The holiday of Thanksgiving is upon us. Perhaps more than any other gathering, Thanksgiving, with its richly mythologized history and emphasis on the table of family and fellowship, gives teachers and students a golden opportunity to reflect on the larger, metaphorical “American table” and who is – and isn’t – included. By asking, “Who’s missing from our table?” educators can open up a timely discussion about inclusion, diversity and welcome in America.
In discussing the story of the original Thanksgiving table, teachers can mine students’ understanding of an event that schoolchildren have always been taught was about peace and fellowship between two peoples. Of course, most historians agree that this traditional story has been highly mythologized – and neglects the painful truth about Native American genocide and assimilation. When students understand that the first Thanksgiving table was perhaps not as welcoming as they’ve been taught, they can more easily take a look at their own gathering tables, literally and metaphorically. And they can begin to consider who may or may not feel included at those tables.
Begin by asking students what they know about the first Thanksgiving. You’re likely to hear about the Pilgrims’ black clothes and shoe buckles, about the Indians contribution of corn, how the two groups came together peacefully to share a meal, and so on..
You can then explain to them how much of this story is untrue. For example, we know that these Puritan Pilgrims would not have worn black on a weekday. We know that many Native Americans were massacred by Americans in that period of time. For many students, this will be an entirely new way to look at a traditional American story — and it may get them thinking about why they’ve only heard the story from one perspective..
Next, organize students into small groups where they can focus on telling their own stories. Pose the question, “Was there a time in your life where you and your family felt included or excluded as an American? Or maybe there was a time you included or excluded someone else?”.
In closing, have students report on their stories of inclusion and exclusion by stating ways in which they were disappointed by their country, and the ways in which they’re proud and hopeful about their country..
Reflecting on and telling our own American stories in the classroom is one way we can “open up” the American table. As we prepare to celebrate one of the most beloved holidays of our country, it’s crucial that we ask ourselves who s missing from any of the tables at which we sit and then make sure that we reach out to and include those folks. Only when we pay attention to who is missing from our table can we act to make sure all are welcome there.
Who among us doesn’t like to hear a good story? Students are no different, even if they claim to be too old for such activities. Exciting and appealing, storytelling represents a strong method of conveying information in an engaging manner.
Valuable lessons can be taught and learned from this practice. In Native American culture, this practice is known as oral tradition. It is the sharing of life experiences, knowledge, and wisdom through storytelling. These stories are passed down from generation to generation, giving the culture’s youth a sense of belonging while instilling the system of beliefs, values, and traditions of Native Americans to its youngsters.
In some of the First Nations Tribes there is a growing concern that the ancient oral traditions and tribal languages are dying out with the aging elders, and the young often losing touch with that richness and family connectedness.
Below is one example of Native American oral tradition. Share it with students of all ages, and see if you can find meaning and life lessons in its words.
Hero with the Horned Snakes (Cherokee)
In ancient times, there lived some very large snakes that glittered nearly as bright as the sun. They had two horns on their heads, and they possessed a magic power of attraction. To see one of these snakes was always a bad omen. Whoever tried to escape from one instead ran directly toward the snake and was devoured.
Only a highly skilled medicine man or hunter could kill a two-horned snake. It required a very special medicine or power. The hunter had to shoot his arrow into the seventh stripe of the snake’s skin.
One day a Shawnee Indian youth was held captive by the Cherokees. He was promised his freedom if he could find and kill a horned snake. He hunted for many, many days in caves, over wild mountains, and at last found one high in the Tennessee Mountains.
The Shawnee youth made a large circle of fire by burning pine cones.Then he walked toward the two-horned snake. When it saw the hunter, the snake slowly raised its head. The Shawnee youth shouted, “Freedom or death!”
He then aimed carefully and shot his arrow through the seventh stripe of the horned snake’s skin. Turning quickly, he jumped into the center of the ring of fire, where he felt safe from the snake.
A stream of poison flowed from the snake, but was stopped by the fire. Because of the Shawnee youth’s bravery, the grateful Cherokees granted him his freedom as they had promised.
Four days later, some of the Cherokees went to the spot where the youth had killed the horned snake. They gathered fragments of snake bones and skin, tying them into a sacred bundle. These they kept carefully for their children and grandchildren, because they believed the sacred bundle would bring good fortune to their tribe.
Also on the same spot, a small lake formed containing black water. Into this water the Cherokee women dipped their twigs used in their basket making. This is how they learned to dye their baskets black, along with other colors.*
*Native American Lore. (n.d.). Retrieved 9 5, 2011, from ilhawaii.net/stony/lore142
Of course, we want to introduce students to the wider world. But teachers have unwittingly introduced other groups and cultures as if those groups were the exotic others.
For example, schools hold International Festivals that have the flavor of “look at these unusual foreign people.” When groups of people are seen as exotic or patronizingly precious that are no longer “real” people.
Plus, the people of the world are not only international. They are here. They are Americans, Americans with a wide array of viewpoints and desires. They are people to recognize, appreciate, respectfully disagree with, live with, love with, work with and study with on a day-to-day basis, not just once a year.
Without intending to, we can keep a group of people at arm’s length while, at the same time, giving ourselves the false feeling that we are being inclusive.
We want to remember that as recent as the 1950s, people from other parts of the world as well as African and Native Americans were displayed in the U.S. as if animals in a zoo. The displays were often part of a continuum that ranked groups from apes to real people i.e. Europeans. Without meaning to, our study of other cultures can have a tinge of the same feeling.
It takes more time, thought and true connections with people with whom we’ve had less experience to be able to honor the complexity and variety within other cultures as well as understand our own cultural backgrounds with their unique histories, oddities and perspectives.
.What do you know about the Native American culture? .What are the stereotypes and realities? .
What do today’s schools and teachers know about the Native American people?
Take the quiz below to see if you and your students can
identify the truths and myths of this culture.
T or F All Native American tribes live in tipis.This is untrue. While several tribes live in tipis, not all Native American tribes do. Encourage students to explore the dwellings of other tribes, and why tipis are not appropriate housing for all tribes.*.
T or F Native Americans worship nature and animals.False. While Native Americans hold great respect and honor for nature and animals, they do not worship them. Their belief system centers on one creator who goes by many names. Be sure to clarify the difference with students.*.
T or F A medicine man and a shaman are the same thing in Native American culture.Couldn’t be further from the truth. In Native American culture, a medicine man is someone who uses herbs to treat illness or injury. A shaman in of European descent, and have no connection to the Native American culture at all. Be sure to use correct terms when teaching students about the Native American people.*.
T or F Native Americans are lazy or refuse to work.Untrue. To understand this perception, it is necessary to know the background of this culture. Once America was “discovered,” Native Americans of all tribes were expected to completely adapt to the new culture. This meant changing beliefs, ways of life, clothing, personal appearance, dwellings, etc. When the Native Americans refused to adapt, misconceptions of work ethics developed into full-blown stereotypes that still exist today.*.
