Saturday, December 06, 2008


The essential dilemma of education of any kind is the sometimes excruciating conflict (one force eliminating the other) or alienation (force separating two things) between the individual and the larger society. Note that “cruciate” refers to the cross, crucifixion, the central symbol of Christianity, which in the case of Native Americans has been at the cross-hairs of educational dilemmas, forcing those who never heard of the cross to not only accept the civilization of Christians, but to give up their own ways.

This choice was enforced by the need for survival and then prosperity. The whole evolved system of the native peoples, based on “the four directions” and a stable ecology, was destroyed by Christian/Euro pestilences, horses, and guns, but Indians were assured they would go to heaven if they converted. For the plains tribes elimination of the bison equated elimination of their economy: their ceremonies, their housing, their food supply, and therefore their identity. Heaven was in the past.

For a long period, perhaps beginning to end now, the old culture was destroyed at its origin while the new Christian culture didn’t work either. “Eat bread,” said the missionaries since their essential life-substance was bread. But there were no grain growers, much less flour mills. “Build wooden houses,” said the missionaries whose original cross was made of wood. But the trees were lodgepole pine and cottonwood, neither good for boards and anyway there was no saw mill. The result was disaster: starvation, exposure deaths, the loss of families as whole and functioning units, and demeaning dependence on enemies for life itself. IF they would admit that the Euro-Christian way was the real way, because the cover for this catastrophic change was religious conversion, lightly disguised as education.

Eventually the dissenters dropped into death, since they no longer fit the circumstances, and contemporary tribal members are quite aware that education is the key to prosperity. The trouble now is defining what education is. School boards, which still don’t include many college graduates, are often all-Indian (which to outsiders looks like the ideal) but from competing families or factions of the tribe. (The two categories are often the same.) Some are still locked into the Sixties/Seventies idea that schools should empower Indians by teaching their anthro-recorded tribal ways. Others are adamant that scoring high on tests is the only acceptable measure of success. Students think the goal is good grades and certification/diplomas and are deeply shocked to get to universities where they discover that ticking off workbook pages was NOT the goal, good attendance was NOT the goal -- the goal was the ability to think and to work on one’s own. (This shock also comes to the students in small white towns, which is where the Indians got the idea that grades counted.)

On the other hand, the small “charter” schools on the reservation, who work with small groups of students at the elementary level and hire dedicated teachers, are often able to produce self-confident, functioning, alert students who can return to “conventional” schools and function well -- though they may disconcert their teachers and though they may need to play catchup on some subjects. Paradoxically, the small Christian schools which explicitly promotes Christianity to consenting students does well. And so does the explicitly Blackfeet school.

Public schools in the United States are managed at the local level except that federal agencies have some degree of manipulation through funding: if they fund something, it’s there. If they remove funding, that dies. But local administrators are clever about manipulating the system since no one comes to inspect -- the major prairie reservations are simply too vast and far away from federal or even state regulators for anyone to be very interested in going to check the details. So they require paperwork by the ton, especially now that it can be done via computers and the Internet. This means a serious skewing of administrators towards people who are willing to sit at a desk and wrestle with paperwork, as contrasted with people who walk through the school to see what’s happening.

It was once thought that sports coaches could inspire and lead teachers and students, but the sports culture in the US is so corrupted now that it mostly has taught everyone that winning justifies any strategy, bribe, or oppression. Rather than the proud development of athletic ability as a dimension of the individual, sports have become a matter of bragging rights for a chamber of commerce that hopes “pride” will translate into money.

Modern schools are money-eaters. Reservation populations are recovering back to their pre-Columbian numbers so new buildings are always on the agenda, if not the repair of the old ones. Teachers want high salaries to teach in such places and administration feels they are C.E.O.’s who deserve commensurate compensation. Always present regulations from all sources demand money for ever higher standards in transportation (seat belts on that school bus?), ever disintegrating and going-obsolete textbooks (now costing $50 each), the constant need for computers and other technology. (Fiber optics just reached Heart Butte, thirty miles from me.) Arts and humanities in general get squeezed out of the curriculum.

