My class has been doing a lot of reading about Native Americans over the past few weeks. It’s a challenging topic to explore with fifth graders. Some of the kids came to fifth grade aware of the “trail of tears” experience. They learned about it as part of their Westward Expansion unit in fourth grade. For me, it’s hard to read some of the “All About the Cherokee” books without thinking that we’re teaching a cleaned-up version of our history. At the same time, I struggle with when to bring up the fact that it was our government that legislated (perpetrated) this injustice. Fifth graders are very young in one sense. Many still see the world in terms of good guys and bad guys. How then, do I expose them to this harsh reality, that we (our countrymen) were more “bad guy” than “good guy” in this story? It’s like being that guy who pulls the curtain back on the wizard or the tooth fairy or Santa. At the same time, I really don’t want to be the person who spreads a myth, especially when it’s a harmful myth (as opposed to the ones mentioned above). I’ve decided we can read the sanitized books for a while, learn about the food they ate, the clothes they wore, the songs they sang, and the way they prayed. At a certain point, though, we have to learn where they went, why they went, and what happened to their culture.
So yesterday in class we read an essay by a Navajo poet. In it she describes how her relatives, so devoted to their families and the ground where they were rooted, were ripped from their families, sent to government or missionary boarding schools, and forbidden to speak their native language, wear their traditional clothing, or learn their own history. It was an ugly story.
The author, though, found glimmers of hope. She read books, in English, yes, but stories that gave her strength. She spoke of how, in her lifetime, lights shined on dark injustices, minds opened to new perspective, and lawmakers changed some of the rules. It couldn’t undo all of the damage, but at least it showed that spirit that I like to think our country aspired to, the one in America the Beautiful, where it says, “God mend thy every flaw.” To me that’s the sentiment of hope for an imperfect nation: we may have flaws, but we are determined to work toward a mending.
The writer is now a professor of English. She writes poetry that she conceives first in her native language, then translates to English. She ends her essay on this note:
My daughter, an educator herself, not long ago moved into my parents’ old house, in Shiprock, New Mexico, when she got a job at nearby Diné College. Our children, once taken from Dinétah, have returned home.
My classroom story, has a hopeful ending, as well. Sober, but hopeful. As we finish reading the essay, I ask my class to write. The room goes silent, and I wonder what effect this story will have. After a few minutes I ask if anyone would like to share a thought. Ryan raises his hand and reads:
I want to remember how horrible they were to [the] Navajo, and how when it got exposed it changed, for example they wouldn’t let kids speak Navajo, and they were forced to learn Christianity, but then they made rules in 1997 that they were allowed to speak their language and believe in their religious beliefs…but I also have a question. Are there other horrible things like this that we do not know about?
There was silence in the room. Then Ryan added, “I mean, cause I want us to do something about it.” I had noted, when he first read, that Ryan had said “they” when he referred to the U.S. government. In his final comment, he said “us.” To me, that pronoun matters.
If the result of learning these stories is that we understand our imperfections and we’re determined to try to “mend [our] every flaw,” then I think we’re at least on the right track. That gives me hope.