The White Gaze: Teaching on the Rez Edition

Why education MUST incorporate Indigenous values, history, and contemporary social studies. Also: Indigenous teachers wanted.

I received a comment today on my latest Everyday Feminism article that totally triggered me. I generally don’t take comments quite so personally, but… I’m human. The only response I can come up with right now is, “You should not be teaching Native kids, because it’s obvious you have nothing but disdain for our people. Leave now before you do any more damage.”

Here is the message, which I’ve broken down into its many thoughtless components (read the complete text at the end). This is what happens when I free-write in the #angerzone

Hi, I am a teacher on a reservation in Wyoming and I had a few comments about your article.”

Joy.

First off, it was really good. I don’t agree with everything your wrote, but I do for the most part.”

Translation: Actually, the white parts of me couldn’t comprehend why he included these statements. He liked it, he didn’t, but kinda…? *shrugs*

I want to share with you what a ‘white teacher’ on a reservation sees.”

Nuh-uh. No. Didn’t ask.

You mentioned in your article that only 51% of students graduate. Did you know that since 2001 (no child left behind law) the ONLY ethnic group not to gain was Native Americans?”

Did you really just use NCLB as an educational barometer? Because for anyone paying attention NCLB was crap legislation that did absolutely nothing but to further marginalize already marginalized kids. This law rewarded schools for high test scores and defunded schools with the lowest scores – pure capitalist economics, not education. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer, especially in areas with large populations of impoverished kids, kids with disabilities, and kids of color.

Native kids improved microscopically during NCLB’s reign, but not necessarily because of its policies (I attribute gains to the proliferation of social media and Native people distributing their community news to global audiences and advocating for change).

Regardless of Native student NCLB achievement, this sums up the NCLB  nicely: “The standards and practices [of NCLB] are not sound for the teaching of Indian children. Our children see and order their world very differently from most other children, and, as a result, demonstrate their knowledge in deepening and unique ways. The current push to meet the academic standards set out in the No Child Left Behind law rejects the need to provide culturally competent instructions.” Sound familiar?

Get outta here tryna school me on this stuff. You must not know ’bout me.

The students on the Reservation have no desire to make changes and parents for the most part (not all) don’t push change. A teacher can teach to the best of their ability, but if families don’t encourage it or support it– you get a school where kids are just pushed through because it is ‘bad’ to retain and we want to keep students in school.

Translation: It’s not MY fault. Even though I fully admit to teaching at a school “… where kids are just pushed through…” using BS education policies like NCLB, it’s not MY fault! I do the thing that teaches the kids (which I will lump all together as failures) and it’s on them to figure out how to overcome hundreds of years of genocide and contemporary systemic oppression. Because BOOTSTRAPS!

Look, buddy: You’re talking to a former middle school teacher whose students were 99% Native in an urban area. I get that teaching can be frustrating, that it seems these kids are failing just to spite you (I promise you they’re not). But in all this the keyword you should wrap your mind around is “kids.” They’re just kids, man, and you’re talking like that genocide and systemic oppression mentioned earlier is the easiest thing in the world to overcome. #CheckYourPrivilege #GetOffTheBoot

And the bit about parents not pushing for change? Well, I mean, with teachers like you welcoming them with understanding and open arms, what have they to fear, amiright? Your empathy looks a lot like judgement – I bet those kids and parents see right through you, and all the other wannabe white saviors looking down their noses at them.

The average age when someone dies on this reservation is 42 years old. Most die from diabetes, suicide and alcohol. I am sure this statistic isn’t new to you. This information has been around for years—why hasn’t the tribes tried to change this?

OK don’t throw out stats to a journalist (especially one with a social work background) – we love data and love backing it up (#AllTheLinks!). I don’t know what rez you’re teaching on, but Wyoming Natives living on reservations have an average life span of 51-53 years. STILL SUPER LOW, I get your point, but 42 is, like, fifth-world conditions. Americans can live with third-world conditions, but not fifth-world.

