Education and the white world


This month, I’d like to talk about education. In the past, I’ve been a big supporter of going to college, but a few decades and several degrees later my opinions have matured. I’d like to share my educational journey.

My tribe paid for me to attend college, but they didn’t have a job for me when I returned. As a young person I was confused. My Elders talked about going to college and encouraged kids to go to school. They spoke of school and college as though it was salvation. Yet, when it was time to go home as a college educated person, they couldn’t find a place for me.

Over the years, upon reflection, I’ve learned what changed, I did. A college education changed me. I was indoctrinated into western thinking, values, and behavior. Ultimately, I changed too much. I didn’t sound the same. I thought differently. My attitude reflected the oppressive white society that surrounds the reservations.

In 1994, I moved to Minneapolis and began to work as a Case Manager for Native people living with HIV/AIDS. At that time, death and dying because of AIDS-related complications was common.

In my first job, I knew everything, or at least that is what I believed for an eager 22-year-old college grad. I had a degree, so I was going to change the world and people. Oh, how I was wrong.

‘Work’ never felt like it because I was where I was called to be. I knew that. I helped people know how to help themselves, or reconcile if they didn’t want to. I connected people to resources.

I sat with people as they cried about their diagnosis and I sat with people as they grappled with their mortality. I sat with people as they were dying. I held family members as they grieved. None of this felt like ‘work’. It felt like such a profound honor that these people would allow me an opportunity to share many of their sacred moments.

Early in my professional life I realized that Native people didn’t fit neatly into the categories that I learned in college. Ok, this lesson was more like I tripped, lost my balance, and then crashed hard, face first, into the earth. The people I worked with (clients) taught me more about service and helping people.

Over the years I’ve learned to live on the edges of parts of the Native world and white world. It’s rather a lonesome place living in between. It gets lonesome living amongst people who view you as different because of your education. I learned how to be a chameleon to fit into a variety of places.

Don’t assume that Native boarding schools are something of the past. Native people and schools and education have a complicated relationship, but it’s changing as people heal from trauma. Historically Native kids were taken away from families and then sent to schools to become indoctrinated.   Native Boarding schools still exist.

Recently I came upon a picture of me and my Mother at my graduation from college. I was getting my diploma for a Masters in Social Work. I remember this day well. It was the only time I’ve ever seen her in a dress. I remember as I walked across the stage to get my diploma I heard her. I heard her lone scream in the packed auditorium. It is always with her strength that I’ve gotten through the difficulties in my life. Her fundamental belief in me. Her being my champion.

Children rise up to what is expected of them. I expect a lot of my kids. Education is a must. College is expected. I learned to be involved with my kids’ education. I volunteer. I show up to meetings. I contribute my opinion. I stay engaged.  Part of my parenting is being involved with my kid’s educational lives.

In the end, I fundamentally believe education can change the world. It has for me. I wouldn’t change any part of my journey.

Be the change you wanna see in the world. Education really does create opportunities. It has been instrumental in my ability to grow confident, to have many experiences, and now it has created opportunities for my kids to travel the world.     

Ultimately, I’ve learned to raise my kids with a balanced view of the world. Believe me, I don’t send my kids to school to learn how to be Native men or white men. I find those sacred spaces for them to grow myself. They get involved with Native issues. I have zero expectation that the Minneapolis Public Schools will teach them how to thrive as Native people. I have an expectation that their school respects and honors their culture. I have an expectation that issues of race are competently dealt with. It’s 2016, and issues of culture, race, and class need to be talked about and dealt with.