The Open Wound
“So who can say, the past is past, live for today?
The wound’s still open. Did you think it would just go away?”
It is the late nineteenth century, and the United States government is trying desperately to solve the “Indian problem.” A great idea is born. Let’s remove Indian children from their homes and send them far away from the burdens of tribal life. The best opportunity for Native people to find success in American society is to assimilate them, blending them into the dominant culture by cutting their hair, removing their religion, changing their dress, and most importantly, eliminating their language. Literacy in English will civilize the Indian. Off-reservation boarding schools will be the new model. These “sponsors of literacy” saw this new model of educating native people as a win-win situation. Native people would integrate into mainstream society and the problem of what to do with them would disappear.
In her article “Sponsors of Literacy” Deborah Brandt defines sponsors of literacy as agents who enable, support, teach and model literacy. Brandt further mentions that these agents can suppress or withhold literacy. In Indian education, the latter is certainly true as seen by the long-term, devastating consequences of misguided sponsorships. Various government and religious sponsors forced their ideas on native people with traumatic results. These sponsorships of literacy affected not only the individuals directly involved; they have influenced successive generations. When looking at the problems in Indian education today: high dropout rates, lower achievement levels, and the small numbers that go on to college, to name a few, the connection to inappropriate sponsorship is clearly evident.
In Promises of the Past, a History of Indian Education, David Dejong provides insight into the “successful” model of Indian education in the early 1900’s. In a presentation to the Senate subcommittee investigating the conditions of Indians during that time, Dana Coolidge described the methods used to educate native children. Coolidge explained how children were separated from their mothers at the tender age of six. If these children were homesick and ran away, they were transferred to another school far away and kept away from their families for at least three years. Coolidge told the story of a young Navajo girl who ran 100 miles to get home after she had her heirloom jewelry taken from her and she was punished and shut up in a closet for speaking her native language. Dejong also quotes Julia Carrol’s testimony to the senate subcommittee hearings of 1929, who described how Indian children were “beaten like dogs” and whipped.
If we define literacy as the mechanism through which we develop the ability to improve economic status and opportunity, then clearly, the sponsors who believed that ridding Indian people of their culture through such extreme measure, failed. Instead of providing native students with tools that could be added to their already rich culture, language and social structures, the arena for literacy development became the battle ground between Indian identity and the dominate culture’s idea of literacy. The concept of literacy as defined by the sponsors of that time was in conflict with the ideas of literacy as defined by native people. Without valuing tribal culture and providing opportunity for input into their literacy programs, there is a conflict of interest. The sponsors believed that native culture should be erased, rather than built upon.
What seems perplexing to me today is, given this history of literacy sponsorship towards native people, is that we blame native people for their lack of success in terms of academic and economic literacy. In Brandt’s essay, she reminds us that literacy learning comes from relatives and teachers. What one’s relatives have experienced in terms of learning is passed down to the next generation. As a teacher, I see this frequently. Students, who have parents who have been unsuccessful in school, often view the world of literacy and learning as a place filled with anxiety and rejection. It is a place where one can experience failure. The attitudes of the parents are inherent in the child. Many native children today have grandparents that are products of boarding schools, and it is only in recent time that text books and film have portrayed native people as anything other than “savages.” It seems quite obvious that literacy needs to be viewed in the context of historical sponsorship and its effects on subsequent generations, rather than merely achievement gaps and social access. In addition, we need to look at more ways to unravel the destruction created by misguided sponsorship. How do we, as teachers, bridge the gap between parents who have experienced pain in their learning, and their children who are in our classrooms? Maybe, when looking at the perceived achievement gap, low test scores, or high dropout rates, we might also examine ways to heal fragile relationships, build trust, and include the voices of those who have been wounded by an ethnocentric education system.