UCTP Report: In February, I did a presentation on Native Americans in New York City at Columbia University’s Teachers College Annual Winter Roundtable on Cultural Psychology and Education. This year’s Roundtable theme was Racism as a Barrier to Racial-Cultural Competence in Psychology and Education.
Native American (NA) Education is unique in this country. While most teachers (and students) do not identify as NA, many will teach about or include this perspective when transforming curriculum. Stereotypes, distortions, and missing/biased history have perpetuated misconceptions and myths about NAs. What we have learned about NAs and what we think we know, is often inaccurate or even offensive. Socially responsive teaching actively works at unlearning and relearning the authentic, accurate, contemporary NA story. Critical pedagogy actively deconstructs, questions, and teaches to controversies. I believe Teachers do not need to know all the answers, however, they do need to be aware of the potential conflicts in order to steer students toward asking questions, encourage dialogue, and then facilitate their learning by helping them find solutions.
In my presentation, we considered the importance of language. Participants looked at ways to identify NAs, by tribe, nation, regions, etc., the meaning behind particular identifications, and in what context they would use which words. Folks also looked at words that might come up in literature, text books, and other classroom activities. Terms such as Indian, totem pole, tribe, pioneer, and costume may seem benign, when, in fact, there is a historical context which needs be acknowledged, accounted for, and discussed, before they are used in the context of studying Native People. Next, people discussed derogatory phrases, such as “low man on the totem pole” and the implication, including psychological damage, of these phrases to Native and nonNative children alike. And finally, participants were given words related to Native culture, such as The Circle, giving thanks, and Pow wow, and asked to discuss what they knew. These “culture words” were related to what we, as NAs, value. When teachers understand who we are and where we come from, then the ability to teach in culturally responsive ways and make personal connections increases.
Another primary goal when related to teaching about NAs, is bringing NAs up to present day (we’re not just in history, and we’re not all dead). I demonstrated this by sharing stories, modeling oral traditiona, from contemporary writers which dismantled common myths, such as, Columbus discovered America, Native Americans crossed the Bering Strait about 12, 000 years ago, and Thanksgiving was a peaceful harvest gathering of Native Americans and Pilgrims.
Although not the focus, we also addressed what it means to be culturally sensitive to NA students. NA cultural differences were discussed in the context of educational practice. For example, we noted the importance of storytelling, cooperative groups, modeling, and active participation and how these relate to NA cultural practices.
One exciting moment for me during this presentation was to have Jane Elliott as one of the participants in my workshop. She was this year's recipient of the Social Justice Action Award at the conference. Here’s a copy of her biography from the Conference Program, for those who are not familiar with her name. “Jane Elliott's work began in a culturally homogenous third-grade classroom in Riceville, Iowa, when she introduced the "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes" discrimination experiment in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In this exercise, students were designated as superior or inferior based upon their eye color. This temporary social structure led to an enactment of striking resemblance to racial discrimination, and exposed young children to the experience of interpersonal and systemic oppression. For years, Ms. Elliott repeated this experiment with school children before creating workshops and lectures designed to raise awareness about racial discrimination and racism in adults. She describes her work as "an inoculation against discrimination," and believes firmly that racism is a learned response that derives from regular exposure to both overt and subtle forms of social oppression. Jane Elliott has traveled around the country and the world illuminating a host of audiences about multiple forms of social oppression and the responsibility we all share in addressing these biases on individual, institutional, and societal levels.
Jane Elliott is known internationally as a teacher, lecturer, and diversity trainer. She has been honored with the National Mental Health Association Award for Excellence in Education and the Christine Wilson Medal for Equality and Justice… Elliott has appeared on myriad television shows, including The Today Show, Tonight with Johnny Carson, Donahue, and the Oprah Winfrey show. Her work has been immortalized by several documentaries, including The Eye of the Storm, and A Class Divided, which chronicled the "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes" exercise.”
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