- Native Education: Two Approaches
- Endemic Issues
- Changing Attitudes
- Integrating Culture into Education
- Program Examples
- Culture Is Alive
- Reevaluating Teacher Education
For more on Roger, see Diane Wilson’s essay about Roger Buffalohead and Indian education
Roger: My English name is Roger Buffalohead. My Ponca name is Insta dupa, which means Four Eyes. It refers to a very ancient Ponca dog . It had yellow markings above its eyes. At a distance it looked like it had four eyes. It was a very honorific name. In the Ponca clans you inherit a clan name. When you pass on your name goes back into the clan pool. The next born would get your name . We don’t really know how old those names are but they go back many, many, many generations. Buffalohead is an English translation of Te Nugah pah, which means people at the head of the buffalo ceremony. Some lazy BIA clerk decided that that was too long of a name to put on a form. He shortened it to Buffalohead and that became our name and has remained our name in modern times.
I don’t know if you would call my family a traditional family or not. My father was a Native speaker and had been raised in the Native ways. His father was Mark Buffalohead. He was very anti-white because the Poncas had been removed from their original homeland in Nebraska in 1870s. He came down as a very young boy to Indian territory or what is now Oklahoma. He never really had much use for white people. He didn’t hate them, he just felt like they had wronged the Ponca people. That wrong resulted in about a quarter of the tribe dying of diseases . He had some pretty strong feelings about it. He voiced them all the time.We grew up knowing about the removal and other events in Ponca history.
My dad had been raised in a boarding school and he was very anti-boarding school. He didn’t want his kids to go there because he said they were mean to Indians. What he meant was that they had forced them to dress in white men’s clothes. They had to speak English rather than Ponca. There was a lot of discipline in those schools. They had to work, they went to school half the day. So he had some pretty strong feelings about it. None of us went except my older brother and sister who just insisted on going to Chilocco Indian Boarding School. They went there and eventually both of them left because of the experiences that they had. That was in the early 1930s. My oldest brother, in fact, knocked out the superintendent because he was saying something to him that he didn’t like. My sister was punished for running away from Chilocco so it was not a pleasant experience. None of the rest of us—there were 10 kids in the family—ever went to boarding school. Many Indian kids went to what was then a school at White Eagle in Oklahoma where we were raised. A lot of kids went to public schools in Ponca City. That’s where I went.
To tell you the truth, we didn’t like school. I quit when I was in first grade. I was a first grade drop out. My folks didn’t really care. They didn’t force me to go. Eventually I went back and stayed in school. Found it really quite easy. I don’t why but education came to me real easy. I didn’t have any problems in school or learning to read, write and do math. I was always one of the ones that was doing pretty good in school. My five brothers, only the oldest brother finished high school. The rest dropped out. My four sisters, only my sister that’s just older than me finished high school. I’m the only one that went on to college in the whole family.
Diane: Why did you drop out in first grade?
Roger: I just didn’t like it. It just didn’t appeal to me. I asked my folks if I could stay home and they said, yeah, so I did. The next year I went and that was much better. There was a lot of prejudice against Indians in Oklahoma schools. You ran into it quite a bit with the students. Even the teachers were not that good to you. But there were teachers that were nice. I had several teachers that took me under their wings and made things happen for me that otherwise would not have been the case.
So I didn’t really grow up with a bad feeling about education. Like I said, I had a real easy time with learning. A lot of other Indian kids didn’t. I could understand why because, like in the second grade, we had a teacher that had a washbowl and wash cloth and made the Indian kids wash up so that we could go sit with the other kids. What was that telling you as a second grader? That you were dirty and not clean enough to sit with other kids. We managed somehow to survive all that and finish school.
I went on to junior and senior high school. By the time I got to be in senior high, my mother was a maid for an oil company executive. Conoco had a huge oil plant in Ponca City and their executives all lived there. They all had house cleaners and babysitters and that’s what my mother did. Her employer knew about my record in high school. He asked my mother what I planned to do when I finished high school. She said, he’ll probably go into the military service because that was the thing to do to get out of the circumstance in Oklahoma. A lot of Indian kids went into the service and then came home and had a trade and a job. That was sort of the avenue out of poverty in those days. It was about the late 1950s and the Russians had just launched Sputnik, and Congress had just passed the National Defense Student Loan Program that enabled poor kids to go to school. My mother’s employer said, do you think he would want to go to college if I helped him get in? My mother said, you better ask him. So one evening when he brought her home from work he asked me if I wanted to go to college. I said, yeah, but who’s going to pay for it? He said, what if I can help you arrange to pay for it with a government loan? The BIA can pay for your books. I said, if you can do it, I’ll consider it. So he did. I went off to what was then Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, about 40 miles from my home community.