T or F Native Americans are uncivilized savages.Just plain wrong. The terms “uncivilized” and “savage” imply that these people were blood-thirsty for battle. While some Native American tribes are considered warriors (often at war), it should not be taught that every tribe was seeking to kill. Also, these words suggest that Native Americans ran about without any system of morality. Native Americans had (or still have) their own system of laws and punishment. Living by a different set of guidelines does not characterize civility.*
November brings us Thanksgiving — one of the biggest holidays in our country. It is a special time of year where we are reminded of our blessings, and encouraged to express gratitude for all that we have.
November is also Native American Heritage Month. As educators we carry the responsibility to address the complicated and painful aspects of our history that occurred between the pilgrim settlers and Native people of this land.
November also gives us the opportunity to become more familiar with the contemporary life of the First Nations People The more we learn the more we are able to transform our disappointments and anger over the past into action today working together for a more just world.
A CLASSROOM ACTIVITY :
This classroom activity leads students through a process of observing, reflecting and posing questions in response to images of European settlers and Native American or First Nation people to explore issues of inclusion and exclusion today.
First, ask your students to make OBSERVATIONS along the following lines:
What do you notice first? What is small but interesting to you? What do you notice that you can’t explain?
Next ask your students to share REFLECTIONS on where the images came from. Why do you think somebody made this? Who do you think was the audience for this item? If someone made this today, what would be different?
Finally, ask you students to pose some QUESTIONS in response to the images.
Who…? What…? When…? Where…? Why…? How…?
Ask students to draw contemporary parallels to the way that Europeans and Native people were portrayed. For homework, ask students to bring in images from current media that reflect similar themes of exclusion between people today. Ask students to present on the images by making observations, sharing reflections, and posing questions.
You could make these images into a collage and use it as the starting point for a class pledge for a more thoughtful Thanksgiving holiday.
This Classroom or Group Pledge is a way to draw together the main outcomes of your sessions with your students about Native Americans. This text is simply a model that
can be developed in your own situation and context – with a few students or many students
As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving table, let us remember that we are part of creating history today with our actions. We’ll do what we can to be inclusive in our own lives.
Today we remember those who have been left out of the discussion, the decision-making and the fellowship of our school and of our country.
We remember times during which we have been left out or we have excluded others. And we remember times when others have extended their hands in welcome to us or when we have been the ones to include others.
May we remember to include all people at the tables at which we sit in the future. There is room for all of us.
Ideas for Lesson Plan Starters :
Students could read the Presidential Proclamation of Native American Heritage Month and then investigate the people the President refers to as distinguished “inventors, entrepreneurs, spiritual leaders, and scholars”..
First established through a joint resolution by Congress in 1990, National American Indian Heritage Month is now recognized annually each November. It’s a time to learn more about the history of American Indians, and for educators and their students, it’s a perfect opportunity not only to celebrate the heritage of native peoples, but also to share a variety of “life stories.”
Although American Indian Heritage Month hasn’t always been officially recognized, most American children learned something about “Indians” in elementary school. At that age, many of us were taught about teepees, wigwams and headdresses; few of us learned much of the real history of First Nation peoples, or heard their personal stories. The stories we did hear, such as that of Pocahontas, were rich in mythology but offered little insight into what it truly means to be Native American.
And while almost all cultures use stories to document their cultural and religious heritage, and to show how the past influences the present, Native Americans have a particularly rich history of storytelling. Indigenous storytelling includes not only legends, history, poems and spirituality, but also deeply personal observations about the world and each person’s place in it.
With that in mind, schools can broaden their celebration this month through storytelling. Teachers can help students learn about the personal experiences of First Nation people, and encourage students to think about their own “life stories,” especially in terms of race, identity and belonging.
The educators at RaceBridgesforSchools, a nonprofit initiative that offers free lesson plans on diversity, have developed resources that can be used to celebrate American Indian Heritage Month — and to get students thinking about their own life stories:
“I Am Indopino: Or, How to Answer the Question, Who Are You?” by professional storyteller Gene Tagaban. In this story (which accompanies a complete lesson plan), Tagaban talks about his combined Cherokee, Tlingit and Filipino ancestry, as well as his family’s exploration and eventual acceptance of their own complex identity. Tagaban’s story, touching on themes of family, lineage and the human relationship with the natural world, will resonate with students searching for their place in the world and a sense of belonging..
“The Spirit Survives” by First Nation storyteller Dovie Thomason recalls her family’s experience in the Indian boarding schools, to which American Indian children were taken by force to be assimilated into white culture. Dovie’s story and the associated lesson plan, available free from RaceBridgesStudio.com, exposes students to historical events that aren’t taught in most schools. It also touches on themes of cultural identity, inclusion and exclusion, and the power of education.
By sharing stories such as these, teachers can offer a more meaningful celebration of American Indian Heritage Month this November. And in the process, students may learn more about their own uniqueness and the deep connections we share with people of different backgrounds.
NOTE: As we take the month of November to celebrate the contributions of the First Nations, we want to witness also the sad truth of attempts at the genocide of the American Indians and their cultures. Particularly, we take this month to focus on the Indian Boarding Schools. We offer these four articles because as the saying goes “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it”, but also because we cannot support and celebrate our American Indian students, friends, co-workers and neighbors without understanding the context in which their very survival has taken place and their many contributions have been made.
Imagine a government that you don’t trust, that has already killed so many in your group and broken promise after promise, coming to your door and demanding that you hand over your child. The government officials promise your child will be back from their “school” in the summer but year, after year, after year goes by and your child is not returned. This and similar stories were repeated in First Nation homes from the late 1800s to the twentieth century as American and Canadian Indian children were taken from their homes to attend United States government-run Indian boarding schools.
At the schools, the children were forced to give up their native language as well as their spiritual and cultural practices in order to look and sound like European Americans. They were forced to wear western dress, to cut their hair (a mark of shame in many First Nations’ cultures), to have “kerosene rubs” to lighten their skin, to be indoctrinated into western religions and to endure long hours of forced work duties. Those who did not cooperate or tried to run away were often harshly punished and beaten. The geographic isolation and separation from their tribal and familial support system made far too many of these young children easy targets for sexual predators.
A 1928 study titled “The Meriam Report” found that infectious diseases were widespread at the schools because of insufficient nutrition, overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and weakening from overwork. Death rates for First Nations children were six and a half times higher than any other ethnic group. Yet, the schools continued. Young adults, some who were married with their own children, were also separated from their families and sent to the schools. At its height, there were 153 Indian Boarding Schools in the U.S. The highest recorded number of children in Indian Boarding Schools was 60,000 in 1973.