If I want to start a fistfight, I suggest that athletics be dropped from the public schools and instead attached directly to the town the school supports. Require the town to finance the precious gym floor and heat the building. Let the town operate the buses for statewide competitions. Let the town pay the coaches. Then the school can get back to funding academics. There are screams!! Understandably, since now that churches are severely weakened, politics is polarized, and alcohol is pushed out of the public eye, the school remains the cultural heart of community.

The State of Montana just elected a new director of the Office of Public Instruction. Denise Juneau is the daughter of politicians who are school administrators. She is young. She is half-Blackfeet and half Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara, the composite tribe at the head of the Missouri River that was first struck hard by Euro infection and then quick to adapt to the new trading and agricultural culture.

I will be fascinated to see what happens next. To which community will this individual respond? I suspect her head will go one way and her heart go another. I think the only true way to stay a whole person will be to invent a new culture that combines the two, and I’m hoping that the rest of the state will be able to follow. Will the planet turn to some version of “Euro-Christian” or will there be a return to old Earth-Based ways? I’m betting on the latter, if only because once the Euro-Christians were also Earth-Based.

-- Prairie Mary

The first time I butted heads with educators who supposedly were educating Native American children was over the issue of hair.

I wanted to spell the word p-r-i-o-r-i-t-i-e-s to them or at least ask them if they could spell it.

But I kept my mouth shut in those days and at least tried to get along. I no longer try to get along. It is a stupid and useless thing to do. It changes nothing. It gives the status quo a free ride.

These were not your typical anglo (I use this word versus the word white and I might be wrong to do that but it's what I do) from White People Town (I use this terminology because the word WHITE twice in the same sentence sounds truly ignorant) school administrators. They were hispanic.

The males in the tribe I was working with wore their hair long. This was their tradition. A man's (or boy's) hair was a source of pride and it wasn't hard to see why. It was extraordinary just watching them. They were not Navajo but they were closely related to the Navajo. My years among the Navajo had not happened yet. The Navajo have a saying they literally live by: Walk In Beauty.

It is a cultural attribute. These boys did walk in beauty and that is how they carried their heads. I personally often thought of it as walking through beauty, too.

I noticed something. As they walked through the beauty of their lives, their eyes were open and smiling and always ready to laugh. Until a white person came into view. The eyes would tighten. The lips go hard.

I do not write that sitting in judgment. It is simply an observation. IT IS. It stands on its own.

Indian education has gone through vast sea changes. Back then, the Indian children were bused into White People Town which had virtually no white people in it -- but it was whiter than white. The fact that the federal government was charged with the responsibility for Indian education as spelled out in treaties both the tribes and the government had signed (this usually in the 1860s and these provisions were basically, legally ubiquitous, and they were seen at the time as the responsible thing to do) was irrelevant. That irrelevance went back to the 1920s when administrating Indian tribes took on a focus having to do with the extent to which the federal government could squeeze or wiggle out of these arrangements. The difference between 1860 and 1920 was generational. The 1860 tribal leaders were willing to go to war. The 1920 tribal leaders were lucky to be alive. The federal government simply ignored treaties by the dozen. So instead of building an Indian school for these children where they would have been abused, they were shipped to White People Town where they were abused by hispanics. Alice in Wonderland has nothing on the American West which definitely lives down the rabbit hole.

Anglos like myself tried changing the structure of the rabbit hole. We're still there. Mostly we're annoying. If it looks like a rabbit hole, and it quacks like a rabbit hole, it's a rabbit hole, and Alice is completely lost down there.

Anglo values were seen as the thing to aspire to. They still are. This will never change. IT IS.

The hispanic people here were mainly farmers and ranchers. There is just not much industry in the Southwest. Not many good jobs.

What does that mean: It means rural poverty.

Teachers had real jobs and they were seen as the rich people of the county. That should tell you something. School administrators, a select group, made more money than teachers, and they were seen as the REALLY rich people of the county because they typically owned a car AND a truck. So. Like. Wow.

A car and a pickup was one thing but a color TV was another universe. If you owned a color TV, you were a wealthy person from the planet Mars.

No cable. You were lucky to get one channel.

Here I was, this anglo from some (mysterious) Big City no one had ever been to, who saw the values of the hispanic community as so much bullshit.

That is how it was. Right or wrong. That is how it was.

