Monday, August 12, 2019


When one approaches the end of the "life trajectory," one of the dilemmas is what to do with all the "stuff" accumulated.  I saved so much, assuming it would be valuable and someone else would care.  It's only been recently that I've understood how wrong I was about teaching high school English to adolescent rez kids, both enrolled and non-enrolled, both this tribe and that.  Not exactly wrong -- more like futile.

I'm not sure there's been another time in history when one big culture rolled over the top of another continental people and then the oppressed culture bided its time until it could come back.  By that time -- hundreds of years -- both cultures will have utterly changed because the world will have changed, but neither wants to have to invent a new, necessarily hybrid, understanding of existence on this planet.  By that time the demographics of culture will be so various and inventive that the only thing that can be an accurate indicator is skin color.  But people are not either black or white or yellow or red.  They are gradations and mixtures, and have no definite edge between in and out.  Yet no race questionnaires have a place for "mixed" or the whole set of assumptions would be wiped out, because that's what almost everyone would have to mark.

Every culture tries to impose some other criteria than skin, like wealth or religion.  None of them has a hard edge.  So what if we go the other way, look at the intense central characteristics and then arrange the rest of the suspects according to their closeness to that centerpiece.  The trouble is that the dominant culture still makes the markers and the underculture may be as much distinguished by rejecting it as by accepting it.

They used to require teachers to write out the curriculum of their subject.  I wrote a dandy (I thought) for Heart Butte that was composed in four strands: reading and writing/listening and speaking.  Then I sorted the subject matter into one theme per grade:  lovers, grizzly bears, etc., each marked by a particularly powerful book written by a "Native American."  This was necessary because the Germanic lockstep militaristic factory preparation wouldn't work.  The People simply ignored it.  Some of them were repeating three years of English meant to be sequential because they kept flunking, usually because of absence.

No two kids learned the same way, had the same goals, was in or out a state of trauma, and so on.  Few had an "axis mundi" (to be fancy) that was not simply being there at that time.  Not even the rewards of city life appealed, which was understandable since they were mostly McDonalds and KMart.

I took my four best writers to a conference in a nearby town.  One boy had shaped his whole personality about being transgressive and had picked up enough Algerian French theory from Vietnam veterans to feel justified.  One was a woman of intelligence whose father had been an early "academic Indian" and whose whole family defined success as academic, mostly teaching.  The first could not resist imposing on the second -- they were competitors and sex got into it.  Or I should say gender-identity: boys take, girls give.  I had not expected this.

The conference was based on Jim Welch.  I did not know that he spent most time on his mother's rez, which was not Blackfeet, and that his high school education was in Minneapolis.  He was simply enrolled with the Blackfeet.  He was friendly, generous, and interested.  I don't think he had any idea how terrified the four young adults were.  He might as well have been from outer space.

These were the days of the Native American Literary Renaissance when "Indian" writers were just being recognized.  I can hardly think of one who was not at least half non-Indian, because the trick was to have been present on a rez, but having enough of a culture -- maybe through school or family -- to manage their experience through white-eyes.  Because that's who buys and reads books because "Indians" don't have the money.  No one had thought yet about NA languages being oral or about what -- if they became used to written words -- they would read.  It was all white-eyes stuff.

So I had the idea that we would write our own book and I would act as an interlocuter, translating from oral to written, and we did that.  The result was "One Windy Day."  This is a Korean YouTube with the same name that is a song.  Songs would have been a good bridge, maybe better than a written story.

Over the years I acquired a set of books about teaching "Indians."  The history of Indian education were ones were the most valuable.  I loaned them to a tribal woman who never brought them back.  Others were poetry.  Some were proceeds of conferences.  Then there were the stories:  who was gay, who was married to an "Indian", who couldn't get a job in any other context, who was depraved.  Pretty soon I was fired, too.

Part of the difficulty was that through an earlier marriage I had been included in a religious ceremony that required the observance of rules, many of them about secrecy.  The more I disclosed that, the more I was in trouble, because the schools are state regulated and the white schools of the state thought anything "Indian" was a sort of curiosity be put aside.  

Now on Twitter I hear the educated self-identified rez people talk, struggling to know how to think about it.  What right do I have even to observe, to comment, to keep out-dated materials?  One prob is that even those with D.Eds now realize that they have been indulged, given soft degrees, in the end patronized again.  They mistook the certifying documents for the actual mastery of content, the way paper bills stand for money but aren't.  This is because of the many tribal colleges, even though they must also meet outside standards to be useful to people looking for jobs that require a knowledge base.

I'm not dispensing with my NA Lit Renaissance collection of books.  They're not about demographic purity, but rather about life trajectories.  Nor -- so far -- am I finding an archive for materials from individuals, now dead, who are important figures in the search for answers.  I have no reputation.  Just experience.  Maybe of a kind not recognized by the people who have power.  

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