Again, I found college to be very challenging but not something that was difficult for me. I made good grades in college. I encountered some prejudice there, I remember when I signed up for the dorm they put me with another Indian kid in the same dorm room so we wouldn’t be with any white people. Eventually he dropped and I stayed. I lived in the dorm a couple of years and then moved off campus into private housing.
But I did very well in college and became interested in history. I worked with a professor at Oklahoma State University who had done a lot of writing on Indians in Oklahoma. I actually met Angie Debo, I had read some of her works. She was an Oklahoma writer on Indians, wrote a lot of history books. I met her and both her and this professor encouraged me to go into history. A fellow tribesman, Clyde Warrior, whom you may have heard of, was an activist and part of the National Indian Youth Council, which was formed in 1960 or so out of the Chicago Indian Conference. He introduced me to people he knew in Colorado who ran the United Scholarship Service. That was Tilly Walker, a Mandan from North Dakota. I just went to her 80th birthday party last summer in North Dakota.
Anyway, through many kinds of support mechanisms, through Clyde, through Tilly, through my own effort, I managed to win a Woodrow Wilson scholarship to go to graduate school. In those days that was the ticket into any graduate school that you would go into. At the time I didn’t really know very much about what was going on nationally in Indian affairs. Through the involvement with the Scholarship Service, which was an Indian-run organization, I began to get involved with that and the Council. I became very active in Indian affairs in the early 60s. I combined that with my interest in history. When I won that Woodrow Wilson fellowship, I went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the Masters and Ph.D. program.
Through all of that, I had an interest in Native history. Nobody else was doing Native history at the time, at least not anyone Native. There was lots of people who were non-Native that were writing Indian history. I had read a lot of it and it always seemed to me that it wasn’t Native history, it was Indian-White relations that they were writing about. It wasn’t the story of the tribe, it wasn’t from an internal point of view, it was from an external point of view. It reflected many of the biases of the larger society even in interpreting Native themes. I began working on that and that became my passion. It was great to be able to find an area of work that coincided with what I wanted to do. It was the best of all possible worlds to have someone pay you for doing what you really want to do. That’s what I ended up doing with my teaching career and all that, becoming active in Indian affairs. I became very active on the national level.
Eventually through my Ph.D. program, I took my first teaching position at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. I took that job because nobody else would hire me. They were the only ones who were interested. There was still a lot of prejudice against Native faculty. The question that they often came up with was “How can you be fair and objective in your writing when you’re a Native person?” The assumption was that if you were Native you were going to be pro-Native and you weren’t going to be fair and objective in the writing of history. That’s what you ran into across the board in all the positions that I interviewed for, except at the University of Cincinnati. They decided to offer me a position teaching American History, which I did for two years there. Then I took a job at UCLA in the American Indian Studies program.
Also I was friends with a number of Native people who were working in the academic world. One of them was Ed Dozier who was a famous Tewa anthropologist. Ed agreed to become the first chairman of the first Department of American Indian Studies created in the country at the University of Minnesota in 1969. He called me and asked me if I would consider coming to Minnesota. I was at UCLA at the time. I liked it there, it was a nice position. I agreed to come so in the spring of 1970 I came here. Then Ed called and told me that he had a brain tumor, and he would not be coming to Minnesota. I was kind of stuck as the first faculty person at the Department of American Indian Studies. When the University officials found out from Ed about the circumstances, they asked me if I would consider serving as the acting Chair of the Department. I agreed to do that and helped them create what was really the first Department of American Indian Studies in the country with a major and all of that. I worked with a Dakota committee and an Ojibwe committee to create Dakota and Ojibwe language programs. The committee members were Native speakers who were part of the local community and they helped create those two programs. We created a major and coursework. The University eventually hired a full-time Chair because I didn’t really want to be that forever. Then I went to several different places but I ended up back at the U in another position in the late 80s at the American Indian Learning and Resource Center. I ran that Center for five years. Then I went to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe. I was there for five years helping to create a new art school. Then I came back and worked for Upper Midwest American Indian Center for a while, then for NAES College and then for Minneapolis Community Technical College.