To be clear, Natives aren’t inserting themselves into these statistics of death and disease by choice. There are NO resources and the ones in place are so underfunded they can barely keep a roof over their heads.

I want to talk about suicide here for a second, because, again, your assumption seems to be that Natives can just get over all this genocide and oppression stuff (or that those things are at least as simple as making quick, decisive changes). Quick answer: We can’t (and they’re not).

My teenage cousin was recently admitted to a mental health facility  for suicidal ideations. Like most of the teens I’ve worked with as a teacher or as the coordinator for a juvenile justice reform program, my cousin is a good kid. He’s one heckuva baller and he’s surrounded by a caring, loving family. But he’s also (say it with me) just a kid. And unfortunately for him, he’s a Native kid, which means in addition to dealing with the normal teenage angst stuff other teens deal with, he’s also living in an isolated area filled with gang violence, drugs, and NO RESOURCES. That mental health facility I mentioned earlier? Yeah, it’s located across the state in an urban area – far away from his family and community.

THAT’S what I’m talking about when I say systemic oppression (here’s a piece on that topic specifically for teachers). Systemic oppression in this scenario is the refusal (despite LEGAL TREATY OBLIGATIONS!!) to appropriately fund programs to address issues like mental health and violence. Thankfully, my cousin has a support system with the ability to travel to be with him… But what about the hundreds of other Native kids who don’t because of epidemically high unemployment rates, the family has no vehicle, or the parents have to work out of town??? There are too many obstacles to list and tribes HAVE made attempts (are making attempts) to do what they can with the resources (and capacity) available. This is why resume-padding programs like Teach For America are tolerated on reservations, because (despite a massive disconnect between non-Native teachers who leave after the two-year classroom commitment and their Native students/families) there aren’t many other options.

“Yes, many tribes aren’t funded as much as they should be…,”

Let’s just stop right there. That’s a HUGE reason. See above. Or reread my post, which discusses this problem at length.

Need more proof? Check out the funding shortfalls reservation communities experience for addressing domestic violence, education (check out this link, too), and programs trying to meet employment, housing, and healthcare needs.

…but there are so many programs out on the reservation that aren’t being used. The natives who do go off to the reservation to try to get a college degree are called ‘apples’ and not real Indians because they ‘abandoned the way.’

Where are you getting your information from? What programs, specifically, are you referring to? Because no one program is going to solve all our problems. Heck, white folk have a shit-ton of problems, too. I mean, there’s a reason whites use social services like food stamps more than any other ethnicity. The difference is that there are more opportunities for white folks to access needed resources.

Lots of people I love and admire live on the rez and are flourishing in so many more ways than economically or academically (two things I wish weren’t so important to my perception of personal success — #colonized #workingonit). Their success is in sustainability, or justice reform, or cultural teachings/learnings. I also love and admire just as many Natives who, like me, live in an urban area. People stay on or leave reservations for vast and varying reasons beyond your narrow scope of comprehension.

So, congratulations. You’ve managed to reduce a complex system of culture and values down to tired tropes, “Natives who seek/have college degrees are called apples!” I cringe to think how you might break down a subject like social studies for your fourth graders *shudders*

I’ve never been called an apple. I have a couple degrees, and haven’t lived on my reservation since I was a tiny tot. Apple is a slur sometimes used within Native circles to describe someone who is or claims to be Native but operates under a colonized set of values and behaviors (so, red on the outside, white on the inside — see? Tired.). You, sir, should not be using that term. Ever.

The other thing that bothers me is the state of the reservation. O.k. so the houses aren’t the greatest and best built–but there is no pride out there. The amount of litter and animals without owners is sad. You look a lot younger than me, but I remember this commercial when I was a kid. It was a native american sitting on his horse in war regalia. Trash was on the ground and a tear was in his eye. Yes, it was “stereotypical” of what a Native looks like, but it really hit me hard that the Natives loved the land and we destroyed it. But that isn’t what I see on the reservation.”

