, alone, as the only Native doctoral student at my school. I don’t have the solution, and I don’t know how to change an entire nation’s education system and national narrative.
Next semester I’m leading a Native Education reading group, and once I get further along in my studies, I’ll petition to teach a module (a half-course) on some of these issues as well. As long as I’m here, I’m going to make sure at least some of these students realize their ignorance, and realize that it’s absolutely unacceptable.