I’ve had a varied teaching career and I’ve worked mostly with Native students. I’ve helped create training programs for Native people at the college level. I also did a lot of work with public school programs. I worked for Migizi Communications for a time in the mid-80s, running the program they created that was funded by the federal government to work with Indian kids in the junior high area to interest them in radio and television production. That was a wonderful job, a great opportunity to work with junior high level Indian kids who were quite a challenge. Junior high kids are a challenge, period. To work with Native kids in that capacity was really a fantastic thing. We had some really great success with that program for a number of years before I left there and went back to the U to run their American Indian Learning and Resource Center.
Native Education: Two Approaches
I would say what I learned through my own education and working with Native people and Native communities, is that there’s two approaches to Indian education that have evolved over the years. One is to work within the system, which is working to change the system to better meet the needs of Native students. That’s kind of like what happens in Minneapolis public schools and even in some of the charter schools, they’re all in that category. Then there’s another approach that says, that is never going to work, you need some kind of alternative approach. So you get the alternative school, the other school segment that works with kids exclusively outside of the mainstream, public school system, using different approaches. I don’t think either has been terribly successful in my view. I think the public schools have done a lot of interesting things and the charter schools are doing some interesting things. The so-called alternative schools, the ones that were outside of the system working more on traditional culture, have done some interesting things. But if you look at the actual graduation rates, look at the attendance rates, there’s not a lot of variation there. It’s pretty much the same problem wherever you look.
Endemic Issues & Hopeful Change
I’ve come to see the problem of education for Native students as being one that has an endemic factor where Native people experienced really bad things in the educational system and have passed that attitude towards education on to their children. If you’re going to survive in American culture, you need an education. You need to be able to be competitive on the job market. Many of our kids are put in a bind where they’ve been brought up in a tradition that doesn’t really encourage education. But it’s not completely negative, they encourage a lot of curiosity, a lot of learning on your own, a lot of things that are fundamentally important to brain development wherever you go, whether it’s alternative school or public school.
You have all of these things happening and then you have other problems occurring: cultural disintegration where people are losing their language, where people have lost their feeling about their culture, they don’t know who they are, they have identity problems. It’s not surprising to me that all these problems surround Native children and they have a much harder time getting through the system the way that other people do.
But there are some things that are changing for the better that in the long run I think may turn it around. For example, when I went to college in 1959, I learned through research that there were only 400 Indian college students nationwide at that time. If you look now at the number of Native college students, it’s well over 125,000 in all colleges across the country. When the children of those people that have gone through college, when they come through the system they’re going to have a different attitude towards education than the kids that came before them, like myself, that came out of an environment that was totally anti-education, that could care less whether I stayed in school or not. That’s beginning to shift. As time goes along you’re going to find more and more Indian kids raised in an environment where they appreciate education and understand its usefulness and know how to combine the two things together to their benefit.
What I’ve done in my own life is to take my Native heritage and combine it with education in such a way that it’s reinforced what I wanted to do, what I wanted to accomplish in my life. I think that’s what will happen eventually to many, many Native kids as these things occur. Certain things may be lost but they’re not gone forever. Certain things are on the verge of extinction including many Native languages. Unless something is done to reverse those processes, I’m not sure that Indian kids coming out of those environments will be able to pick up their Native languages like we were able to pick up our language in a natural environment. They may have to go to school, they may have to resort to learning it on the internet through language programs that exist there, kind of like the Rosetta Stone language programs. They may have to do a number of things to continue those things in their lives. They won’t have the reinforcing factors that we did. I grew up in an environment where you could speak to somebody who was a Native speaker. That’s not always the case now. There may be changes there that people will have to look into.
When I was going through school and when I first started working in Indian affairs, I thought that if you got educated, if you used your education effectively, that you could really change everything and make things better for Native people. I really didn’t understand, like I do now, that it’s a matter of power. Native people don’t have all that much. Power is the central factor of American life. If you don’t have the power to change things, things are not really going to change. They may seem like they’re changing but they don’t. If you look at who has the power to decide who has treaty rights in the United States, it’s not the Indians who make that decision. It’s the Supreme Court. Do Indians have any influence over the Supreme Court? Only a moral influence. Which is like not having any. When you’re growing up, you have this feeling like the world can be changed and you can do all these things, just get educated and all this is going to happen. As you get older you realize that there are certain fundamental things that you have to work on that really are the deciding factors of American life. I think it’s important to cultivate that kind of thinking.