I may puke. So many things are wrong with this paragraph, I don’t know where to begin. The houses aren’t great? I’m sorry, the pre-fab, single-wide trailers aren’t glorious enough for you? Didn’t we just talk about how underfunded reservation programs – like housing – are? Pay attention and #staywoke: THIS IS PURPOSEFUL OPPRESSION! My elderly, disabled and diseased relatives pay ungodly propane prices to heat their uninsulated and debilitated trailers every winter – people are DYING and you want them to pick up trash?

And that crying Indian you reference? Yeah. Iron Eyes Cody (as he called himself) wasn’t even Native. Your whole concept of the stereotypical one-with-nature Native isn’t even based on a real Native. Read up on cultural appropriation while you’re researching accountability (you wrote “…we [whites] destroyed it.” Don’t you then have at least a partial responsibility – beyond bitching about lazy Native kids and parents – to fix it?).

Don’t hate. Reparate!

PS: SO MANY PEOPLE litter and play host to dirty towns and cities. This is not a reservation problem, but a world problem.

I hope that I haven’t offended you, please keep up the good fight trying to teach ‘whites’ about Native Americans, but please also be an influence in your own culture and try to help the tribes gain back their pride.”

Muthafucker WHAT?!

This whole comment thread has been a study in Us/Them mentality, but you really crossed the line here. You obviously know nothing about me, my background, influences, or impact. Ask the hundreds of Native kids I’ve taught, mentored, and hugged throughout my life how much of an influence I’ve been. I’m far from perfect, but I’ve put a lot of sweat, blood, and tears into every community I’ve lived in as an adult.

Believe me, there are SO MANY Native heroes out there, people worth admiring and looking up to. Just because YOU don’t see them from your ivory perch doesn’t mean they aren’t there. The fact we’re still here, still fighting for a myriad of causes proves we’ve got pride coming out our ears.

Indigenous pride and compassion and competence built this continent. That pride CONTINUES to hold up our communities both on and off the reservation. Ours is just not the colonized pride of useless, green lawns and collections of porcelain figurines you expect Natives to have in their cookie-cutter houses.

Our dream is not American.

It is very sad as a teacher to ask a 4th grader what he wants to do when he grows up, to hear the response of ‘I don’t know.’ Any other child would have had an answer and some of those kids I teach see no future.”

Any other ch-…? C’mon! Again with the us/them? You must be a new teacher who’s never had any interactions with kids anywhere. Or people. In general. Because I’ve had the privilege of living in communities of varying shapes, sizes, and demographics and have never come across anyone – young or old – who really knows what they want to do or be in life. They might throw out something they think people want to hear, but they don’t really know. I don’t even know what I want to be and I’m 32!

A better line of questioning might be, “Tell me about yourself, kiddo. What do you like to learn in school versus when you’re not in school?” Because, as you’ve stated before, thinking as far ahead as adulthood isn’t a privilege a lot of young Native people have these days, thanks to a lack of opportunities, resources, and, you know, lifespan.

And considering this brief interaction you and I have had, I imagine the problem lies with YOU, your approach, and your obvious expectations of whitewashed success. If I’m a fourth grader in your class (#prayforme), I won’t give you much, either, because you obviously don’t care and can’t relate to anything I’m going through.

This concludes the comment. Now that it’s finally done with, I can take a step back and try to assume good intent. So (and I’m talking directly to the teacher here), let’s pretend you haven’t completely checked out of doing your job to educate the future of our world and that you really do care – more than just trolling the websites of writers you kinda/maybe agree/disagree with.

Here’s the best advice I can give to you: Do something about the problems you’re complaining about. Call and demand action (even something as simple as visiting a reservation — which you’ll see in that link lots of Wyoming lawmakers don’t bother with) from your legislators highlighting the needs your white gaze falls upon. Support tribal sovereignty and vote in Native lawmakers (last year’s election cycle had quite a few). There are SO MANY ways for you to be an active and effective ally!

