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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Letter to My Childrens' Teacher, 1999 by CFT

August 12, 1999

Dear Teacher,

I am worried about my child being in your class. You see, my daughter is a person of culture. You may not hear her accent, she may not have skin as dark as her mother's or as light as her father's, and she may not wear her traditional dress, but she has already traveled a path that is as natural to her as it may be new, or even unknown, to you. This Spirit path is long and winding, and always comes full circle, linking her to siblings, parents, relatives, community, and ancestors. Without it, she is an orphan. At times, she may lose her way, but this is the path she is destined to follow. It is the path her ancestors' walked, the way they survived, the reason she is here today sitting in your classroom. She cannot change who she is. Through five hundred years of deculturalization and genocide, it is a testament to her people, that traditions have persisted at all. She is alive. Her people have survived. Her culture has endured. Can you be someone to help her cut through the brambles that line this path?

Yes, she eats pizza, listens to The Spice Girls, dances hip hop, and colors with crayons… and, she also eats fry bread, drums and sings Traditional First Nation songs, Jingle Dress dances, sand paints, sews leather pouches, and makes clay beads. Will her home economics, music, physical education, and art classes reflect this aspect of America? Will she feel validated in your class? Will her strengths be honored?

In numerous ways, she is like any young girl sitting in your classroom, yet, art, spirit, and culture are inextricable intertwined. She very naturally blends these aspects of her heritage. She has several dolls that reflect her darker skin, eyes, and hair. Her pretend play includes making a sweat lodge, singing songs, saying prayers, dressing up the dolls in handcrafted regalia, and having a feast, complete with miniature foods. How will these natural connections be continued? When she collects gifts from nature, she offers tobacco to the Earth Mother. How will she reconcile this practice when signs in your school say, “No tobacco products”. Will she still have her cultural voice when she leaves your classroom?

My child lives in more than one world. Will you open the doors to these countless worlds, or close them? When you made booklets about The Life of a Pilgrim and none about The Life of a Wampanoag, how many children proudly showed them to their parents… and how many sheepishly displayed them with outstretched arms as they mumbled, “They MADE me do it”. For her, the third Thursday in November is a Day of Remembrance; a day to unite in solidarity with First Nations People who suffered like her ancestors did and are now working to educate others. And, Thanksgiving is something she does every day, many times… for the sun, for family, for food, and for health. Her path does not celebrate the same days and events that people in power have chosen to recognize. Will you help her and her peers see the power structure playing itself out in your classroom?

What is included in your version of American History? Is it everyone's version? Is it a version that includes the perspectives of ALL the people who built this country… physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally? Whose achievements are discussed? Who decides? Have you considered your position on this topic? Will standardized testing drive your decisions or will you be DRIVEN to challenge the testing?

My daughter's calendar marks sacred days: the Equinoxes, the Solstices, and the moon's phases. She honors the cycles that are greater than herself. Will her science and math classes simply analyze these events that have been occurring for millenniums, or respect them as part of a people's Earth wisdom? I will do my part and let you know the first week of school when those days will occur. So, when we keep her home from school, will she miss scheduled speakers, fieldtrips, and special activities? Right now, she has a tug of war going on in her heart. Will you help her and her peers see the power structure playing itself out in your school system?

What does it mean to be American? When you say the Pledge of Allegiance, do you know it was written in 1892 as a tribute to Columbus, a man who personally participated in and ordered many crimes against her Arawak and Taíno ancestors? When she chooses not to pledge, will she be ostracized and considered “un-American”? Or will she and her peers be educated about the history of the flag and its pledge, so they can all make a conscious, informed choice? She knows how to honor a flag and the veterans of war, but it is a different path. Her people have fought in every war that ever occurred on this land. Did you know that she can sing a Traditional Flag Song in Native American vocables? This, too, is America.

Did you know that long hair is a blessing? It is part of her Spirit. The longer the hair, the more prayers that can be made. Did you ever think that her brother might want to cut off his hair, since you addressed him as a “she”? Did you know First Nations People have enormous variations in appearance? They cover the same latitudes as from Finland to South Africa! Her dark-haired younger sibling has a blond-haired, blue-eyed twin, and all three sisters follow the same path, albeit with different brambles. Being Native is deeper than hair, eye, and skin color. It includes a perspective on the world, a unique point of view.

There is so much omission and misinformation in the curriculum and the media. Did you know that her conversations at home, not only include reflections of the day, but also discussions processing the stereotypes and racism on television, in the news, in print, and from the mouths of students in your classroom and on the playground? She has insights and language well beyond her seven years. Does your Gifted and Talented Program have room for her wisdom?

Did you know that many Indigenous People have more than one word in their name: Two Feathers, Smiling Heart Drum, Rolling Thunder, Loving Bear, Kissing Raccoon… I appreciate your taking the time to say and spell her names correctly.

When I invited you to her younger siblings' Naming Ceremony and you were unable to come, I hope you went to a Pow Wow, Thanksgiving protest, or other First Nation social gathering. How can you know my child, if you do not know her culture? She is her culture; her culture is her. Yes, she watches Sabrina, the Teenage Witch… and she also loved the movie, Smoke Signals. When you share books, videos, posters, school plays, guest speakers, and computer games, will she see role models and recognize familiar faces and themes?

We have many teachers as we travel our paths through life: two-leggeds, four-leggeds, winged ones, water swimmers, stone people… Her path grows wider with every moment a teacher is beside her, helping her clear the encroaching thicket. I am just one of those people. She will want your guidance. You could teach her how to cross and travel along side many paths of other children, or you could take her down a path so unfamiliar, she may be lost, she may not follow, or she may not choose to learn from you.

Claudia Fox Tree (Arawak Nation)

This letter represents a span of two years worth of actual experiences with several teachers in a public school system. It was first read in its entirety on May 7, 2000 at the Third Annual Indigenous Women's Conference: The Voice of Mother Earth, which was sponsored by The Long Island Native American Task Force in conjunction with Presencia Taina. I hope that the message, calling for cultural competence and sensitivity while remembering our people's deep love for our Native children, will be copied and distributed to as many educators as possible. It doesn't say it all, but it is a place to begin learning