One of the reasons why I have not been terribly critical of the casino movement of Native people is that it does provide the economic wherewithal for them to have an influence on the larger culture, which they would not have if they did not have that resource. I’m thinking about Shakopee Mdewakanton. Look at the difference in the way those people are treated now in Minnesota society than the way they were treated 30 years ago. It’s a remarkable change of events. What’s the big difference? Those people are not all that different. They have a lot of money. And money buys influence. Influence is how you get things done. It’s a remarkable turnaround for them as a people to be able to use their money to force a change in society. I even like their program of giving because I think they rather wisely give to circumstances and to things that make a difference for Native people. I think that’s good in the long run to have that kind of influence. I have noticed that they also have their problems. Every new situation may solve some problems but it creates other. Whereas 30 years ago their problem was alcoholism, today their problem probably is a different kind of drug addiction. An expensive kind of drug addiction. Their problem 30 years ago was that their kids didn’t get an education. Their problem now is their kids have so much money they don’t need to get an education. That may be a problem for them in the long run if that doesn’t continue to be a cash cow for them over the years. For how long will Minnesota as a state allow them to continue to make fortunes when the state is suffering budget cuts.
I think there are always circumstances that raise these issues. I really think that the Native people need to pay more attention to their cultural traditions than they have in the past. I think they have moved too far away from them in many instances. They have melded too much into the mainstream. It’s good to see that these younger people are beginning to look at these traditions through new eyes, beginning to see new possibilities for an older culture and an older way of life. I noticed that they’re beginning to have snow snake competitions up north, which 30 years ago most kids wouldn’t even know what a snow snake is, let alone have a competition. It’s interesting that several years back they started the Ojibwe language bowl where they had kids competing to see who could speak the best Ojibwe, very interesting ways to integrate the old and the new into a new format that promises a different outcome for a lot of people.
Yet if you look at the number of problems that exist in those northern reservation communities, they are still harsh and severe. I’m not sure that they’ll all get well over a certain period of time but it is encouraging to see these little examples of how healing is beginning to occur. Healing of the culture, healing of the children, healing of the elders, people are recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, all of these things are very, very promising to me. I’ve been around a long time to see these things happening where before they did not.
I think that the other critical thing that I notice too as a result of getting an education was that the attitude that Native people have towards themselves shifted. In the past, in the pre-1960 era, they pretty much accepted what white society had to say. That’s no longer the case. I attribute a lot of that to the American Indian Movement, even though I didn’t always support their methods. I thought their ideology was right on. They figured out what Native people needed to get their own mental selves prepared for a new era, a new age. That mental preparation was cultural pride. They didn’t have a lot of it back then. That has increased intensely over the last 30 to 35 years. People are no longer ashamed to be Indian. You see that in families that once denied they were Indian are now big Indians. You see it in the art, you see it in many different ways that people are proud of their Native ancestry. That’s got to be a good thing in the long run for kids or for anybody. I think you begin to see all of that when you live for a rather long time. You get to see how different things that happened in the past become big things over time because they reflect a mood of the people. This change can only happen when people begin to look into themselves and begin to counter what has been negative in their lives with positive and reaffirming outlooks. I think the most positive part that I gained in working with Native people is that whole turn around in mentality from the days of yore when people didn’t seem to think that they could do anything to today, when it’s really hard to keep them from taking on anybody and everything. The attitude has changed and I think in the long run that’s a very good thing.
Integrating Culture into Education
Diane: Do you think the change in cultural attitudes has made the difference in graduation rates?
Roger: It’s helping. When you begin to look at successful Indian education programs, they always have some kind of cultural component. Either they’re language based or their emphasis is on cultural pride. I’m not so sure about all those efforts that try to introduce too much Native religion into the mix because that confuses a lot of kids. It puts a lot of things on their plate that they can’t really deal with all the time. If you say that a fundamental value of Native people is sharing and then what does that mean to a 13-year-old kid. If you put too much emphasis on it, what does that do to that kid who can’t come around to that sharing mentality, or does, and gets into a lot of trouble by giving all this stuff away. There’s confusion there. I think you need to look at Native philosophy to determine how does it work in real life, how does it work on a day-to-day basis.