After the 1973 protest by American Indian Movement activists at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, a resurgence in American Indian pride and activism put an end to the worst of the boarding schools. Some boarding schools still exist today for students who would not otherwise have access to education on their reservations. Today, the staffs of these schools are primarily Native American. The students’ languages and cultures are supported. Young ones are no longer told that their spiritual practices worship “false gods”.
Below are statements from two people who attended Indian Boarding Schools. A friend of mine, storyteller Elizabeth Ellis, often says, “If someone can stand to experience it, then I can stand to hear it.”
Why is it important that we acknowledge and even study about the existence and the abuses of the Indian Boarding Schools?
We cannot build any kind of future on a foundation of lies. Some children, thank goodness, had some positive experiences at some Boarding Schools. However, the secrecy and manipulation that surrounded the entire initiative to assimilate Indian children (“Kill the Indian in the child”) damaged and still affect possibilities for future collaborations between First Nations and any institutions or organizations of the dominant culture. Trust cannot be rebuilt unless the whole truth is told, full responsibility is taken and those responsible are held accountable. Furthermore, we can never find remedies for problems, unless we first examine and understand the nature of those problems. We cannot transform something without first acknowledging that it exists..
Knowing the truth of this travesty gives a context for the devastation experienced in many Indian families and communities for the last several generations. While similar social ills are present in every community, the lasting effects experienced by any who were taken or those who know and love someone who was kidnapped, tortured and held against their will makes the mental health, domestic violence, drug abuse and fractured family issues within Indian communities more understandable. It is important not to give credence to those who would re-stereotype First Nations (“Oh, that’s why ‘they’ are that way…”), but to put responsibility on those who caused the widespread need for these coping mechanisms and insist that the demands from the Indian nations for more mental and physical health resources, adequate housing, superior education and such be met..
The unimaginable scope of this tragic chapter in U.S. and Canadian history should put an end to any minimizing of the Indian experience. Sometimes, the planned genocide of Indian people is dismissed as if a card game has ended: “You lost; get over it.” The Truth and Reconciliation Hearings in South Africa, Canada and other countries have shown that healing is dependent on the WHOLE story being witnessed and heard. It supports the victims in their grief process, gives them the validation and exposure of the perpetrator they seek and helps them understand and accept the unquenchable longing for all that was lost. In an article by Judith Lewis Herman entitled “Justice from the Victim’s Perspective”, Herman states, “Community denunciation of the crime was of great importance to the survivors because it affirmed the solidarity of the community with the victim and transferred the burden of disgrace from victim to offender.”.
In addition, acknowledging these crimes makes it possible for the descendants of the perpetrators and for those of us who have benefited from white skin privilege to acknowledge what we may have indirectly gained because of this planned genocide. For example, I may not have direct dealings in the fact that people’s lands were taken or that others were forced into labor camps. We are never at fault for what happened in the past. This is not about good and bad people. Most of us are good people who would never knowingly hurt others. It is about understanding that any wealth or advantages that come my way are not simply because my ancestors “worked” hard but acknowledging that my position in life is attached to an inheritance in blood. Again, this realization is not to make us walk around guilty and impotent. Owning the whole truth can make us powerful allies, open to taking part in the need for reparations and any other acts of justice that can begin to tackle the need for redress..
When one group seeks to conquer another, their repertoire of repression is all too similar. When any culture or country is colonized by another, children become part of the playbook for take-over and are easy pawns in the game. In the 1650s, when England was colonizing Ireland, during one decade, over 100,000 Irish children were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In Australia, aboriginal children were stolen from their homes from 1909 to 1969. As recent as the 1950s, 22 of Greenland’s children were sent to Denmark for the start of a larger experiment to create an elite-group of Danish-thinking Greenlanders who could go back to Greenland and affect (or infect) the education and other institutions there. Again and again, this belief in the superiority of one group over another and the foisting of its ways upon the oppressed group fails, but leaves in its wake a terrible legacy of death and destruction (half of those 22 Greenland children were dead by their early twenties). Knowing about the Indian boarding schools, unfortunately, gives us a quick, shorthand understanding of the challenges facing oppressed groups around the world..
Learning and teaching about the Indian Boarding Schools also gives us a context to celebrate and be inspired by all the ways Indian people have survived and even thrived given all the genocidal attempts on their communities. The Boarding Schools unwittingly created lifelong intertribal friendships and a new spirit of Pan-Indianism into this century. American Indians have and are accomplishing notable contributions in every field of endeavor throughout the Americas. The fact that so many Indian children and adults were able to call on a spirit inside of them that could not be extinguished, no matter what was happening to them externally, provides a testament to human strength and to a nurturing, indwelling grace that can inspire all of us.
On June 11, 2008, millions of Canadians tuned into a live, nationally-television apology to the First Nations from their Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. In this historic speech in the House of Commons, the Canadian government took full responsibility for the Canadian government’s attempts to assimilate First Nations children “causing great harm that has lasted for generations”. Harper went on to outline compensation for former residential school students, the creation of an ongoing Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as increased funding for child welfare and education.
The United States passed the Native American Apology Resolution in 2009 that acknowledged a “long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes” and offered an apology “to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States”. However, by contrast, President Obama signed this resolution on December 19, 2009 in a ceremony that was closed to the press.
Armand MacKenzie, the former Senior Advisor on International & Human Rights Affairs at the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples of Canada emphasized the importance of full, public disclosure. “It was really something great to see the Apology done in public,” he said. “The injustices were a result of state policies and practices. They need to be accountable, otherwise governments can do what they want without consequence.”
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican Senator from Kansas, Senator Sam Brownback and Democratic Senator from North Dakota, Byron Dorgan, tried for five years to pass an Apology when, finally, the bill was approved by tucking it away on page 45 of a 67 page document of an unrelated spending bill, 2010 Defense Appropriations Act, H.R. 3326. In addition to being less public, the United States apology missed the opportunity to detail the government’s transgressions. While the original preamble to the U.S. bill detailed specific crimes and offenses as the Canadian apology had – the Trail of Tears, the Long Walk, the Sand Creek Massacre, and Wounded Knee, the theft of tribal lands and resources, the breaking of treaties, and the removal of Indian children to boarding schools and so forth – the U.S. preamble was deleted from the final version of the bill.
Too few Americans even know about the Indian Boarding Schools and the U.S. Native American Apology Resolution, let alone include it in the national discourse. It has been said that “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it”. Unfortunately, the mistakes of our past are being repeated today. Prime Minister Harper stated that “There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever prevail again.” Because these attitudes of superiority still “prevail” hundreds of Indian children are still being removed from their homes into non-Indian foster care and the promises of sovereign rights plus education, housing and health care are slow in coming to the First Nations in both Canada and the United States.