Actually, that hasn't changed. Ethnic minority groups fighting over, not even the pie, but the crumbs on the floor, and it wasn't even a very good pie in the first place, everyone hating everyone, one group looking down on the others, simply made hatred the predominate cultural attribute of the community at large.

Your walking in beauty was the beauty you saw in your head. Make it up.

What surrounded you was hate.

This is America. IT IS.

There were a scraggle of drug-addled longhairs scattered here and there. Most lived in old school buses they rode into the desert where they parked them. Most were Los Angeles burn-outs with blond children with no shoes.

The hispanics would definitely GET them for weed if they could. There was a lot of tension in that town. If it's a romance with the American West you're looking for, move to France.

The longhairs would get high on mushrooms (I am serious) and ride around the landscape in their Volkswagon vans looking for hispanic homes where families owned color TV sets.

When they found one, they would take baseball bats, break through windows, and then smash the TV sets. Often, they would do this stark naked. The, they would leave.

The hispanics hated them. Imagine that.

For their part, the hispanic grunts would drive around the county in pickups looking for longhairs. If they found one, they would beat him up and shave his head.

New Mexico prides itself in the tourist literature as enchanted. It's about as enchanted as the Wicked Witch's Castle (the one with the poisoned apples). The minority groups do not get along. I do go back there incognito. They're still looking for me. They want to question me about some stupid statue's cut off brass leg. I have NO fucking idea what they're talking about. What statue. What leg.

I know nothing. Just get a shovel and start digging. You're bound to find a leg somewhere.

Today, there are a few new elements to life in the Southwest. Pit bulls are one. Everyone now has a pit bull to defend the house from bad people who want to steal your crystal meth. Most of the really hopeless meth addicts (the one with no teeth) righteously believe that everyone should share and share alike. After all, there's enough meth to go around.

The Meth Wars and the Heroin Wars (in Espanola, NM, alone) make the Wild West Wars seem tame. Billy the Kid didn't even drink. Today, those old school buses in the desert is where they brew the meth.

Alice down her hole is cranked to the fucking gills.

The kids I was dealing with back then hardly ever smoked weed, there was no such thing as meth; most of them were simply alcoholics with long hair.

On Monday morning, I would go through the house with a big trash can and collect the beer cans from under the beds of the seven-year-olds and you think I'm being facetious.

They hated school as much as the hispanics hated them.

Because they had long hair.

If you had long hair, you were rejecting the aspirations of the community to be as white as possible.

So they would kick the boys out of school and the boys would run away into the mountains and only come into town infrequently to steal whiskey from Safeway.

I spent a lot of time on horseback searching for kids in the mountains. Mostly you never found them because they were very good at hiding out.

Today, I can recognize a kid who knows the Tim Barrus First Rule of Survival which is Know When to Get the Fuck out of Dodge.

Rape was a problem. For girls mainly.

So where do you put reading, writing, and arithmetic into this mess.

I'm not sure you do.

It's a set up.

Most BIA schools have been turned over to tribes. Sometimes you have school board members who have never balanced a checkbook (why, they have no money) in charge of multimillion dollar budgets for some of these truly enormous impersonal schools.

Tending to the needs of the institution versus tending to the immediate needs of the individual is what WHITE PEOPLE DO and mainly they take this for granted and they never really think about it. Most institutions require that the people who work FOR THEM in almost every capacity tend to the needs of the institution and this goes double, triple, whatever, for the institution we call education. Education doesn't give a flying fuck about Indian children because it is an institution and as such the institution and the people in the institution tend to the needs of the institution and that is how it works.

Even surreptitiously. What the institution of education needs from Native Americans is to go away.

I know of one school board that simply took the money and then they took a school bus to Las Vegas.

They've been set up to fail. The BIA has to come back gangbusters because the Indians failed to administrate the school wisely.

"You see, they need us; they're only Indians, and they're not good with money, and they steal."

This is institutional racism. IT IS.

Frankly, if you dropped multimillions from the sky into my lap I would probably head for Vegas, too, but I would fly. School buses are for making meth.

There ARE schools run wisely. Mainly in dire poverty.

So what is the answer.

There is no fucking answer. White idiots like me do not have one. We fucked things up. Eventually, we just caved in and bought color TVs.

I tend to simply focus on one kid at a time and it helps enormously that I do this in France.

-- Tim Barrus

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