I have found that if you can show by example that you care more about people than things then you have shared a lesson that is very Native. It’s very sharing but it doesn’t mean that you give everything away. There are ways to do it. I don’t think it’s been done all that well in a lot of the schools. They put too much emphasis on too many things at once. The kids get all confused about it because it’s not their normal daily routine. You’ve got to work it into their lives. What is a 15-year-old Native kid doing? They’re probably doing what other 15-year-old kids are doing so if you can tie culture into that, great, but if you can’t, you’re going to lose them. It’s got to be done subtly, it’s got to be done in a way that makes sense to those kids. I think too many times we’ve got people who want to force those kids to do too many things. You’ve got to speak Native language. Well, why? Why do you have to speak Native language? Is it a practical thing to do it? Does it work on Twitter? It could if everybody else knew it. There’s many ways to look at how you encourage kids at a certain age to integrate more culture into their life. I think the little kids are the most receptive. You must start there, it’s almost like a nest approach, where it rolls from that to working through their entire life. At certain ages you’re not going to be able to reach everyone.
Joe: Are you saying that when we’re trying to introduce culture that we should do it carefully?
Roger: I think so. I think it’s something that can have a profound impact on a person’s life. If they can’t live up to it, it makes them feel bad, just like everything else does that they can’t live up to. If you force too much on them then you put them in a certain stance where they’ve got to live their own life and deal with that, it ends up in a corner somewhere, which is where you don’t want it to be. You want it to be part of their life. Too many times people have been too rigid about enforcing rules and taboos that may or may not continue to work in a person’s life. You’ve got to be more open to the possibility that there’s other ways to approach cultural instruction. It’s not a one-way street, it’s not something that every kid is going to buy into because they’ve got their own background, they’ve got their own ways of looking at things. Some people get upset about tobacco. It was a Native plant, and it was used in ceremony, and it still is. It’s not going to be possible to use it that way in a public school setting. The law prohibits its use. You could try to create circumstances where it could be used but if you become too doctrinaire about it then you put the kid in a situation where he just sees the school as a negative thing because he can’t do it.
Joe: Setting him up for failure.
Roger: It’s just too bad that some people are so doctrinaire about what they teach to young people. I’ve always tried to integrate it into their life, figuring out where they were at, what’s possible to get them to buy into, what they’re interested in. If you can tie it to their interest then it’s something they’ll be interested in doing. If you can’t, they’re not going to do it anyway.
Diane: Do you have examples of programs?
Roger: I think some programs do a much better job than others. I’m interested in a program in New Mexico where kids learn math by sharing how to solve math problems. They go online and help each other and they’re in different pueblos. It reinforces the concept of sharing. It provides everybody with a way to solve math problems and learn how to do math. It’s a very Native thing to do but it’s not overly obtrusive into their lives either. They do it, they go online, they all work on the math problem together and they all solve it together. If you can find more approaches that somehow take what is a natural Native thing to do, sharing of knowledge, and put it to a problem situation—many Native kids have problems with math—and figure out a way in which they can help each other and learn math, this is a Native-based ideology. I see those kinds of things that look at new ways for kids to become involved with acting out their own culture in ways that make sense to them are the best ways to go. I would call that culture-based even though they’re not doing it in the language, they’re doing it in English. But they’re doing it in a way that reinforces the Native approach to things.
Joe: It’s very relational.
Roger: I think those are the kinds of things we need to figure out how to get going with kids. Osseo Public Schools did a good job with working with that. They had a drum class, kids came after school to learn how to become singers and drummers. They ran into a problem, that a girl wanted to be on the drum, which is a very untribal thing to do. They had to figure out a way to solve that problem. What they did is meet with elders to discuss it. The elders told them that if the kids decided that they wanted to have the girl there, it was okay. And they did. Here was another case that was culture-based, relying on elders to help you resolve a problem, with the elders putting it back on the kids, saying if you want it then it can occur, this made a lot of sense to the kids for this one girl to take part.
Joe: It sounds like the elder was wise, they were a good resource.