After a century of government policy that forcibly removed tens of thousands of First Nations’ children from their homes and sent them to boarding schools that basically amounted to forced labor camps, The U.S. Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 (ICWA) to put an end to this and other policies toward American Indian families and children. The ICWA was enacted “… to protect the best interest of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture. …”
In addition to the Indian Boarding Schools, the law was to address “the consequences to Indian children, Indian families, and Indian tribes of abusive child welfare practices that resulted in the separation of large numbers of Indian children from their families and tribes through adoption or foster care placement, usually in non-Indian homes.”
Prior to the 1978 law, 85 to 95 % of First Nation children were placed in non-Indian homes when they went into foster care. Unlike non-Indian adoptions where only birth parents can object to an adoption, the ICWA is supposed to give a tribe, as well as the biological parents, standing in adoption cases. Placement within a child’s tribe is to be given preference.
But a study in 2005 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 32 states are, in various ways, failing to comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act. It found that the ICWA is the only federal child welfare law of its stature without any kind of regular federal review or a federal agency to take over its oversight. The controversy over a 2011 National Public Radio special report that claimed a systematic abuse of South Dakota’s Indian children along with the 2013 Oklahoma Supreme Court Case, Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl shows the complexity of these issues and the maze of federal, state and tribal jurisdictions that one must negotiate to even monitor the quality of care for Indian children.
These recent allegations and disputes along with continued legal battles over land use, protection of Indian burial mounds, mineral rights, the mismanagement of Indian trust funds and on and on shows that Indian issues are not historical glitches but a continuing search for justice and common human decency.
How do we make these and other challenges to the First Nations part of the national discourse on race and fairness? How do we have any hope in living up to the ideal of “justice for all” if the First Nations’ rights are continually ignored?
American Indian journalists, teachers, writers and media experts of all kinds need platforms so that their voices are heard and those of us who are non-Indian and woefully ignorant of current Indian issues can be educated.
We are grateful to announce that authors and storytellers, Tim Tingle of the Choctaw Nation, Dovie Thomason from the Lakota and Apache Nations and Joseph Bruchac of the Abenaki Nation have agreed to contribute articles to the RacebridgesForSchools site in 2014.
Listen to these Women Stories
in your classroom . . .
Bearing witness to the heroic
actions and words of women
Telling inspiring stories
that are little known
and rarely told . . .
Listen to these stories and use the lesson plans with your students
of moving stories of inclusion and exclusion, loss and hope, past
and present. Use these stories in your classroom to inspire and
challenge your students to reflect on their world-view and to broaden
Use these stories as discussion starters for a faculty in-service session
to prompt and animate discussion about race-relations and inclusion.
These lesson plans come with complete text as well as audio, teacher guides,
student activities and further resources on related themes. You may also find
corresponding videos on our sister site, RaceBridgesVideos.com.
These units are also suitable for young adult group discussion as
springboards on the subjects of race and racism.
Japanese American Storyteller Anne Shimojima tells her original story Hidden Memory: Incarceration: Knowing Your Family’s Story and Why it Matters. About her family in the United States, especially during the time of World War II when some of her family were sent to the Japanese-American incarceration camps. Explores in an engaging way xenephobia, racism and being “unseen” in society.Courage and resiliance in a story that is rarely told.
Latina Storyteller Olga Loya tells excerpts from her original story: Being Mexican American : Caught Between Two Worlds – Nepantla. Growing up Mexican American in Los Angeles. Caught between the Latino and Anglo cultures, she realizes that she might belong to an even wider family and community and that perhaps there is a way to live with them all. Warm and spirited.
Native American storyteller Gene Tagaban remembers Elizabeth Peratrovich, Tlingit woman, of Petersburg, Alaska. She attended Western Washington State University. When she returned with a new husband to live in Juno, no one would rent her a home because she was native. This was the limit to Elizabeth. She said: “No more signs. We need better housing, good jobs and good education for the people. And the right to sit wherever we wanted.” Gene Tagaban lovingly remembers the life of Elizabeth Peratrovich through the stories told to him by his own grandmother. The story remembers the shining day, after much struggle and bigotry of the passage of the Alaskan Anti-Discrimination Bill in1945, 20 years before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus. This account is part of Gene Tagaban’s longer story of identity and belonging : Search Across the Races : I Am Indopino … Or How to Answer the Question : “Who Are You?”.
Native American storyteller Dovie Thomason tells her true story: The Spirit Survives: The American Indian Boarding School Experience: Then and Now. This story weaves together personal narrative and historical accounts about the Indian boarding schools to reveal how they were used to decimate native culture and how some Indians stood up to them. Shocking and Inspiring.
African American storyteller Linda Gorham tells two stories. One is I Am Somebody : Story Poems for Pride and Power. This an upbeat and moving celebration of Linda’s family tree and heritage. The lesson plan guides teachers to invite “pride poems” from their students. In her story Rosa Parks : One of Many Who Sat Down to Stand Up Linda personalizes the words and actions in a story of the famed Rosa Parks. The lesson plan explores the many other heroes of the civil rights movement who “sat down’ to stand up for justice. Self-worth, dignity and courage come alive.
Celebrating Women : Bridgebuilders and Storytellers
Ideas for bringing the universal subject of Women into your classroom.
RaceBridges honors Women’s History Month each year in the month of March. But gender equality is an important diversity issue that can be explored at any time. So we re-publish here our lesson plan for Women’s History Month in this Resource format. We remember that any time in the school year is a good time to explore the struggle for women’s equality and the ideals still not yet
fulfilled. We trust that these ideas, classroom activities and recommended links will be of help for you and your students in exploring this subject.
Native American. First Nations. American Indian. This culture of people has such unique and interesting backgrounds, and it is most intriguing to learn about each tribe by name. Although the encompassing titles of Native American or First Nations identify the nationality of the people, it is the tribes that are the most distinctive. Each has its own way of life, history, location, food, clothing, and artwork. Each has its own legends and stories, people and personalities.
Schools and teachers work diligently to be as inclusive and sensitive as possible in classroom settings, and to teach students to do the same. It is recommended that schools learn which tribes are part of their student enrollment, and celebrate those accomplishments accordingly. Below are a few well-known tribes and their meanings, and a few websites that offer information on a vast number of other Native American tribes.
Apache – “enemy”*
Cherokee – “relatives of the Cree” or “the people”*
Each year in November, many students learn of the Thanksgiving story. They hear of Pilgrims and Indians, of the hardships, the food, and the bond established between the two peoples. A table is set for feasting and for celebrating the day of America’s discovery. Many, unfortunately, do not learn of another aspect of that time – that Native Americans see it as a time of mourning. How do schools and teachers cover the Thanksgiving story sensitively and with accuracy? Below are a few tips to get started.
Be informed. Check out these websites that offer the Native American perspective on the holiday, as they are more than valuable resources. Extension activities, as well as true history accounts are given here:.
