Monday, October 28, 2013


I’ve already said that sometimes and in some ways I was a good teacher and in other ways I was not.  Since all but a few months of my sporadic career were on the Blackfeet reservation, the essential nature of that place and the people shaped by it is the main criterion of what was good and what was bad.  But we didn’t agree.  Since I was an English teacher, and since everyone presumes that means reading and writing far more than speaking and listening, my biggest failure was not knowing how to teach people to read, which is the most crucial skill for assimilation education, but almost irrelevant to being Blackfeet.

Blackfeet is an oral language with inflections and pronunciations adding meaning to the plain sounds.  A key problem is that most school materials are written and on paper (as compared to onscreen) and they are English.  The English alphabet does not even have letter symbols for some Blackfeet sounds, so how could it represent true Blackfeet?   If one could read Blackfeet, there’s so little published, what would you read?  Radio and video are the media for an oral language -- video even more, since gestures are woven into sounds.  But it’s really meant for people talking to people.

My preparation for teaching was mostly in theatre and speech with the emphasis on understanding individuals and their culture and on group discussion skills rather than one-against-one debate. What the community wanted then -- and still wants today -- is formal presentation skill: good pronunciation, compliant usage, the rhetoric of business success, computer skill in the Microsoft spreadsheet way -- not Apple graphics.  (I’m aware this exists powerfully because of seeing so many online wild-child kids whose spoken language is likely to be Spanish or French -- a moot point since they talk in street slang and song lyrics.  Not about money so much as love.  They speak YouTube.)  Sometimes modern Blackfeet kids, the high achievers in classrooms, strike me as sort of Japanese.  Other times, they style black urban ghetto.

The theoretical and practical knowledge of how the brain learns to read is just now coming to usefulness.  It appears that there are a number of different ways brains perceive these little strips of markings, left-to-right eye scans that translate into meaning.  Partly it depends on sound associations.  This means that pronunciations and the way they are “seen” by the brain might be different from one person to another.  One of my brothers couldn’t learn to read until a teacher drilled him in phonics.  I sight read, mostly taught myself.  Sometimes I pronounce words funny because I’ve never heard them spoken.  Some people are dyslexic, meaning that it is extraordinarily difficult for them to learn to read, though they are fluent and powerful in oral thought.

Beyond the symbolization of spoken language is what a person thinks reading “is.”  What forms in the head while reading might be like a movie, might be diagrams of how concepts fit together, or might only be a dark blur of shadows.  Some of us “inhabit” what we read.  For others, it remains a wall with graffiti.  But Writing-on-Stone is part of the original indigenous culture and the impulse of kids is to draw is underneath any writing.

Propriety rather than intelligibility is the focus of much "English" teaching, so I was always urged to “drill, drill, drill” the students.  I see the point of this.  Once I was with a bunch of white kids when a Blackfeet leader in his nice suit came to visit.  He was a politician and he had been a student of mine.  His “grammar” was very bad.  The kids’ faces were full of contempt.  I’m sure he thought it was racism.  It was, in a way, since he had failed to assimilate “proper” English, but the kids would have been equally scornful of a white person with bad grammar.  It’s a social marker.

A small part of my preparation for teaching was speech therapy.  I didn’t do it, but I read the theories and observed them in action.  When the problem is the forming of sounds, a trained person sits across from the client and looks into their face to see what they are doing when they talk.  There are games and encouragement while the client learns to do something like make his or her tongue fit just along the ridge behind his or her upper teeth tightly enough to allow only a straw’s worth of air to hiss through.  That makes “sssss” -- too much air and you’ve got “shshshsh” which people describe as a “slushy s" and which makes the speaker harder to understand.  One of the spelling handicaps on the rez is using “non-standard” sounds, so that “saddle” becomes “sattle.”  Kids have fought me over this, insisting on “sattle.”  It’s as though I were challenging their identity.  THEY knew sattles, not me.

Many Blackfeet sounds are made in the back of the throat and some English call it “guttural” which has pejorative connotations: animal-like grunting, a German accent which was a nasty accusation after WWII. “Gutter.”   But English was originally that way and some of the minorities of Britain retain the blurring, back-of-the-throat sounds as well as glottal stops.  It’s a much softer sound.  The melody of pronunciation, the rhythm and emphasis, is also a little bit different.  Having an accent is sometimes considered charming and other times considered “low class.”  The Anglo-Saxon battle against the French includes language in every aspect.  Using four-letter Anglo-Saxon words is still stigmatized.

All this is about the mechanics of speaking and reading, which are so interwoven with culture and nurture.  We all know that the best way to learn reading is sitting next to someone who reads to you, close enough that you can follow the words with your eyes and ears at once and build the associations.  But there is another European dimension that doesn’t quite translate and that is the great romantic notion of what it means to be a writer.  When the “roman” -- the novel -- was invented in Europe, it was associated with exciting adventures that were often a little bit naughty and sometimes full of the individual’s defiance of their society in the name of righteousness and the protection of the innocent.  To Blackfeet we're talking Napi and Scarface here.  Not humans.

The creation of narrative and poetry has been a mixed experience for Native Americans.  On the one hand it often takes up their issues and experience, but on the other hand it seems always to be from a white point of view.  Even if the writing is written by Indians, it won’t be praised unless it fits white assumptions.  Anyway some of the meaning will always elude readers who have never experienced a sweat, a midnight pow-wow drum, hot frybread with Karo syrup on a cold morning.  But there’s a great “romantic” need to know on the part of many whites (and blacks even more so) that makes it intoxicating.  Toxic just enough to make them yearn and crave something they think they can find there.  They’ll fight over the “truth” of it, but without ever looking at the truth of the reality of rez life, which is not what it used to be no matter how romantic buffalo hunting might be.  This blunts the moral demand to support today’s people, who then lash out politically.

Galen Upham once wrote a story about a man who wanted to be a chief and believed that the way to get there was to capture an English teacher and keep her in a cave until she had taught him to read.  Galen has been gone a long time now and I stopped telling people about the story because it’s both romantic and scary -- the Indian captures what the white man has, reversing the pattern.  But it wouldn’t have worked in reality, because it’s no use knowing “how” to read if you don’t read all the time.  It’s a skill (like running), not a body of knowledge.  There would have had to be a library in that cave.  The problem with reading Blackfeet is that there are so few books written in Blackfeet.  It’s STILL an oral language.  But writing can be an mp3.  It doesn’t have to be on paper.  You can listen on your iPod while you run.


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