Roger: That’s another example of how things can be worked out without getting all bent out of shape about certain things. When I was asked about it, I just said, they never do it at home. I’ve never seen it. Yet there are tribes where women do drum. Even the Ojibwe at one time had women who drum. They have a dream to be drummers. The more you know about Native culture, in my view, the more flexible it is. The less you know about the culture, the more rigid you are in your approach to it. I think that’s really what happens. You see a lot of rigid people around saying that’s the only way it’s ever been done, ever. When you really know your culture, and when you really know a lot of people that lived through that culture, you know that it’s not as rigid as some people claim that it is. It’s more flexible.
Joe: You have to trust yourself to make decisions and you can’t always refer to a rule or rule book to make a decision.
Roger: There are no rule books, it’s all oral. It’s been passed down for generations. There’s certain ways that things were done, even if you look at the way that my grandfather did certain things and the way that my father did certain things, there’s a difference. There’s all these generational differences that work their way through these things. My grandfather had no use for men who hit women.Once his son beat his wife and he went over with a whip and whipped that son. He said, you like to beat up on women? I’ll show you what it feels like. So he did. I don’t think most Poncas would say that was the right thing to do. Many of them went to boarding schools and they learned that physical punishment was the right thing to do according to Western culture. There are generational differences.
I think there’s a lack of creativity in how to infuse culture into the curriculum. There’s a big problem with that. Too many rigid people have gotten involved that say this is the one and only way to do something.
Joe: That’s very Christian, isn’t it.
Culture Is Alive
Roger: It’s very Christian, very un-Indian, actually. When you know Indian people, you know the culture had to be inventive. Culture doesn’t exist unless it changes. It has to be alive. That’s what’s missing in a lot of cultural instruction. It’s got to the point where somebody has said this is the one and only way to do this. People try to do that with kids and kids don’t buy it, just bounces off them like water off a duck’s back.
Joe: You have to be very careful how you respond to the creative efforts of the kids. You don’t want to shut the door in their face just because it hasn’t been done that way before. You have to really think about how you’re going to respond.
Roger: If you want them to use their minds to be creative people themselves, then you have to be respectful of that.
Joe: I took a class from you once at Hamline. You were very kind to me, I remember that. There were some kids that were really giving me a bad time. You kind of chewed them out a little bit in a nice way. That was the biggest thing I learned was that he didn’t yell or scream, he wasn’t even angry with them, he just said, I don’t think we have to behave like this. And that was about it. There was no immediate response but the way you said it, I think they reflected on it. I think it’s better to be patient. We had a situation with the kids this weekend. When we first found out what they had done, we took a good hour before we even talked to them. What we tried to do was get them to talk about it more than us talking to them. It was difficult.
Roger: When I was at IAIA, we went on a field trip to Mesa Verde to see that site. We were in Durango, Colorado, and stayed the night there. There was a vanload of Indian students, all college level. They had been given access to the keys because they were drivers. That night they went out and partied. On the way home, the van was wrecked and one of them was killed. I’ll never forget it, trying to deal with that circumstance so that the girl who was driving wouldn’t be scarred for life. And yet at the same time to make her aware that they had all done something that wasn’t right. It was really a difficult challenge. I think if you have the patience you can get through that without either getting too angry or too lax in what you have to do. When we came back to campus, the most remarkable thing was that the other kids had all gathered and received the kids that were coming back. Except the girl that was driving, she had been incarcerated, we had to leave her there in jail. They all provided her with enough support that when she eventually got out that she was totally blown away by the incident herself.
I think it helped to be more Native in approach to that circumstance than to be very Anglo about it, rigid. In that, even dealing with it, as adults, they were adults who had made a bad choice, we still have to give people some knowledge that even though you really don’t like what they did, it’s what they did that you don’t like, it’s not them that you don’t like. That’s very hard to make that point to people, especially young people. What she wanted to hear, I think, was the very opposite of what she heard. I think she wanted to be scolded, to be told “you’re wrong,” and we didn’t do that at all. We just told her that what she had done was wrong but it was not her and we would provide her with support. She somehow managed to survive it but she did withdraw from school later. I don’t think she could get over that this girl who was killed was her best friend. No matter what you do you can’t get people beyond a certain measure of grief. She knew that what she had done was something that shouldn’t have happened. She had more of a hard time forgiving herself than other people were of forgiving her. There we used a lot of Cherokee ceremonies with her because the girl that was killed was Cherokee. Nedra Darling, who was Cherokee, arranged to have some Cherokees who were in the school come together and provide a ceremony of sorts. It was all done in an affirming way so that these kids could come away knowing what they had done was wrong but at least knowing that they were getting the support they needed to get through it.