Thanksgiving is a time to remember our country’s beginnings and to celebrate our rich history of welcoming the stranger. But in many ways, our idea of the original Thanksgiving table—a table we want to believe was about peace and fellowship between two peoples—is a myth.
Many teachers struggle in the classroom at this time of year because of the myths surrounding the original Thanksgiving story, settlers’ treatment of indigenous peoples, and the failure of our nation to welcome consistently the stranger and the newcomer. How can we teach the truth in our classrooms while still celebrating this national holiday?
The educators at Race Bridges for Schools, a nonprofit initiative helping schools explore diversity and race relations in the classroom, encourage teachers and students to study the true history of Native Americans in the U.S., to consider our country’s history of welcoming or shunning strangers, and to look at our own tables, literally and metaphorically, and who might not feel included at those tables. They suggest classroom activities such as:
Reading or listening to short stories from different groups of people about times they felt welcomed and times they did not feel welcomed to America’s table..
Exposing students to true stories from the Native American perspective. Storytellers such as Dovie Thomason and Gene Tagaban share their personal experiences growing up as First Nations People. These true stories cover topics as diverse as the Indian boarding schools and the search for identity and dignity among the indigenous peoples in Alaska. Stories suchas these expose students to historical events that aren’t taught in most schools, and touch on themes of cultural identity, inclusion and exclusion, and oppression..
Sharing personal stories. Have students share their own brief stories about a time when they or their family were or were not welcomed, or a time when they did or did not welcome another..
Whether you simply engage in classroom discussion or facilitate small-group presentations, exercises like this enable your students to explore more fully the history and experience of Native Americans. As we prepare for Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, lessons such as these will help students consider who’s been missing from the “American table” and how they can literally and metaphorically make a difference.
America champions the ideals of equality, fairness, and welcoming the stranger to our table. Thanksgiving is a holiday that especially challenges us to examine whether or not we are living up to our ideals. For your students, they can ask these questions in any of their activities, whether at a club or sport or student council, at their place of worship, later when they look at colleges, and, throughout their adult lives.
I am Indopino brings together Tlingit, Cherokee, and Filipino storyteller Gene Tagaban’s personal story and the history of discrimination against American Indians in Alaska. He also weaves into this rich narrative the story of Elizabeth Peratrovich, who helped pass the 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act in Alaska, the first of its kind in the country.
A SEARCH FOR IDENTITY AND AN AMERICAN INDIAN VISION THAT STILL LIVES TODAY.
This lesson plan uses the original story “I Am Indopino” by Gene Tagaban. He is a noted storyteller and story artist whose heritage is Tlingit, Cherokee, and Filipino. This story brings together Tagaban’s personal story and the history of discrimination against American Indians in Alaska. He also weaves into this rich narative the story of Elizabeth Peratrovich, who helped pass the 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act in Alaska, the first of its kind in the country.
This unit contains:
Downloadable printable lesson plan
Printed text of story
Audio-downloads of story told by Gene Tagaban with his evocative music
Gene Tagaban weaves together historical and personal stories to explore larger themes and questions. He explores the complexity of personal identity in light of his own multi-ethnic background while extending the question “Who am I?” to all of us.
Gene Tagaban illuminates the stereotypes that still surround indigenous people, in particular American Indians, and how those labels get in the way of seeing people for who they are in particular.
Tagaban also demonstrates how our histories —whether historical events, folk tales, or heroes—help shape who we are and how we understand ourselves.
Need help to download the MP3 Story Excerpts? Click here for directions.
About Storyteller Gene Tagaban
Gene Tagaban is a Native American performing artist, storyteller, trainer, counselor and healer. His heritage is Cherokee, Tlingit and Filipino. Raised in Alaska, Gene’s Native American name Gaay Yaaw, loosely translates as Salmon Home Coming. He is of the Tak deintaan Raven Freshwater Sockeye clan of Hoonah, Alaska, and the Child of a Wooshkeetaan Eagle Thunderbird clan of Juneau, Alaska.
November is Native American Heritage Month, and of course the Thanksgiving holiday. RaceBridges presents these free Lesson Plans and Resources that will assist you in bringing alive the stories of our first residents of America. Two of these units present activities to use around the Thanksgiving holiday.
As we move into a month of celebrating the First Nations of our country and the world, a few helpful hints from Oyate, the children’s literature review site, can keep us from doing more harm than good. To turn a critical eye toward any books, videos or films to which we expose our students here are a few guidelines of what to include:
Show only media that present Indians as full human beings, not primitive or simple tribal people. Avoid media that objectifies Indian people such as “counting” or “playing Indians” (Would you have your student “count” or “play” white people?).
Select media where the full range of Indian customs, cultures, dress, religion, language and architecture is shown.,
Show media that has authentic, not generic design. “Indian looking” is not accurate. Use books, films and so on that have paid full attention to detail..
Select media that shows the variety of physical attributes Indian people, like all people, display. Avoid books that simply portray Indians as white people with darker skin..
Select age appropriate media that are honest about the genocidal policies of the U.S. government. Watch for media that subtly blames Indians for their own dwindling numbers. Show that Native nations actively resisted their invaders..
Show Indian heroes other than those who “helped” European conquerors..
Share media that shows present day First Nations as complex, sovereign nations who are not dependent on charity, take care of their families and are creating their own future..
With November just around the corner, Americans are preparing to celebrate not only Thanksgiving but also National American Indian Heritage Month.
For educators, this is the perfect time to explore new perspectives on the history of indigenous peoples in the U.S., as well as to discover the history never heard. One way to do that is to get students thinking critically about what they don’t know — and why they don’t know it.
Of course, students know some things about American Indians. At a young age, they probably learned about wigwams, teepees and other culturally obsolete trappings of early “Indian” society. And all of us were taught about the first Thanksgiving – how the Pilgrims dressed and the “friendly Indians” brought corn to this peaceful gathering of fellowship and gratitude.
But then most of us found out, at some point in our adult life, that the Thanksgiving story was highly mythologized, and that the real history of indigenous people in the U.S. was marked by removal, slaughter, and forced assimilation.
So why don’t we teach that in school? That disconnect between what we teach and what we ignore provides a golden opportunity to expand students’ understanding of the true, historical Native American experience.
Wondering how to spark this discussion in your classroom? Here are some creative ideas:
Start simply by asking students what they’ve been taught about American Indians — their history, their culture, perhaps even their role in the traditional Thanksgiving story. Depending on what you hear, you may want to probe further into their knowledge of Native American genocide.
Next, try exposing them to true stories from the Native American perspective. One you might consider: “The Spirit Survives“ by First Nations storyteller Dovie Thomason. It’s a personal account (available in audio and text) of her family’s painful experience in the Indian boarding schools,to which many American Indian children were taken by force, away from their families, to be assimilated into white culture. Dovie’s story and the associated lesson plan, available free and printable by clicking, exposes students to historical events that aren’t taught in most schools. It also touches on themes of cultural identity, inclusion and exclusion, and the power of forced education to oppress people.
