Monday, March 26, 2012


My friend, who found an article about “Indian Education” in the Atlantic mag, is bugging me about trying to sell them an article about Indian education that will be “real.” Even though he grew up partly on the Blackfeet rez, he was a kid, white, and still has little understanding of what’s at stake. He’s not intending me to be a crusader. He just thinks a “real” article would sell. He’s like the general public: you see a photo like the one with the Atlantic article, cute little chubby kid (a little overweight for good health, actually, considering diabetes) in his parade and pow-wow outfit, and you think, “Oh, he deserves a good education!” When this kid hits puberty, he will explode into a huge hoodie-wearing (yes, I said “hoodie”) sex-crazed monster who wants NOTHING to do with any control at all. Or not. In which case his or her task will be to survive his or her peers.

The author of this Atlantic article was reacting to a sensational case of a boy shooting his father to death. You want sensational? How about the young man I’ve been writing about who killed his mother and stashed her body under the house or the young dropout addict woman who killed her baby and carried its body around in the trunk of the car for months? The case of one of my students killing his father (many years ago) was a little different: accidental. They were fighting right enough, but the boy was trying to shoot over his father’s head and didn’t allow for being on a rise of land. All these cases were people I cared about. Don’t send reporters who are nice white library researchers who reiterate the same old moldy post-colonial facts.

Even a researcher should have looked to see whether Denise Juneau really is the first Indian-American Montana superintendent of schools. She isn’t. The very first superintendent of schools of any kind in Montana was Helen Clarke, a half-Blackfeet daughter of a white massacre victim (Malcolm Clarke) and she was also related to the murderer (Yellow Owl). Her teenaged brothers rode out with the cavalry to retaliate against the murderer’s band but got the wrong one and massacred friends.

You want culture? Helen Clarke was educated in St. Louis, brought the first piano into Montana territory, toured Europe in Sarah Berhhardt’s acting company. She’s buried up the road behind the Big Hotel in East Glacier, along with other relatives like John Clarke, the handsome and cultivated deaf/mute woodcarver whose daughter runs an art gallery there.

Is this trouble genetic? Hell, no. These people have better genes than you or I. They’ve been pushed through genetic filters that winnowed out all the weaklings, the timid, the dummies. For a while, a little more than a century ago, there were only 500 of them, mostly kids. You want to hear about “The Hunger Games” and kids getting killed for survival? Well, Meriweather Lewis knocked off a couple of boys. The hunger began when the buffalo were gone.

Is bad education the result of reservation conditions? 8,000 enrolled Blackfeet are on the reservation and 8,000 enrolled Blackfeet are off the reservation. I don’t think anyone has ever done an academic comparison of the two sets of kids. James Welch, Jr., the novelist, graduated from high school in Minneapolis. The present reservation superintendent, Mary Margaret McKay Johnson, (a very good one) is a local product.

The Atlantic story was about Crow. Otherwise, the story would have had to include the trail-breaking Piegan Institute and the Catholic grade school and the Baptist school and the one run by the Blackfeet Community College. They are not charter schools -- they are private schools funded by foundations, denominations and the tribe. Their kids do well in life. They aren’t fat. They say a prayer before lunch. They even speak Blackfeet. Of course, they’re pre-adolescent. There used to be a “Free School” for adolescents in the Seventies. (The impact is still felt.)

Here’s the secret: Indian education dropout problems are really the problem of educating ADOLESCENT Indians. They don’t drop out until puberty begins. The problems of how to educate adolescents of any race, community, or historical time are remarkably the same. Always tough. One major answer has always been “put them to work.” If you don’t find things to do that really engage them, then they’ll find their own. There’s a certain kind of person who is looking for them. The main educational system then becomes juvvie and/or prison and, sure enough, that’s where a big share of the minority adolescents are.

When I googled for adolescent education, this is what I got: "A tumultuous situation arises in the relationship between the adolescent...and the world. This tumultuous situation is necessary, and as teachers, we need to have it in mind during the years leading up to it. Overly sensitive teachers might get the idea that it would be better to spare young people this upheaval. However, in so doing, they would make themselves the worst enemy of youth." - Rudolf Steiner. I was surprised, because I had thought that Waldorf schools were for pre-adolescents.

And this: “Adolescence is the period during which we first sense, as human beings, our responsibility for earthly existence, and, inevitably, it is a time of turbulent transition and inner turmoil. During the first two seven-year periods of life, our soul, spiritual being gradually incarnates. With puberty, it takes hold of our whole being and turns outward to befriend the Earth and the forces of life and death. Steiner calls this profound inner transformation “a grand metamorphosis.”

That second quote is from the publisher’s squib for “A Grand Metamorphosis: Contributions to the Spiritual-Scientific Anthropology and Education of Adolescents” by Peter Selg. (Waldorf Books, ) I’m ordering. I’ll let you know how it reads. It sounds as though it might even be good for educating white kids. (!!)

Native American kids have had a dilemma, which is how to form an identity that reconciles assimilation with oppression. They are told again and again -- by articles like this -- that they have been abused, confined, traumatized, and diminished to the point of losing their culture (which is true), and then they are expected to emulate those oppressors. It’s not the same thing as immigration requiring Euro kids to conform. It’s close to the problem of African-American adolescents. It demands a metamorphosis full of pain. I think of the butterfly that goes into a chrysalis as a caterpillar. Recently I read that the insect metamorphosis is not so simple as rearranging organs and growing wings: rather it can be a matter of breaking down into a molecular soup and reassembling according to a new plan. Sounds like adolescence to me.

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