Joe: They weren’t completely ostracized.
Roger: I think that’s the difference in the Native way of doing something. At least that’s the way that I was raised. My dad used to say, my grandfather used to say as well, there’s a word that we have for someone that’s touched by spirit, it’s called Xubé (Ku-bay). My dad used to say even the worst drunks on the Ponca tribe were Xubé that they were touched by spirit. My grandfather said that no medicine person ever in the Ponca tribe practiced medicine who wasn’t touched in some way by Xubé. They had to experience something in their own life that took them to the edge, to the brink, before they could become medicine people. I always remembered that lesson. Even with criminals we have this feeling that somehow by putting them in prison we’ve locked them away and therefore they’re going to somehow get better on their own. And they never do. I often wonder what Native people’s forms of justice would have done if they had prevailed in this country rather than the European way. There’s no need for some people to be in prison. You should be able to rectify a property crime. There’s no way to do that in the European system. But in the Native system there are many ways to rectify property crimes and so-called criminal behavior. I think that’s where Native culture has its greatest strength. It does provide a view of human nature that’s different than Western European thought, which pretty much says people are evil.
Joe: That reminds me that lazy people would need to have categories rather than handle people on a case-by-case method. That’s kind of a lazy thing. Native thinking teaches you not to label, to handle everything as it comes.
Roger: That’s what people are beginning to realize, especially Native people. I think they just gave up on their culture too soon.
Diane: I’d like to learn more about how this is about process and the way you think about something than what it is you actually are doing.
Roger: I think that’s basically what it is. In a way, I had a few disagreements with Vine DeLoria because I thought Vine was a genius but he had his own upbringing, which was much more Christian oriented than I ever was. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. We did understand and respect each other. I found that he was not as Native oriented in his thinking as he thought he was. I thought a lot of what he spoke about was kind of a mix of Christianity and Native as opposed to being Native. But in his later books I think he really became more orientated to a Native philosophy. In his first books I wasn’t that convinced. I knew him before he became famous. There was nothing about him that struck me as being very Native.
Joe: I thought today we touched on something in a different way that we haven’t heard in any of the other interviews. The heart of Native culture is relational, it’s about people, but it has to be alive in the way that all living things are alive. They grow and they change and they make mistakes and have successes. It’s a living entity like flesh and blood. You have to understand and respect that. When a baby does something that’s inappropriate, you don’t put it in prison, for example. It would not be appropriate. You have to remember that culture is alive and you have to treat it appropriately for living things. When people are trying to be rigid, it seems like that would be a big mistake because then it’s not alive any more. If it’s rigid, it becomes not living, not breathing, not flexing, no more poetry.
Roger: It can’t grow. Every culture, to survive, has to grow. Just like people. Grow to survive. You can’t stay a baby the rest of your life.
Joe: I think it’s the babies that need to have the hard and fast rules to go by on every decision, every situation. I want to be comfortable.
Roger: I think that Native people pondered on that. Many of the things that you’re taught really are not rigid at all. It’s kind of like a “becoming.” You’re always in the process of becoming. Even your dreams were interpreted in a way that allowed you to overcome barriers. For example, if a woman foresaw herself as a warrior, she could actually become a warrior. You can’t tell me that if that’s possible that Native culture was rigid. It’s something that was growing, something that allowed for individuality even though it had rules. Women didn’t fight wars but if she had a dream and it was interpreted correctly, she could lead other people into war. To me, that’s a kind of a respect for intelligence that’s not in Western culture. What strikes me as most interesting about Native culture is not that there’s a certain way of doing things but that there’s a process in place that allows things to happen, allows a lot of things to become new and grow and become much more than what they anticipated they could become. The process. It’s more important than the end product.
Diane: We’re in such a product-based society that it’s no wonder this message gets confused a lot.