The comment:

Message Hi, I am a teacher on a reservation in Wyoming and I had a few comments about your article. First off, it was really good. I don’t agree with everything your wrote, but I do for the most part. I want to share with you what a “white teacher” on a reservation sees. You mentioned in your article that only 51% of students graduate. Did you know that since 2001 (no child left behind law) the ONLY ethnic group not to gain was Native Americans? The students on the Reservation have no desire to make changes and parents for the most part (not all) don’t push change. A teacher can teach to the best of their ability, but if families don’t encourage it or support it– you get a school where kids are just pushed through because it is “bad” to retain and we want to keep students in school. The average age when someone dies on this reservation is 42 years old. Most die from diabetes, suicide and alcohol. I am sure this statistic isn’t new to you. This information has been around for years—why hasn’t the tribes tried to change this? Yes, many tribes aren’t funded as much as they should be, but there are so many programs out on the reservation that aren’t being used. The natives who do go off to the reservation to try to get a college degree are called “apples” and not real Indians because they “abandoned the way.” The other thing that bothers me is the state of the reservation. O.k. so the houses aren’t the greatest and best built–but there is no pride out there. The amount of litter and animals without owners is sad. You look a lot younger than me, but I remember this commercial when I was a kid. It was a native american sitting on his horse in war regalia. Trash was on the ground and a tear was in his eye. Yes, it was “stereotypical” of what a Native looks like, but it really hit me hard that the Natives loved the land and we destroyed it. But that isn’t what I see on the reservation. I hope that I haven’t offended you, please keep up the good fight trying to teach “whites” about Native Americans, but please also be an influence in your own culture and try to help the tribes gain back their pride. It is very sad as a teacher to ask a 4th grader what he wants to do when he grows up, to hear the response of “I don’t know.” Any other child would have had an answer and some of those kids I teach see no future.

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6 thoughts on “The White Gaze: Teaching on the Rez Edition

  1. You’ve probably seen this but its a document for educators containing Native American Values/Behaviors In School/University settings vs. non-native.

    “The following paragraphs draw contrast between selected and widely shared Native
    American core cultural values and non-Native American values and associated behaviors and
    attitudes. These brief descriptions are somewhat idealized. They cannot reflect the wide
    variations within Native American communities that result from different levels of cultural
    assimilation among individuals nor the differences among various Native American cultures
    across the North American continent; yet, these values are common enough that readers may
    have encountered them already…”

    Full document at the evergreen.edu site http://nwindian.evergreen.edu/curriculum/ValuesBehaviors.pdf

  2. “Jesus H. Christ!” is the politest response I can come up with to that “comment”.

    We can start with that fact that I am not only a retired teacher who taught mostly marginalized populations in inner cities schools and rural areas, I was teaching elementary when NCLB came into being, I saw NCLB gut programs favoring those students because of test scores. There’s one small detail regarding those scores. In the case of my students, they were almost all second language learners who were forced to take tests in English, a language in which they were not proficient. The programs eliminated because of NCLB were programs attempting to address that lack of English proficiency by teaching them content in their native language while they were learning English so they wouldn’t fall behind. NCLB guaranteed that they would fail.

    And NCLB is the criteria that [expletive] cracker is using to criticize schools on the Rez? Give me a break! That asswipe has no business being anywhere near a Rez, much less teaching children there. He (or she, but I’ll refer to the teacher as “he”) more than proved he is the one who has “no desire to make changes”, i.e., to learn about the culture and then make cultural adaptations that might make more sense to those kids than his lily white world view.

    If he is so determined to do an “us” versus “them” analysis, I would invite him to listen to John Trudell’s “Look at Us”, but he obviously wouldn’t understand what our brother is saying:

    1. BAM! Exactly.

      I hate that NCLB was so detrimental to so many kids. Thank you for service to those students; they were lucky to have you.

      And GREAT Trudell clip. Definitely required viewing.

  3. Thank you for this article. I hear a lot of these sort of comments from other white people in regards to Native Hawaiians and you explained the problem with them a lot better than I’ve been doing. I try my best to try to educate and be an advocate for the amazing kanaka ‘oiwi community here and the challenges they face, but its often hard to find the right words to respond!

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