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Sunday, September 2, 2007

Dear Teacher, 2007 by CFT

September 4, 2007

Dear Teachers,

I’m Sequoya’s mom. Some of you may know his older sibling, Cheyenne or me. This is my eleventh year writing one of these opening letters. I have written over 150 letters in that time and cc’d the principals and superintendent each year. As opening day approaches, I would like to share with you, the teachers who will spend so many hours with my child, my feelings about what it means to be a Native American in this community.

I don’t know how many times you have had a Native American child in your classes, but I do know, as a parent, it is really hard to be Native American in this town. Over the years, the town and the schools have reached out to include the Native voice, but it is still minimal when compared with all there is. For example, we can’t be with Native Americans any time we want, none of the teachers any of my children have had have ever identified as Native American, there isn’t a regular “place of worship with like believers” that has a service once a week in town, people don’t celebrate the same holidays, images of Native Americans don’t really look like us, curriculum is loaded with stereotypes and misinformation, the Native perspective is frequently missing across the board (literature, history, the arts), and I could go on. My point is, that many of the things we value and do aren’t components of mainstream Bedford life or the school system, it takes me an additional effort to raise my children as strong, proud, educated Native Americans who feel a sense of community in this town, as well as with other Native Americans. All these community circles are important for their well being, to have a network for support, and in order to grow up with a strong sense of identity.

I have found that informing teachers directly about our religious observances allows for the least amount of conflicts. State and federal law requires schools to make reasonable accommodations to the religious needs of students, which usually means no homework, but I know that other holidays are met with more respect and I think you will find that my requests are reasonable. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151C, section 2B addresses religion as well.

The following dates are holy days for us for the 2007-2008 school year:
Autumnal Equinox: Sunday, September 23
Winter Solstice: Saturday, December 22
Vernal Equinox: Thursday, March 20
Summer Solstice: Saturday, June 21

This year, there is only one day which occurs in the regular school schedule. On this day, Sequoya will not be in school because the family will be celebrating something greater than any individual – honoring the Earth as the mother of and caretaker to all creation. Our family would appreciate if special events and activities (tests, fieldtrips, speakers, parties, assemblies, etc.) were not scheduled on this holy day. Sequoya should be excused from homework. Past experience has made it so I feel I must clarify homework. An excused homework means no homework. No doubling homework the previous or following day to “make it up.” And, no testing of information that was on the homework or presented in class unless it is reviewed, retaught, or given out as a handout. I believe this request is similar to the accommodations that are made for observances such as Rosh Hashanah and Good Friday. It is extremely difficult to have a family holy day when a child is thinking about the consequences of missing a day of school. It is also stressful for me as I pass on important Native American values when the climate pressures one to be Christian or Jewish or “normal.” Imagine trying to celebrate Seder or Christmas while your child is thinking of how much homework he/she will owe and what he/she will miss on the next test! I hope appropriate arrangements can be made, given these dates ahead of time.

In order to take part in important religious and cultural traditions, Sequoya may miss other school days. We keep these at a minimum and will inform you should they arise.

Sequoya’s last name is deleted for purposes of this website. Please make the effort to spell it correctly. It is really three words with no hyphen, and maybe someday technology will catch up with diversity and computers will be able to handle that, but for now, putting in the hyphen is okay with us. Having multiple words in a last name is a Native American practice; think of the spelling of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. And, by the way, his first name is after the Cherokee Leader (Sequoyah), not the Californian tree (Sequoia)

We DO honor the flag, but do not say the Pledge of Allegiance, as it was written in honor of Christopher Columbus who massacred our Nation’s ancestors, the Arawak (and Taino). We do not celebrate Columbus Day.

Thanksgiving is a difficult time, as it is not a celebration for us in the same way it is for mainstream society. Although we are not Wampanoag, we live on their land and fight their fight in solidarity. Saying, “Have a nice long weekend” or “Did you see your family over the long weekend?” is appropriate, saying “Happy Thanksgiving” is not. Just because Sequoya doesn’t challenge or say anything or you perceive “He’s okay with it” doesn’t mean it isn’t creating conflict inside of him.

Over the summer, I created a website for courses I teach about Native Americans. Please feel free to browse through it. There is much more information about Columbus, Thanksgiving, stereotypes, curriculum, and other resources. I would just like to point out a letter I wrote in a previous year which has more information about education and growing up Native American:

To summarize, I believe the following are most important to know about Sequoya, our family, and Native Americans as the school year begins:
• Religious holy day Observance as they relate to homework, tests, and other school events
• Thanksgiving Non-Observance
• Pledge of Allegiance/Columbus Day Non-Observance
• Spelling/Capitalization of last name
I invite you all to attend the Pow Wow in Bedford on the weekend of September 15 and 16. It is the 25th year anniversary. A Pow Wow is a great opportunity to learn about Native culture. It is an event enjoyed by adults as well as children. Sequoya will be there and always appreciates seeing that his teachers are interested in this part of who he is. For more information, you can see the flyer.

If you would like to discuss any of these points further, I’d be happy to meet with you in person, communicate via email, or talk on the phone. I will be sending a copy of this letter to the all others involved in Sequoya’s education, including the superintendent, principal, and teachers.

Thank you,