Joe: I think that’s the main problem with the test scores. They’re not really about process; they’re about numbers or end results. They need to really envision this and think about alternative ways of assessing, and come up with something new and vibrant and different. Objective tests don’t say much, especially with our kids who already feel when they’re forced to take a test that they’re being intruded upon. “Here, we want to know what you know, we’re pulling this out of you.” A lot of kids reject that. Maybe if you ask them nicely. Or talk to them in some way you’d probably find out what they knew. But to say,” I have a right to know what you know because you’re going to my school…”
Roger: What’s very interesting about the American education system is that throughout it, you rely on a test score. But when you get to the very top, the Ph.D. level, you rely on what you write and what you say orally. It’s not on a test score. We don’t get it right until the end. You have your orals for your Ph.D. and you’re defending what you have written. They’re asking you questions and you respond to it. In every other way in which they measure competence to do something, it’s all by a test score. But in the very final one, it’s by what you’ve written and how you defend that. It raises an interesting question about the American educational system. Why isn’t there a test at the end? A culminating test? Why aren’t orals and written stuff used all along? Because it’s impractical. It’s not efficient and this society values efficiency over anything.
That’s the other thing that I learned. It’s what society values that matters. Take gay marriage. It’s because society doesn’t value gay people that they don’t allow them to get married. Who decides that? People in the majority? Is justice done on the basis of the majority? It’s an interesting question about how values influence what is considered important and what is not considered important. It’s only been recently that women have been considered important enough to get into the top jobs or go into certain fields. All along they had the capacity to do it. It’s a question of who makes the values and who determines them.
Diane: This reminds me of our conversation about language, with English being a trade language and Native language as land based. If the language you learn is shaping your values and philosophy while you’re growing up, we’re all learning trade concepts.
Roger: It’s hidden in the language. Even how you use it.
Joe: And yet here we are, breaking the mold by talking about other things. But struggling for the words at times because it is a lingua franca.
Rebuilding Teacher Education
Diane: Anything else that you would like teachers or educators to think about when teaching Native kids?
Roger: I think that what needs to change badly is the teacher education system. It’s really not designed to work with kids, even urban kids are left out of the picture in teacher education. The higher education system hasn’t done that good of a job in coming up with a teacher preparation program that actually prepares teachers to be teachers. If you look at even the practice teaching part of teacher education, it’s too limited. It could start earlier. You could start practice teaching your very first year that you’re in education to find out, first of all, whether you like working with kids. If you don’t, you should get out of that field. It doesn’t work that way. You wait until the end before you do practice teaching. It’s all set up in a way that the fresh new teachers have some benefit of working with a master teacher and then you’re thrown into a classroom. You have to learn kind of by doing what works and what doesn’t work. That’s a terrible circumstance to be in. All teacher education programs need to be examined and revised. A lot of that’s occurring but it’s not occurring quickly enough in my view to make a difference for kids. When you add another layer of ethnicity to the problem of being an urban kid, not to mention what it means to grow up in a gang environment, these teachers are not being prepared to deal with that. They haven’t a clue. It’s really hard to get someone to the point where they feel comfortable working with kids from a background that’s very different from their own. They don’t do a very good job of it.
Joe: Isn’t it 50% of teachers who decide after their first year that they don’t want to be teachers?
Roger: I don’t blame them because they’re not adequately prepared to go do that work. They’re the last hired and first fired. The system is set up so that new teachers are bound to fail. They have no idea how to manage a classroom. They don’t know the first thing about what to do with kids that are very disruptive in their classroom. All of that could be built into the training program that’s provided to teachers and over a longer period of time and with greater incentives for teachers in terms of salaries. If you expect teachers to work successfully in an inner-city area with kids that grow up in a really complicated situation, you’ve got to pay them the money to do that. Otherwise they’re not going to stick around either. They’re going to go where it’s easier.
I worked with the Urban Teacher program before I retired at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College. We tried to front-end teachers where they started right off the bat with some kind of a working internship with teachers. But a lot of teachers don’t like that either because they don’t have the time to work with a new prospective teacher.
Joe: That’s because the way the system is set up it puts these crazy expectations into teachers that they have to pour a certain amount of curriculum into every kid’s head or they’ve failed. Which is a terrible approach.
Roger: It’s very unclear that any of the content is tied to what kids need to know. Jobs are changing so much. You go into a situation where they need an English teacher and you’ve had two courses in Literature so you go over and do it. I think those are the kinds of issues that we need to look at in teacher education.