Shari Majumder, educator

Native Americans and Issues of Racism

Spring 2001

When I was asked to speak about racism and the Native American experience, my first thought was How?! The subject of racism alone is such an enormous one, and so very emotional in its nature, so subjective, I hardly know where to start. I am no sociologist, no expert in the field. I am, however, extremely interested in the topic, and, like many of you, I assume, learn so much by intense, intellectual conversation about a subject that it gains a new perspective with each new speaker as their personal experience is shared.

When I hear the words “racism” and “Native Americans” together, I am immediately flooded by overwhelming images of genocide, an obliteration of thousands of peoples, cultures, traditions, all in the name of “progress,” “westward expansion” and “manifest destiny.” And coupled with that, all the denial of Euroamerica - the lies and omissions in all our history textbooks, even today.

I think of the slow upward climb that Peoples of the First Nations have had to make to confront their anger, and regain some semblance of their traditions and their dignity. And I think of the confusion and guilt many of us who are non-Native may feel. Uncomfortable, unanswerable questions arise: Am I the enemy? My ancestors had no part in this genocide! Or did they? Do we all share some of the burden simply by living here in the 21st century United States?

Again, alas, I feel I am no expert in this field, though I am absolutely fascinated by it! I am not here to teach, but to learn. First I want to share some stories and insights with you from my mentor, Paula Underwood. After that I hope we can just turn this into a dialogue of eager learners. Though I am a bi-cultural American, I myself have no Native American “blood.” For the past ten years, however, I have been studying extensively with a Native American elder, Paula Underwood (Turtle Woman Singing), and have become a Certified Trainer of The Learning Way Center, a non-profit created to share the Ancient Wisdom of Paula’s people.

Let me say a bit more about this to clarify my perspective. My training is based on learnings passed down to Paula from her grandfather’s grandmother, Tsilikomah, who lived in an Oneida community around 1800. (The Oneida are one of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.) From her father, Paula accepted the task of becoming the next Keeper of the Old Things for this tradition. This involved learning a vast oral history, as well as ancient learning structures. It was Tsilikomah’s thought that the fifth generation hence, i.e., Paula, would write down as much of this Ancient Wisdom as possible “in the language of the coming nation for all Earth’s Children with Listening Ears,” for she saw already in 1800 that their people and their ways might not survive.

Hence all these books! I was first introduced to Paula’s work in 1991 through her book, Who Speaks for Wolf. I moved to California in 1992, and after several workshops with Paula at her home in Marin Co., I became a certified trainer. Since then I have used her books and her teachings quite a bit with my students (I teach 4th/5th grade at Sequoyah School here in Pasadena) and simply as sources of inspiration and centering in my own life.

Paula passed away December 2000, and this is the first presentation I’ve done regarding her tradition since then. It was always understood that those of us who had been trained by her constituted, in effect, the next generation of Learners. She gave us the authority to speak for The Walking People, an awesome honor, as you can imagine. So when I say, I have no Native American “blood,” that is only in the literal sense! Her people held a deep understanding of the idea that one who had no blood relation might yet be Grandmother to My Learning.

Let me now share some of the stories Paula told of her childhood, and the clash of cultures she often experienced. Since I have her own words here, let me read them to you, rather than trying to paraphrase:

“Paula still remembers her first grade teacher, a woman who was really dedicated to helping all the children to learn. One day they were learning the memory chant . . . In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Paula waited until all the children had plenty of time to really begin to remember the words. When she was pretty sure that everyone was getting it, she raised her hand. When the teacher called on her she asked – ‘Why?’

‘Well, because if you learn this poem it will help you remember the date.’ ‘No, no. I understand that. I mean . . . In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue . . . Why?’ ‘Oh,” she replied. “ I think you get something about that in the 5th grade.’ It was that quality of inadmissible curiosity that Paula found hardest to deal with.

Then there was the problem of inadmissible evidence. The oral history she was learning from her father was much more accurate that the ‘American Indian history’ she was taught in the third grade. What she learned form her tradition was not at all what she was learning at school. Yet her teacher refused to honor this. When she asked permission to say on the test, ‘my teacher says’ or ‘the book says,’ the teacher’s answer was, ‘No! I’m telling you the truth. You put it down that way.’ Paula couldn’t bring herself to write down something she knew to be inaccurate, so she turned in a blank sheet of paper with her name on it, and got an F on the test.

(Paula has since learned that many Native American children save up their sick leave for the days when the class is studying ‘ American Indian History.’ They cannot bear to hear inaccuracies, or the stares of the other students.)

It was that quality of inadmissible alternative explanations that Paula found defeating to deal with. Her father said, “They just ain’t ready to deal with children who think, Honeygirl. You must be a real problem for her.” Quite so.

Things have changed since then, of course. Not everywhere, not everything, but things have changed.”

Three Strands In The Braid: A Guide for Enablers of Learning (pages 13 and 14)

And just this week I received an e-mail from Paula’s daughter, Laurie Roberts, who works on two Indian reservations in Colorado. She notes that the native children she sees typically have 20 or more IQ points higher in visual performance abilities than in verbal. Yet the schools continue to use traditional lecture and reading/writing as primary forms of information dissemination and learning assessment.