After the introduction of this new perspective, you can encourage students to think critically about what they haven’t been taught. Get them talking with these questions:
What did you learn from this story that you didn’t know about the history of indigenous people in the U.S.?
Why do you think you never learned this in school?
Why do we need to explore this neglected part of history?
Why bring up stories that are painful or hard to listen to? What good does that do?
Whether you simply engage in classroom discussion or facilitate small-group presentations, exercises like this enable your students to explore more fully the history and experience of Native Americans. And as we prepare for Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, lessons such as this will help students consider who’s been missing from the “American table” and how they can literally and metaphorically make a difference.
This lesson plan presents a rarely heard part of American history — a true story about the crimes of forced assimilation of Indian children in the American Indian Boarding Schools.
Kiowa Apache and Lakota Indian storyteller Dovie Thomason weaves a fascinating story of struggle, survival and inspiration as she tells her own daughter of a history that must not be forgotten and that presents lessons for all of us today. Texts, audio-download segments and classroom activities and resources are all a part of this powerful Lesson Plan.
AN AMERICAN INDIAN STORY OF STRUGGLE, PAIN AND PROUD SURVIVAL . . .
This is a printable Lesson Plan with audio-excerpts looking at the original inhabitants of our land and some of the shattering events that were forced upon them.
Dovie Thomason, a Kiowa Apache and Lakota Indian, weaves personal narrative, the history of Indian schools, and the story of Gertrude Bonnin (later Zitkala Sa), the Sioux Native American woman who went through the Indian schools and afterward became a writer and activist for Indian rights.
This Lesson Plan with printable text and downloadable audio-segments presents Thomason’s original story about the inhuman practice of forced assimilation of American Indian children in painful and shameful attempts to “change” them into “white children”. Included in this Learning Unit are classroom activities and a list of recommended Resources for Teachers and Students to discover further histories and contributions of our American Indian peoples.
There are four segments to Dovie Thomason’s story. This Lesson Plan can be best used in presenting the story in two distinct sessions or classroom periods. It can also be presented with audio and print-text in one longer study-reflection session. This lesson plan is ideal for use in Native American Heritage Month, November, and around the Thanksgiving Holiday, (which often has distorted images of American Indian events) . . . or any time . . . as it seeks to reveal American Indian events that are rarely found in our history books.
THE SPIRIT SURVIVES can also be used in social studies and as part of the reflection and study of indigenous peoples and their challenges and struggles . . . yesterday … and even today.
Need help to download the MP3 Story Excerpts? Click here for directions.
About Storyteller Dovie Thomason
Dovie Thomason is an award-winning storyteller, recording artist and author, recognized internationally for her ability to take her listeners back to the “timeless place” that she first “visited” as a child, hearing old Indian stories from her Kiowa Apache and Lakota relatives, especially her Grandma Dovie and her Dad. From their voices, she first heard the voices of the Animal People and began to learn the lessons they had to teach her. For these were teaching stories that took the place of punishment or scolding, showing her the values that her people respect and wanted to pass on to her.
Her love of stories and culture set her on a path to listen and learn and share the stories—to give people a clearer understanding of the often misunderstood, often invisible, cultures of the First Nations of North America. The product of a “mixed” background that is urban Chicago and rural Texas, Internet and ancient teachers, elders’ teachings and university classrooms —Dovie began telling stories “publicly” while teaching literature and writing at an urban high school in Cleveland. So, she began telling those first-heard old Indian stories—stories about making choices—stories that could become a blueprint for a personal value system.
Each year in November, many students learn of the Thanksgiving story. They hear of Pilgrims and Indians, of the hardships, the food, and the bond established between the two peoples. A table is set for feasting and for celebrating the day of America’s discovery. Many, unfortunately, do not learn of another aspect of that time – that Native Americans see it as a time of mourning. How do schools and teachers cover the Thanksgiving story sensitively and with accuracy? Below are a few tips to get started.
Be informed. Check out these websites that offer the Native American perspective on the holiday, as they are more than valuable resources. Extension activities, as well as true history accounts are given here:
Stories about our ancestors help us understand who we are. Encountering troubling revelations about her forebears and their Indian neighbors in colonial New England, Jo asks what it means to tell – and live with – her whole, complex history.
Distant Relations: How My Ancestors Colonized North America by Victoria Freeman
Journals of Major Robert Rogers (1769) repr. in The Annotated and Illustrated Journals of Major Robert Rogers, ed. Timothy J. Todish and Gary Zaboly. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mt. Press Ltd., 2002.
www.nedoba.org (information concerning Wabanaki People of interior New England)
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
First Nations/Native Americans
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is Jo Radner and this is an excerpt from a long story called “Braving the Middle Ground.” When I was a child, I wanted to be an Indian. I practiced being silent in the woods of western Maine.
I knew there’d been Indians there ’cause my Uncle Bob found arrowheads in his cow pasture but somehow they had disappeared. And now we were there. My grandmother told me that my English ancestors had founded several towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and Maine. I was proud. I thought we’d been here since 1635. But then when I studied history, I realized what it meant to found all those towns. My ancestors had been among the first people to take the Indians’ land, to cut down the forests, to fence the fields, to feel entitled to destroy the way of life of native people.
And then when they studied my own family history later on, I found more things I didn’t want to know. Some of my ancestors had been members of Rogers’ Rangers, the special forces of the 18th century British army trained to use Indian woodcraft against the Indians. Indian killers! I’d heard about their famous 1759 raid on the Abenaki mission village of St. Francis in Quebec.
The heroic story! A select troop slogged 150 miles through untracked wilderness. Nine days wading in icy waters in a spruce bog to carry off a dawn raid that destroyed the village of St. Francis, from which the French and Indians had launched so many raids on New England.
And then my Abenaki friends told me the not so heroic stories. Most of the people that Rogers’ Rangers killed in St. Francis were women and children. One ranger was walking past an Indian baby lying on the ground. Major Rogers told him to kill it. “I can’t!” he said.
And Rogers snarled, “Next will be lice!” and crushed the child’s head! My ancestors were Rogers’ Rangers. I was relieved when I discovered that my most direct Ranger ancestors John and Stephen Farrington had been too young to go on that raid. The story of John Farrington, my great-great-great-grand uncle haunts me.
When he was a 10 year old boy, tall and strong working in a field, a party of Abenakis burst out of the woods, captured him and carried him off quickly toward Canada. When they stopped on the way, they dressed John in Abenaki clothing. They painted his body and then to finish the ritual, one of the young Indians took a finger full of red paint and told John to stick out his tongue so he could paint a stripe on it.
