Education and The Colonial Frontier: The Right Place for a Native American Man?

The classroom must become a different place if we are going to move away from mono-linguistic and mono-cultural mechanisms that destroy indigenous cultures and languages.
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In recent discussions with colleagues, the topic of Native American men has come up a lot. While I hate to play to the stereotype, we have another one of those "vanishing Indian" things going on. I really hoped we had buried the whole Last of the Mohicans/Dogmen/etc. eras, but honestly things are looking pretty bleak for education in Indian Country, especially for the men. But as with most things, the problem is not with the ones who leave the system. You may have guessed it by now: the problem is the system.

I think back to my days at the University of Minnesota. I took an Intro to World History class that probably had 300 students in a large auditorium. I was seated near the front of the class, and the professor was lecturing about the formation of populations in the Americas. What he said struck me as incorrect, placing Native American history entirely within the land bridge theory which he said dated back to about 5,000 years ago. I raised my hand, and when called upon, told him about Tlingit oral traditions: we come from the South, we came up to the interior and then down to the coast of what is now Southeast Alaska about 10,000 years ago. He said, "weʼre not here to talk about that" and carried on with his version of the story.

It was a matter of power. He had the position, the class had to pay attention, and not one person in the room seemed to care about any other versions of history. So I decided I wanted his job. But I know that many others would want to walk away. The role of the Native American male is incredibly complicated these days. The most violently treated demographic in America is the Native American female, and so the most powerless just may be the Native American male. In our language, we call a warrior xʼéighaa kháa, which means a true person, because the term comes from a place of strength, protection, and sacrifice. This is important to understand because our values stand in stark contrast to media-driven stereotypes of savage killers, angry and stoic bare-chested beasts, and one-with-nature kind of guys.

The other week, a student of mine was passing me on my way to class and stopped to talk. He was upset about one of his classes and the way Alaska Natives were talked about. According to him, the teacher was basically saying that if you are born Alaska Native, you are born with disadvantages. He had never felt bad about being Alaska Native until that day. He asked if I could take the class just to see what was being said. On top of that, word has made it back to me that classes and programs that focus on Alaska Native issues and languages should be paid for by Alaska Native tribes and corporations (as if Microsoft pays for computer classes or the Crown pays for composition). These are telling signs that the door is not open yet for an indigenous consciousness in higher education.

The Native American male is not alone in his rejection of higher education. National trends are often showing an increase in female students and a decrease in male students. But as with many things, the statistics are higher in Native American populations. Part of this, according to Professor Philip Zimbardo, is that the classroom is analog in a digital age. 10,000 hours of video games means staying in one scene for more than thirty seconds can be devastating to attention spans. But there is more.

The classroom is where indigenous languages have been brutally attacked for hundreds of years. In the film, The Yupʼik Way, an elder says, "we lost our language to apples." There would be parties in rural villages, and students who had not spoken in their native language were the only ones who could come. Students who held on to their identity, their language and culture, had to watch outside the window. At the party, the children were eating apples and drinking juice, which were rare and expensive in the village.

The classroom must become a different place if we are going to move away from mono-linguistic and mono-cultural mechanisms that destroy indigenous cultures and languages. American education has often felt that letting indigenous consciousnesses into its classrooms will weaken the overall education system, which is an outdated and incorrect mindset born out of a fear and/or disgust for the Other. In fact, we will awaken a side that is in desperate need of attention: humanity.

When a Native American man walks away from a classroom, it is probably an act of defiance, turning away from a system that rejects, demeans, ignores, or incorrectly represents what that man loves the most: his people. It is a system of individual achievements and broad-based standards, both of which will certainly move in violent opposition to indigenous ways of knowing.

The University is challenged today to overcome all that education has been, simply because it calls itself a place of higher learning. If we narrow our scope because of preconceived notions of super-/infer-iority, then we limit our ability to achieve new levels of consciousness that seek a hybridity that can break down barriers better than what we have now.

The Native American man is not a man at all. It is a massive collection of individuals, with varying degrees of personal identity, be it ethnic, sexual, personal, or whatever. But within the pattern of an ever-decreasing retention rate, we see a system that is failing. Until that pattern changes, we should be examining what we do and how we do it, who is given a voice and who is silenced. The classroom is a place that once sought to "kill the Indian, save the man," and that is what we have to work with. But if we can look into all of these factors and find ways to raise the numbers, then we can start calling it progress. Until then, it is the same violent frontier, with nicer and newer technology and nifty sounded classes.

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