Before I launch into a critique of our country’s woefully struggling educational system, let us realize that these stories also reflect a larger issue: the failure of the dominant culture to learn about, accept, support and celebrate the colorful tapestry of “minority” cultures. To my mind, racism, at its core, is fed by ignorance and fear of difference. To be sure, the existing Native American and the arriving European cultures were, on so many levels and in so many aspects, profoundly different. A conflict that led to some of the worst misunderstanding and violence was the “Old World” belief that land could be bought, sold or owned. This concept was completely foreign to native people. It was as ludicrous as owning air.

During the course of many conversations with Paula, she gave many examples of cultural misunderstandings that led to wariness, at the very least, amongst peoples. Some may already be known to you, but each one opens my eyes”:

“. . . let’s talk about history and Hollywood. Did you know that cowboys and Indians were usually at peace . . . and only occasionally at war? That most wagon trains crossed the prairies unimpeded? That ‘war bonnet’ and ‘war whoop’ are not accurate translations? That you are more likely to earn feathers for that bonnet by peaceful accomplishments? That each feather does have to be earned? And, like the evening news, Hollywood doesn’t usually talk about the houses that don’t burn down, only those that do.”

Three Strands In The Braid: A Guide for Enablers of Learning (page 44)

In addition, I learned from Paula:

Indians were supposed to have used a word “How” for a greeting, with an open palm raised. This reflected the fact that they so often heard “how” in greetings from the English: “how are you?” “How is your family?” “How is the hunting?” The open palm, of course, indicated the lack of weapon, and therefore, friendship.

Indians were thought of as cold and unemotional; expressions couldn’t be read, arms often crossed in front of the chest, formal. According to Paula, this was done so as not to offend or miscommunicate to the newcomers who might interpret smiles, laughter or any arm/hand gestures differently. Amongst themselves, the people were likely to be as relaxed, boisterous and expressive as the Europeans.

Across the continent, different Native American groups were able to communicate with one another through the use of Hand, a form of sign language that expressed complex thought. Many were surprised to find that the newcomers had no experience with this language.

Europeans expect eye contact from their listeners when they are talking. Indians were brought up to turn their ear to the speaker, thus the eyes would be averted. This would be very aggravating for both peoples! Both interpreted the others’ customs as disrespectful. I can imagine this being an especially thorny problem in the classroom.

The examples are endless. It is absolutely necessary that we uncover the truths that were missing from our history classes, and are still only touched upon in many of our children’s schools. Paula always said there is never only one truth to a situation. The more perspectives you hear from, the clearer a picture you get. Where does it leave us, then, after we listen, research, debate, dialogue, and listen some more, all in an effort to explain our present circumstance? Can we find a way to accept living in our “civilized” United States now that our glasses are clearer, if they were ever rose-colored?

My thought is no matter how painful the past, it can not be undone. How do I move forward with dignity? How do I empower my daughter to see these issues in a new light? One way is by asking the age-old question of Paula’s people, posed after every story telling, every situation or conundrum: What . . . may we learn from this?

The Walking People celebrated any occasion to meet a new people or contemplate a new method, because it held the potential for new learning. The People developed this passion for learning after surviving a life-shattering calamity approximately 10,000 years ago. The majority of their people, including their elders, and virtually all their collected wisdom were wiped out in an instant when a colossal earthquake and tidal wave hit their idyllic community, “And the people stood naked against this change.” This sentence holds a powerful image for me!

The People resolved to learn as much as possible, from as many sources as possible, to share all knowledge with one another and then to preserve that knowledge as accurately as possible for the children’s children’s children. They developed many tools and structures with which to do this, and these were also handed down.

I will just give an example of one that communicated strongly to me. It is something that Paula calls the Rule of Six. Again, I will read her own words. By the way, even the explanation for the Rule of Six itself is written both “For the Right Brain” and “For the Left Brain!” Since I don’t really want to read both, I hope that those who would grasp it better with the Right Brain will forgive me if I read the other!

“For each apparent phenomenon devise at least six plausible explanations, each one of which indeed explains the phenomenon. There are probably sixty, but if you devise six this will sensitize you to how many there may yet be and prevent you from focusing in on the first thing that “sounds right” as The Truth. Disciplining yourself to think in this way – maybe this is happening, but on the other hand, maybe that is happening – keeps you from being rigid in your thinking, which in my tradition is considered to be extraordinarily counterproductive.

Now you assign a personal probability factor to each explanation. This probability factor will be based on your personal experience. This is all you have to go on. Someone else’s probability factor will be different because their experience is different. You will understand this. This is OK. It is inevitable. Each of us has different experience and, therefore, different estimates of probability.

This personal probability factor can never be 100% - and never, never 0%.

You see how it is? How all conclusions are wisely tentative, as new information may come in at any moment. Yet, whenever a decision is necessary, you can instantly and clearly select between your top three probabilities. All, we hope, above 95%! Decisions are, thus, enhanced and expedited, while the mind is kept alert to new possibilities.”

Three Strands In The Braid: A Guide for Enablers of Learning (page 32)

Can you imagine if all our world leaders applied the Rule of Six on a daily basis?! And even more exciting, what if lawyers, judges, teachers, what if you and I began to use the Rule of Six the next time a story was told, a conflict arose or a skill was taught?! My guess is that we might not jump to conclusions so readily (I am the first to admit that weakness!) We might leave ourselves more open to learning, to dissolving ignorance, to bridging the gap between “us and them.”

I close with these words from The Walking People: “And learning . . . is so valuable . . . that it is therefore sacred.”

I have spoken. Now I will listen.