John obeyed. But when the Indian put his finger in his mouth, John bit it and he wouldn’t let go. And the Abenakis were startled and then they burst out laughing. They said, “He’ll be a good Indian!”
And they took him to St. Francis. He was adopted by an Indian family. They treated him kindly; he grew up playing games and hunting with the Indian boys.
He lived for eight years as an Abenaki. In that time, he married a daughter of a chieftain. I don’t know anything about his wife. I know nothing about children. But I do know that he wanted to leave; he tried twice! The first time, his own wife apprehended him as he was walking out of the village dressed as an Indian woman selling baskets.
The second time he was in Quebec City (which had fallen to the English) serving as interpreter to a party of Abernakis. And then he jumped into the middle of a troop of English soldiers and said he wanted to go back to New England. They argued; a merchant ransomed him. He stayed for eight months in Quebec working off his ransom. Went back to New Hampshire and joined the Rangers. He never fully lost contact. Family memoirs say that for the years, Abenakis from St. Francis came to visit him in New England. But he changed from Indian husband to Indian fighter. And I think that it was because of the stories that he heard when he was a young child in his own English family.
You know, it’s all in who gets to tell the stories and what stories they choose to tell. John’s ancestors had been treated kindly by Indians but his family didn’t tell those stories. The stories he heard were about how savages had murdered his great grandfather, had abducted his great aunt, had slaughtered four of her first six children. And when he was a toddler, his mother had held him up to see the massacred bodies of his uncle’s! A family memoir says, “It would seem only natural that in later years, John became a terror to the Indians far and near.” Only natural?
There is an Abernaki legend about a cannibal monster with an icy heart who comes to devour a small family but the mother of the family welcomes him as if he is her father. She washes him and dresses him. She and her husband tell him family stories. They treat him like a beloved relative and the monster sits surly for three days.
And then… he drinks a kettle of boiling grease. It melts his icy heart. It purges all the evil he’s done and after that, he lives with the family and takes care of them. I wish my family had been able to live kindly and peaceably. I wish history had taken a different turn. John Farrington was an Indian fighter all his life. But in some sense he was still an Abenaki. His son Samuel wrote that in his last years, John’s early Indian life came back to him and he would take his blanket out into the woods without shelter and lie quietly for the night.
Do I still want to be an Indian? No. I want to learn to live well with my whole history, to recognize the monstrosities and the kindnesses that lie behind me. To make family of all kinds, to melt my own icy heart!
The “Indian Experiment” in education, the government boarding schools, is unknown to many Americans, yet affects us all. Following forty years of study of these stories, Dovie knew she had to share what she’d learned that would be essential to her daughter, and all of us. She weaves history, biography, autobiography and personal reflection in this story that she never “wanted” to tell. But there are some stories that need to be told…
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:
Had you heard about the Indian Boarding schools? Why has this part of American history been largely hidden?
What political and economic factors caused the U.S. Government to wage genocide against the First Nations?
How does witnessing and speaking about tragedies such as this help heal the spirit? What made it possible for Dovie’s Grandfather to start speaking out? How and when do you tell young people about the oppression of their group by others?
What factors in First Nation cultures supported families in surviving the unthinkable and continuing to thrive?
Hi, my name’s Dovie Thomason and I’d like to tell you an excerpt from a larger story called “The Spirit Survives.”
In 1966, I went away to college on a minority academic scholarship. Ironically, my free ride to this posh private school was paid by a railroad dynasty. They got wealthy breaking their treaty with my tribe the Lakotas. And so I went to this school and somehow persuaded them to let me major in American Indian Studies. This major did not exist in the United States, as yet, so it was an independent study.
I was in the library one day. It was a massive library but it had only one book about Indians written by Indians. I remember this volume just fell off the shelf into my hand. It opened, on its own, to a page called School Days of an Indian Girl. The author’s name was Gertrude Bonnin. I didn’t know her name. I turned to the notes and some anthropologist had written, “One of the most important women ever in American history!”
“I don’t know her name,” I thought to myself! An Indian woman, one of the most important women in American history! I started to read that chapter. There I was, the only Indian girl in this posh college reading about this girl in 1884!
She wanted to go to college; she wanted to go to school and, ultimately, college. She’d heard about school from the big-hatted, big-hearted men, the Quaker missionaries on her Nakota reservation. Little Gertie Simmons wanted to go to school. She went to her mother; her mother did not want her to go. Her son had gone to school! He’d gone to school when the Indian agents came and threatened her, telling her they would withhold her rations unless she signed her mark on a document she could not read. She’d signed and lost her son! She wasn’t gonna lose her baby girl!
But little Gertie was strong willed and relentless! After a time, her mother sighed, I can imagine, and signed that document and little Gertie got on a train. She wasn’t eight years old; it was not even six years after the defeat of Custer. But this little one got on a train and took off!
She didn’t know where she was going. She didn’t know it was hundreds of miles from her home. She didn’t know it would be years before she’d ever return! She just wanted to go to this place. This Quaker man had told her of a place where the apples were like rosy clouds in the sky.
They rode that train for days and when they got there, there was no one! There were no apples and so that child, she curled on the floor in her mother’s blankets at night. They weren’t ready for these children that were arriving and these children had never spent a night without their relatives. She curled on the floor in her mother’s blankets when another girl came up to her and said (whispering), “Tomorrow they’re gonna cut our hair!”
“Why would they cut my hair?” said Gertie. Now she was frightened. They cut hair when your families died. They cut hair for grieving. They cut hair if you’re a coward. “There’s no reason for them to cut my hair. They will not cut my hair.”
And the girl said, “You’ll see! They are strong.”
Little Gertie was strong willed and she decided to resist. When they came for her the next morning, she was hiding but they found her. They dragged her screaming out from under the furniture. They tied her into a chair and she felt the cold steel of those scissors as they cut her braids. She heard the heavy thump of her hair hitting the floor. That night she cried herself to sleep. Alone, until that same girl came and comforted her using words in our language, words a mother would use with a baby. And then she said (quietly), “Don’t speak these words where they can hear you. They’ll hurt you! They’re strong; you can’t fight them!”
But little Gertie was one to resist. She was a smart child; she’d wanted to go to school. And so the… though she saw children getting sick, some going home where they infected their families, some moving off campus so if anything happened they wouldn’t be part of the death statistics for the school, little Gertie, she tried to study! She wanted to be there. She wanted to learn and she had a gift for listening and repeating what she learned. She had a musical gift – a voice made for song! She found a Quaker sponsor.
She did well in school. And that Quaker sponsor watched her and in the school, Gertie got exposed to other ideas. She did well in that school. Some of the children didn’t do so well. They got nightmares, night sweats, sleep walking; they woke ready to fight. They had trachoma and tuberculosis, smallpox – but it was the loneliness, the homesickness!
After a time, Gertie finished with the school. She decided she’d go home and visit her mother. But when she got home, she found this was not a place she belonged any more.
“My mother has never read a book!” she wrote. “My mother has never been inside a schoolhouse. How could she comfort a girl who can read and write? I no longer belong here. I am not a wild Indian or a tame one.”
And so she turned her back on her mother. She turned her back on the reservation and she went east. Going east, she found another sponsor; she went away to college. She started the debate team. She won awards, she told stories and recitations for presidents. She got a scholarship, another sponsor. She was to go to the New England Conservatory for Music. She was supposed to perform at the Paris Exposition.
But while she was summering in New York, she heard of the death of her fiancé. Now when she heard of this, suddenly Gertrude Simmons ceased to exist.
She renamed herself “Zitkala Ša” Redbird! She took the pins out of her hair and let long braids fall. She put off her Victorian clothes and started to wear buckskin. She started to organize for a vote and citizenship for Indian people. She started to organize for an education that wouldn’t mean the extinction of a culture. She believed a race of people – rich cultures – could not be seen as a problem that the government needed to fix with an experiment. She lost her sponsor but she started publishing. She published a book called “American Indian Stories” in 1901.
That was the book that fell into my hand. That was the book that changed my life for the last 40 years. You see, I think I was looking for a long-lost Lakota grandmother and I found her in the pages of the stories this woman wrote. Collected stories from old people that she met and survived the Indian wars and her own memories of this debilitating experience in the government schools. To tell you the truth, when I tell a story, I don’t know if it’s mine, my grandma’s or Zitkala Ša’s. Her life is woven with mine. We keep running into each other. She’s been my constant companion for so long. You see, it’s people who’s names you may not even know. Those are the people who are history. That’s what history is. That’s one of the things that Gertrude Bonnin “Zitkala Ša” told me!
Hi, my name is Dovie Thomason. And this is a piece of a longer story called “The Spirit Survives.”
I was standing in a graveyard with my daughter on Labor Day weekend a number of years ago. She was just almost 13 and wondered about my choice of end of summer vacation locations. Other people were with us. We weren’t alone. There was a movement of many people going through headstones. Soft voices, gifts being placed on identical markers. We were in Carlisle, Pennsylvania near where we live, at the site of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. We were there as a part of a group of people who had come to put up a historical marker. Most of group descendants of the survivors of the school who had pressured the state of Pennsylvania to acknowledge the need for a historical marker in this place. You see, it’s a military base. It has always been a military base. It was won during the French and Indian Wars. It’s where Custer and his cavalry trained before riding west. And in 1918, it again became a military base and is to this day. Mostly residential barracks for military families. But for a brief time in 1879, it opened its doors as the first government residential school for Indian children. It was not voluntary. These children were considered hostages for the good behavior of their parents who were still at war with Custer and the cavalry. And now with all these graves, people would drive past and assume it was military graves. What they didn’t know was it did mark a battlefield but the victims were children. These were the graves of Indian children and no one knew. We wanted to shed light on this dark chapter of American history. We thought that the thing that had been concealed – it was time to bring it into clear view.
Now, my daughter knew some of this. Her grandpa had gone to government school, not this one, one of the later ones modeled after this one. But she didn’t know much about Carlisle. You see, there are some stories you don’t want to tell your children but those are the stories you probably need to tell them. Grandpa used to talk about the schools but in those times, well, years past when my daughter was not yet a teen, Grandma would stop him. “It upsets him,” she would say. “It does no good to talk about it. That was back then. That was long ago. It does no good. It upsets him.” There are some stories you don’t want to tell your children. Well, it did upset Grandpa and he didn’t tell them in front of Grandma. He told them to me and I shared them with my daughter. I didn’t want to tell my daughter. There are some stories you don’t want to tell your daughter but I knew it was a story I had to tell her.
Grandpa was taken when he was 4 to the schools. For 12 years he was there. He had been taken from his grandfather and for 12 years he never saw him. He was taken with other children. Little ones who only spoke their native language – the Oneida language. He was taken with those boys and the only time they could speak the language was when they snuck off out of sight. When they were supposed to be working in the fields. The children worked in the fields, they raised chickens… for the chickens and the eggs. Grandpa would always say, “Chickens and eggs! Never ate chickens and eggs. We ate mush every meal! The mush hole, that’s what I call that!” He’s still angry when he says those words, remembering the beatings he would get for calling it that when he was a child. “They just took the chickens and eggs for the government when they visited so they could see that the children were getting civilized and making progress! The mush hole!” They were little children. They were hungry. They were eating the scraps the staff threw out the windows for the birds. Grandpa does get upset when he tells these stories.
The children would take potatoes from the field and they’d stuff ’em in their clothes. Grandpa never could understand how something he had planted, something he had harvested wasn’t his and that if he took it, he was stealing. He could be beaten for that. But they were hungry, these children and they would heat them behind the boilers until they were roasted and eat them at night. So many stories he told me. So many stories he now tells his granddaughter. But on this day, on this day he was gonna tell a story that I never expected.
As I was standing there thinking about he had told me, my daughter waved at me. “Grandpa’s trying to get your attention.” We had a ceremony to go to. Hundreds of descendants there to unveil this marker. As we walked over, her Grandpa came up to me and said, “I wanna talk.”
I said, “Well, oh, really! Well, ok, dad, you know, it is a pretty big crowd. You’re gonna have to use a microphone. Um. But you just get up there… and you just get up there and you tell your story!”
And he said, “I ain’t telling no story. You tell the story. I just need to talk.” And he got up there and he talked. He wasn’t the only one. Old men, old women, they got up there and each one of them and they talked. They talked of hard times and good times. They told funny stories, sad stories, heartbreaking stories, careers in the military, Indian service, lifetime friends, marriages made, suicides. Disease. Brokenness, what they are now calling post-traumatic stress. They all told their stories and there were lots of tears. Grandpa spoke. He was so brave. Those people he was talking to, hundreds of them, they weren’t strangers anymore once they told their stories. He’s still talk’n. He’s part of those who’ve taken part of the class action suit against the Government of Canada, provincial government to the Church of England. He’s one of those people who came together when the prime minister, in 2008, issued that apology to native peoples, the peoples of the First Nation, for the treatment of children in the schools. That’s all he ever wanted. He didn’t want reparations. He didn’t want a check. He wanted someone to say what happened to those children was wrong. He wanted the decency and the respect of an apology.
And so, he’s talking still. He just worked on a memorial at the school where he went. They’re not shy about talking anymore. And my daughter, her senior project was interviewing them and people on the reserve about what happened there. And when she finished that paper and handed it into our history teacher her senior year of high school, her history teacher didn’t know a thing about what my daughter wrote her and thanked her for teaching her something she didn’t know about America.